A New Turn for Tai O
An old police station’s transformation into a nonprofit boutique hotel is drawing curious tourists to Hong Kong’s remote fishing village of Tai O. BY HANA R. ALBERTS
Colonial police officers once considerd Tai O no man’s land. A fishing village on the western shores of Hong Kong’s Lantau island, they would whine about being shipped out to the station there. In Old Tai O Police Station: The Evolution of a Centenary Monument, a book on the history of the village, one retired policeman recalled: “Being posted here [Tai O] was a form of punishment.” The outpost was so far from the city center that on a clear day you could see Macau and China. (A modern-day sign of its remoteness? Mobile phones start roaming.
Since the old police station was rechristened as a boutique hotel in February, it’s evident there’s been quite a change in its reputation. Though it has just nine rooms, in the few months it’s been open tens of thousands have turned out to tour the historic building, eat in its small restaurant and enjoy its bucolic surroundings. The 110-year-old police station’s new lease on life, though, is also an experiment in unusual hotel management.
“This is a nonprofit social enterprise, which is probably unheard of in Hong Kong—a boutique hotel that you can’t make a profit off of?” says Winnie Yeung, assistant manager of the Hong Kong Heritage Conservation Foundation. Following an open call for proposals in 2008, the government awarded the foundation the rights to renovate the police station, in part because it promised to honor the area’s past.
True to their word, preservationists remained staunchly faithful to the site’s origins—down to the tiniest details. The room where criminals reported to register their wrongdoings now houses the check-in desk. On the sea facing outdoor deck, they’ve been recreated a tiny fishpond that a cheeky officer had to build as punishment for disrespecting a superior. The hotel was constructed along the border between British-controlled Hong Kong and China back when the boundary was habitually breached. Today, refurbished cannons, lookout towers and a searchlight remain, and one pair of freshly painted thick gray shutters still sports dents left by bullets.
Even the hotel rooms and suites are names after nearby sights, police rankings and retired police boats. Arched colonial verandahs and a Chinese-style tiled roof define the façade, while French doors lead to airy accommodations decorated in mild blues and yellows, with fireplaces and wooden furniture.
The hotel isn’t just the domain of those who can shell out for a room; free guided tours are offered to the public twice a day. Part of the foundation’s mission is not only to involve the community in the hotel—hiring villagers as staff, selling works by local artists, incorporating iconic local items like shrimp paste and the begonia flower into the food and the drink offerings—but also to give back. Though it numbered 30,000 in the 60’s and 70’s, Tai O’s population has shrunk to just 2,000. Many adults have abandoned the stilt houses and Hakka dialect of their childhood and moved downtown to work, leaving behind a community of kids and elderly who lack the resources to maintain local traditions and perform festival rites. So the hotel helps support frequent colorful celebrations such as dragon boat races, deities’ birthdays and Chinese opera performances. Lantau island as a whole is a refreshing change of pace; instead of skyscrapers there are verdant hills, beaches and the chance to spot the rare pink dolphin.
The old Tai O Police Station saw more than its share of misadventures, from pirates to a mysterious murder suicide, from cross-border smugglers to Vietnamese refugees and Chinese illegal immigrants. In a city often berated for sacrificing historic sites to the wrecking ball to make room for revenue-generating high-rises, the hotel offers a chance to experiment a rare remnant of old Hong Kong, albeit one with an updated mission.
“It’s not just about preserving the fabric, but more about introducing new uses,” Yeung says. “We are driving a new interpretation of the fishing village,” adds her colleague Iris Wong. “That’s Hong Kong, in a way.”