21 October 2016
Hong Kong's three famous heritage buildings, (from left) the former Whitfield Barracks, Béthanie and North Kowloon Magistracy, exemplify the architectural aesthetics of the colonial era. Photos: HKEJ, Internet, SCAD
Hong Kong's three famous heritage buildings, (from left) the former Whitfield Barracks, Béthanie and North Kowloon Magistracy, exemplify the architectural aesthetics of the colonial era. Photos: HKEJ, Internet, SCAD

Colonial gems: a detour from malls and skyscrapers

Hong Kong’s legions of high-rises that stretch along the pearlescent harbor may have somehow eclipsed the glow of many old colonnaded buildings, which, nonetheless, remain as immutable reminders of the city’s colonial past.

How many of the colonial-era edifices and manors can you still remember or have you ever set foot in?  There’s the Government House in Central, the Court of Final Appeal Building in Statue Square, and the University of Hong Kong’s Baroque-style Main Building.

Other than these well-known heritage mansions, there are more waiting to be rediscovered.

Hong Kong boasts a proud collection of 14 award-winning historic building revitalization projects under the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation scheme.

We have selected a few of them if you are still thinking of what to do over the weekend.

The former Whitfield Barracks

The urban oasis at the heart of bustling Tsim Sha Tsui used to be huge, heavily-guarded barracks.

The site was built in the 1890s for the British Indian garrisons and occupied by the British Military Force until 1967. The then Urban Council redeveloped the plot into Kowloon Park three years later.

Blocks S61 and S62, constructed in circa 1910, were a pair of identical two-storey Victorian colonial blocks and housed the former Hong Kong Museum of History from 1983 to 1998.

An extension block, a lightweight structure linking the pair, was constructed in a restoration project to preserve the historic features while upgrading facilities for the use of the Hong Kong Heritage Discovery Centre.

The contemporary architectural vocabulary, in particular the transparent glass skin of the new annexe, blends well with the 106-year-old barracks, along with the arcades, verandas, the tree-lined courtyard and the surrounding park.

The Antiques and Monuments Office organizes a free guided tour every Sunday at 3 p.m.

Address: Kowloon Park, Tsim Sha Tsui

The Béthanie

Béthanie, located in the tranquil Pok Fu Lam, was constructed in 1875 as a sanatorium by the Paris Foreign Missions Society (Missions Étrangères de Paris).

Standing amid pine trees with a sweeping sea view, Béthanie was an ideal restorative facility for sick French priests and missionaries to recover from tropical diseases back then.

Béthanie and the nearby Dairy Farm cowsheds were leased in 2003 to the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. After a series of restorations – the hardest part being installing the air-conditioning and fire control systems without compromising the original interior and exterior – the complex reopened in 2006 and is now used by the academy’s school of film and television.

Other than educational facilities, it also includes two performance venues, an exhibition hall, a chapel and a museum.

The elegant Neo-Gothic architectural style is represented in Béthanie’s rib vaults, lancet windows, stained glass, arched colonnades, verandahs and pinnacles.

On the second floor of Béthanie sits a modern multi-function room named after Hong Kong shipping magnate Sir Pao Yue-kong.

The studio’s pitched roof, made of double-glazed glass panels, brings in the magnificent sea view in a penthouse-like setting for performance and private functions.

A virtual tour of the elegant chapel and studio is available at the HKAPA website.

Address: 139 Pok Fu Lam Road

The former North Kowloon Magistracy

Erected in Shek Kip Mei in 1960, the seven-storey building served as the North Kowloon Magistrates’ Court for over four decades for hearings of minor offences like traffic violations, littering, illegal hawking and juvenile offenses.

Featuring Neo-Classical elements, the complex is typical of civic buildings designed with functional, stripped-down classicism that did away with most of the traditional mouldings, ornaments and details. Yet it still incorporates a central atrium, a projecting bay and symmetrical tall and narrow windows on its granite façade.

The staircase where parties face off in front of the magistracy is a familiar scene in many of Hong Kong’s crime movies and TV dramas.

The building became part of the government scheme for adaptive reuse, and the renowned Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) is the current tenant since 2010, running its first Asian campus there.

Its spacious character has been retained when it was revitalized into a key design and visual arts hub.

The neighboring streets of tenement blocks in Shek Kip Mei have now been transformed into a strip of art and design together with other revitalization projects, like Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre, a Tate Modern-like multi-disciplinary art colony with a black box theater converted from rundown factory estates, and the Mei Ho House (美荷樓), an H-shaped 1950s resettlement estate currently being used by the Hong Kong Youth Hostels Association with a museum of public housing and a spacious open-air arena in the rear courtyard.

North Kowloon Magistracy: 292 Tai Po Road, Shek Kip Mei
Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre: 30 Pak Tin Street, Shek Kip Mei
Mei Ho House: Block 41, Shek Kip Mei Estate, Sham Shui Po

– Contact us at [email protected]


The new glass annex linking the two blocks of the former Whitfield Barracks is a counterpoint to the complex’s original Victorian style. Photo: HKEJ

The verandas of the barracks block in Kowloon Park. It now houses the Antiquities and Monuments Office. Photo: HKEJ

An aerial view of the 140-year-old Béthanie, built by French missionaries in Pok Fu Lam. Photo: Internet

Béthanie’s chapel: Rib vaults, lancet windows, stained glass and arched colonnades are some of the outstanding elements of this Neo-Gothic structure. Photo: Internet

Béthanie’s penthouse-like studio. Photo:

The former North Kowloon Magistracy is now the first Asian campus of the renowned Savannah College of Art and Design. Photo: SCAD

EJ Insight writer

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