The 18th Hong Kong International Literary Festival in the fascinating setting of ‘Tai Kwun Center for Heritage and Arts’
The Central-Mid-Levels escalator is a convenient open-air pathway that extends for 800 meters and slithers all the way up to the residential area located between Central and Victoria Peak.
The section of escalator above Hollywood Road is connected to a large and scenic staircase that is one of the entrances of ‘Tai Kwun Center for Heritage and Arts’. From this location, we catch the first glimpse of this piece of colonial history of which the design and development date back to the 19th century. The imposing ‘Central Police Station’ stands on the left of the steps, with red bricks (of which the 15,000, necessary for the restructuring, have been produced by the same British company that made the original ones a century ago) that make its white facade in neoclassical style particularly stand out.
Once set foot in Tai Kwun’s large main courtyard, we are immersed in a silent and majestic dimension, in which the historical buildings claim their importance and solemnity in the dense landscape surrounded by skyscrapers. While taking some pictures that include these modern intruders, we try to imagine how all this would look like without their presence. But this is Hong Kong: its slender, tall towers are part of the urban fabric practically everywhere, and the old must coexist with the modern. A lush presence gives the area a touch of green: it is a giant mango tree. It seems that this exotic addition had been introduced by the Indian policemen – at the service of the British Empire – introduced this exotic tree to their Hong Kong counterparts. If the tree bore plenty of fruit, the year would be filled with promotions.
The site of the sixteen historical buildings that now are part of ‘Tai Kwun Center for Heritage and Arts’, was developed between 1865 and 1936. Tai Kwun – that means “big station” in Cantonese – includes the former central police station, the former central judiciary, and the Victoria prison, in use until the government declared them monuments in 1995, only to be subsequently decommissioned in 2004 and 2006. The biggest project to revitalise the city’s cultural heritage, which developed over eight years, was supported by a 3.8 billion dollars sponsorship by the Hong Kong Jockey Club.
I did not have the opportunity to visit Tai Kwun before it was renamed as such, but following a tour guided by young students a month ago, the place became animated by interesting anecdotes that allowed me to imagine life in this compound, in particular in the prison. Here, artistic installations with projections of prisoners’ silhouettes on the walls of the tiny cells highlight how the absolute narrowness of space, the serious hygienic problems – added to the unbearable heat in summer and the bitter cold of winter – characterized the daily life of the convicts.
Among the most famous ones, there was Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969), founder in 1945 of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. He arrived in Hong Kong in 1930 and was arrested awaiting deportation and extradition to Vietnam, where he had to be handed over to the French authorities. Ho was locked up in Victoria’s prison from 1931 to 1933, and his journals tell us how the best activity was to be allowed to exercise for fifteen minutes a day in the narrow walled courtyard, feeling like being at the bottom of a well.
Walking through the long corridors, along walls, and in the prison, in a path that at times seems labyrinthine, I suddenly found myself in front of a long red mural depicting crosses potent. These religious symbols, rather recurrent in Roman Catholicism, seem here almost out of place. Then, at a closer look, one realizes that this area, the entrance of the superintendent’s house, was converted into a chapel. In this dwelling of restraints, repentance and suffering, it was at least allowed to pray and think of the afterlife beyond the confined space of a cell.
It is in the Prison Yard, a square area contained by high walls, where the two modern-style structures designed by the Swiss studio Herzog & de Meuron, and which house the ‘Tai Kwun Contemporary’ gallery and a 200-seat auditorium, stand out. In order to contrast the new with the old, the style of these two buildings was inspired by the masonry of the original structures. The material used is cast aluminum, and this feature allows the reduction of solar reflectivity during the day, acting as a screen for the light and thus reducing light pollution during the night.
Personally, I welcomed with great enthusiasm this redevelopment project that not only re-evaluated a beautiful historical site but also wants it to become a reference point for culture and art, something that was much needed in Hong Kong. Tai Kwun aims at offering various cultural programs: art exhibitions, theatrical performances, outdoor shows, film screenings and educational events (find the program here). Hopefully, it will also become a springboard for emerging local artists and a showcase for those already established. Given the vastness of the area (28,000 square meters), bars and restaurants, all of them with an interesting décor, complement this development.
In this beautiful setting, from the 2nd to the 11th of November 2018, the eighteenth edition of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival will take place.
The Festival, with events held in English, gains important significance in a city that wants to assert its multiculturalism, and where the official language is Cantonese. Over the years, established (and emerging) authors from all over the world – such as Carol Ann Duffy, Amy Tan, Jung Chang, Hideo Yokoyama, Madeleine Thien, etc. – have been taking part in this festival.
This year, the program showcases creative writing workshops, seminars, dialogues and conversations with writers and poets. Participants include Cheryl Strayed, Irvine Welsh, Susie Orbach, Guadalupe Nettel, Ma Jian, Meg Wolitzer, and more. Given the availability of outdoor areas, there will also be live narrations and poetry readings. In this regard, from Monday 5th to Thursday 8th November 2018, at 6 pm, the active group of poets I regularly meet, ‘Peel Street Poetry’, will recite poems at the prison yard of the Central Police Station. It will be an excellent opportunity to spend some quality time outdoors, dedicating fifteen minutes to the emotions that good poetry is able to transmit us.
Other Festival events (some of which are free) will cover various themes, including women and poetry in Hong Kong, noir, science fiction, literary editing – as well as a slam poetry performance by Jesse Oliver (winner of the Australian Poetry Slam in 2017), a meeting on ‘travel writing’ (and its classification between fiction and non-fiction), a panel on Oscar Wilde, and more.
Find here the complete program and the list of the writers and poets participating in this interesting cultural happening that will take shape in the fascinating complex of Tai Kwun where, sheltered by ancient and modern walls, it will surely find its best voice and audience.