Hong Kong’s Artistic History Gets a Revival

HONG KONG — It can sometimes feel as if Hong Kong history is at risk of slipping away, in this fast-paced city where heritage buildings are razed to make room for skyscrapers and where traditional stage performers struggle to compete with pop culture.

But in the past year, several major venues have opened to bring new life to Hong Kong’s British-Chinese past. Abandoned old buildings are being reopened as cultural centers. Even the city’s fanciest new performance hall has been dedicated to the preservation of an ancient art form.

Architecture aficionados can pay homage to Bing Thom at the Xiqu Center, a Cantonese opera house that opened in January. It is the last great work by Mr. Thom, the Chinese-Canadian architect who died in 2016 before seeing the completion of his “homecoming” project in the city of his birth.

Its exterior is crafted from waves of curled aluminum pieces, shimmering like thousands of silvery fish scales. The eight-story building is shaped like stage curtains parting before the opening of a show. Natural light floods into the atrium through these “parts,” making the opera house feel like a true public space. On a recent afternoon, a street artist set up an easel and children played in the opera house’s replica ancient Chinese wooden building.

An exhibition (through June 30) by the Hong Kong photographer Ducky Tse documents the eight-year process of building the center.

The history, culture and practices of Chinese opera are well explained in English-language tours, led by guides who keep their charges in line by banging on mini gongs.

Full classical productions are staged at the formal Grand Theater, while the more causal Tea House Theater offers shorter performances and dim sum snacks.

While you’re there: The Xiqu Center is part of the massive and still incomplete West Kowloon Cultural District. A short taxi ride away is the M+ Pavilion, an art space meant to complement the larger M+ museum, which is scheduled to open in 2020. Right outside is a waterfront promenade with sweeping views of Victoria Harbor and Hong Kong Island.

Tai Kwun, meaning “Big Station,” was a 19th-century British-era police station, court and prison. It reopened in 2018 as the Center for Heritage and Arts, as part of the city’s most ambitious restoration project. Historic buildings, set around vast courtyards, are now home to exhibition spaces, studios, shops and restaurants.

A 45-minute, English-language heritage tour is available, but not strictly necessary. Tai Kwun is decidedly tourist-friendly; in its first half-year, it recorded one million visitors.

Though lavishly outfitted and promoted as a major tourist draw, Tai Kwun also functions as serious art space. It has not been immune to debates about free expression in Hong Kong’s tense political climate. In November, Tai Kwun canceled an appearance by the Chinese dissident writer Ma Jian, but then quickly changed course after coming under criticism, allowing Mr. Ma the chance to speak in the end.

JC Contemporary, a nonprofit art space, offers two hard-hitting shows this spring: The R-rated “Performing Society: The Violence of Gender” (until April 28) and “Contagious Cities: Far Away, Too Close” (until April 21), which documents disease in Hong Kong, from the 19th-century plague to modern-age epidemics like SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome.

While you’re there: Have a meal at hc:Bistro, a social enterprise benefiting people with learning disabilities. Customers sit at wooden-plank tables, set against the former prison’s gray brick walls, while friendly staff members serve up seared salmon and big bowls of fig and avocado salad.

Also while you’re there: From Tai Kwun, take a five-minute walk down Hollywood Road, through the heart of the artsy SoHo district. This will take you to PMQ, a former colonial-era “Police Married Quarters.” PMQ now comprises a whole city block housing small enterprises, from vegetarian bakeries to fashion ateliers.


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