Hong Kong has a new cool kid on the… cell block and its history is as arresting as the food and wine experiences it’s serving up.
Living in Hong Kong in the 80s, I remember Central as a place for dark-suited business types rushing around desperately late for meetings in high-rise towers, then retiring to the Captain’s Bar at the Mandarin Hotel to close a deal (my ex-boss even had a bar stool there dedicated to his name, owing to his extensive patronage).
In fact my office was in Wyndham Street Central, right opposite the extensive colonial buildings housing the police headquarters, barracks and parade ground. Across the street from time to time we could hear sirens, alarm bells and heavy-footed men in blue marching to the beat of a drum. All very Gilbert & Sullivan: “A Policeman’s Lot is not a Happy One”.
What an amazing change has taken place. The Central Police Station has morphed into an arts, entertainment and dining precinct called the Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Arts, an architectural triumph of transformation and creativity. Cells have been replaced by cellars and world-class food and beverage outlets, event spaces, educational facilities and even meeting rooms. This revitalisation project took just seven years and cost upwards of A$1 billion, funded entirely by the Hong Kong Jockey Club.
Arguably, Tai Kwun is now Hong Kong’s must-see tourist attraction, a place to spend a few hours immersing yourself in the city’s history while enjoying a wide range of top food and beverage outlets (not surprising in this multicultural food-conscious town). An added bonus is if you do want to explore some of Hong Kong’s famous landmarks (SoHo, the city’s iconic escalators, and Hollywood Road’s antique stores and art galleries) they are just a stone’s throw away.
Not to mention, conveniently positioned opposite the Tai Kwun Centre is a handy home base for exploring – Ovolo Central – a fresh hospitality concept that pays tribute to the fun, playful and stimulating atmosphere of the streets surrounding it.
It should come as no surprise that the interior designers have had a field day with this one. It’s Ovolo, after all, a boutique hotel brand known for its tongue-in-cheek attitude and contemporary style, and it holds its own in a town more used to big corporate hotel brand names.
It’s quirky, amusing and definitely eclectic in taste, with avant-garde artwork meant to create a dramatic departure from the “normal” bland hotel interiors of yesterday. With Ovolo Central, Hong Kong seems to finally dip its toe into the ever-growing ‘lifestyle hotels’ concept that has become so popular in Australia and beyond.
And like those, Ovolo Central offers up so much more than a bed and breakfast. The lobby/lounge area with its fun artwork is warmly welcoming. The 40 rooms (there’s also a jazzy “Radio Suite”) are beautifully appointed with comfortable king size beds, electric curtains, a huge retractable TV screen, a modern bathroom with luxury amenities and a rainshower, a free minibar refilled daily, Nespresso machine, a “loot bag” with goodies like nuts and sweets, and plenty of plugs and chargers for those whose devices are a way of life…or business. Free WiFi of course. And Amazon’s Alexa is on hand as your virtual assistant. Other features that make travel easier are a gym and a self-serve laundry, very useful in hot HK weather.
Ovolo’s compact eatery, VEDA, is unique in Hong Kong…it offers the only dedicated vegetarian hotel restaurant menu with standout dishes like baked cauliflower aloo gobi and corn khichdi with wild mushroom curry. Complimentary breakfast is equally enticing (and healthy) with lots of smashing avocado options and a wonderful halva yoghurt bowl. Oh, and there’s daily free Happy Hour for guests.
But as much as there is to enjoy at Ovolo Central, there is too much to explore outside its doors at Tai Kwan, including:
Here you’ll explore the rich heritage of the former Central Police Station, Central Magistracy and Victoria Prison—a one-stop Colonial approach to law and order. More than 170 years of history unfolds through interactive tours, heritage storytelling spaces, site-wide interpretive signage and thematic heritage and community exhibitions.
Constructed in 1910 and used as a prison cell block, B Hall now serves as a storytelling space, with its existing state retained in order to provide visitors with an authentic impression of historical prison conditions.
One of the two new buildings designed by Herzog & de Meuron for Tai Kwun, JC houses a not-for-profit art centre dedicated to presenting contemporary art exhibitions and events.
Central Magistracy is one of the most historically significant buildings in Hong Kong. Originally established in the 1840s, it was rebuilt in 1914. The colonial architecture was a symbol of the importance and power of the court. The building is notable for its connection to the police and prison functions that provided an “all-in-one” service. Now visitors can learn about its history in the two heritage storytelling spaces that were transformed from a court room and a holding cell.
One of the principles of conservation is authenticity. This means that the design, materials, technique, and components of the architecture are all original and authentic. To salvage the early art deco ceramic tiles in the Central Magistracy, samples were sent to H&E Smith, a specialist tile manufacturer in the United Kingdom, to produce tiles with as close a matching finish as possible.
Parade Ground, Prison Yard and Laundry Steps
Tai Kwun’s Performing Arts programme brings to life the many remarkable spaces both indoors and outdoors through events which have been designed and tailored to suit these unique venues. Parade Ground, Prison Yard and Laundry Steps become outdoor performance spaces for theatre, music, dance and film, with a wide range of programming to appeal to all audiences.
Tasting Tai Kwun
As for where to eat, drink and be merry, Tai Kwun is brimming with delectable options that will make deciding what to eat for lunch, dinner and breakfast tomorrow particularly difficult – especially when you have Ovolo Central’s dining options to consider. Here are a few of my favourites:
- Aaharn, the first Hong Kong venture by acclaimed chef David Thompson following the success of Nahm in London and Bangkok, for superb Thai cuisine.
- Café Claudel for classic French fare with a slice of Parisian chic.
- Dragonfly, an opulent cocktail bar and lounge inspired by the aesthetics of 19th century American artist Louis Comfort Tiffany.
- The Headquarters Block, housing the Chinese Library with different regional styles of Chinese food; Statement, a modern British restaurant; and The Dispensary, an East-Meets-West lounge and bar.
- Madame Fu, a recreation of a 1930s Shanghai salon with modern Cantonese fare plus Western desserts and tea sets, comprising the main dining room, two lovely open air verandahs, a bar and private rooms.
- Old Bailey, which despite its nod to the British court serves refined Jiangnan provincial cuisine with its subtle and clean flavours.
- MaoMao Eat, a quick refuelling stop with a short but sweet menu.
- LockCha Tea House for traditional teas and healthy vegetarian dim sum.