A Petition from Block 4, Tai Kwun
How time flied for the past ten years! The conservation and revitalization of Tai Kwun is finally coming to a completion. I can see everybody here, following the guided tour to explore the historic fabric, or enjoying the dusk with friends and family, or checking in Facebook and Instagram below the mango tree or against the granite wall. However, when you walk pass me on Pottinger Street, have you ever seen me? I am Block 4 of Tai Kwun, the Former Officers’ Quarters, or named as the Married Inspectors’ Quarters. Have you ever noticed, that my fate is still on the ropes?
I am nearly as old as Hong Kong’s colonial establishment. When the Prison was set up in the 1840s, the granite base below me had already been built. In the 1850s, a Guardhouse was built on top of this granite base, featuring on two granite corbels and a turret on the north side of the granite base – they still exist there today. Then came 1860s when the Prison was enlarged, the south part of Tai Kwun became the Radial Prison whilst the north part of Tai Kwun became the Central Police Station. What about me? I was rebuilt on top of the granite base at this time, becoming a part of the Central Police Station: the Officers’ Quarters. The Captain Superintendent of the Police (or the Commissioner of Police nowadays) lived in all three floors of my east wing; the Deputy Superintendent lived in the second floor of my west wing; four married inspectors lived in the ground and first floor of my west wing.
I looked like this originally. In my east wing, the Captain Superintendent’s Quarters, a timber staircase linked up the dining room on ground floor, the drawing room, and bedrooms on the upper floors. In my west wing, every inspector occupied two rooms on the ground and first floors which was served by a granite staircase. The Deputy Superintendent’s Quarters on the second floor was served by a timber staircase. My east wing and the west wing were divided by a wall without disturbing each other. Facing the Parade Ground, I had balconies supported by wrought iron brackets finished with timber boards. Yea, the Superintendents were standing there, watching what was going on in the Parade Ground.
I served as Officers’ Quarters, and then Police Offices. There came the 21st century. I was tired, a fierce typhoon uprooted the trees in the Parade Ground, which hit and destroyed one of my balconies. My brick wall was tired where cracks developed. Some of my bottle balustrade was damaged……However, I was hopeful, that I would reborn after a massive conservation project.
Thorough study and analysis were made on me. In the Conservation Management and the Cultural Heritage Impact Assessment, they say “The retention of these stairs is essential to understanding the original circulation pattern of the building”, “The layout of these buildings should be respected with their separate access stairs and the disposition of the rooms. The reason being the layout of these buildings survives to a great extent and they are indicative of the original purpose as units of accommodation of different standards for various levels of police officer. The layout of the rooms and stairs is all an important way of understanding the buildings and these layouts should be respected when any repair and reordering takes place to suit new uses.”
Following this analysis and judgement, in 2008, I was given a new use, NGO offices. Regarding this use, the Cultural Heritage Impact Assessment says “A wide variety of uses were considered. Amongst them were a museum, an upmarket restaurant, residential accommodation, boutique hotel, cookery school, information and education centre or two floors of retail. All of these were rejected for a variety of reasons; however there are two fundamental problems that are common to all of the above. Firstly, it is very desirable to keep the two original staircases and this creates a potential problem with escape from the upper floors. The second major problem is the relatively fragile nature of the floor construction. This is built for light domestic loads and there is no fire separation between the floors…… the lighter the imposed loads the easier it will be to achieve a sensible solution.”
Doing this, I was able to keep my Chinese Fir timber joists, I was able to keep room arrangement, I was able to keep two staircases. All of these, they are my bones and muscles.
My hope turned out to be hopeless in 2016. An error in the construction made one corner of mine collapsed. More frightenedly, they did not think over how to improve the construction quality, they did not consider how to repair me cautiously, they did not respect heritage in a proper way; instead, they thought thoroughly about how to take advantages of such collapse, omitting the non-profit office use, replacing it with profitable exhibition and performance spaces which probably they feel more desirable deep in their mind, lovely calling it “to support public activities programmes”.
People may not know, following this new use of exhibition and performance spaces, I have to suffer another round of torture: Another room of mine and one chimney will be demolished, all of my Chinese Fir timber joists will be removed, all of my room arrangement will be altered, even two original historic staircases, which were considered high significance in the assessment, will be entirely removed. Trying to achieve this, they even made a false statement in the Antiquities Advisory Board, claiming my existing staircase (still intact after the collapse) was “in fragment”!
The Hong Kong Jockey Club repeatedly says they are pursuing a heritage-led plan to conserve the site. But I don’t see how it is heritage-led on me. On the contrary, they decided a new use, leaving the heritage aside, letting me to suffer all this inhumane vivisection. What kind of “heritage-led conservation” this is?!
If I lose all of my bones and muscles, then what the public will truly see behind my empty shell, is a real “fake heritage”!
Help me! I am Block 4 of Tai Kwun, the 150-year-old Officers’ Quarters.
Block 4, Tai Kwun