At the eastern end of Hong Kong’s Hollywood Road, it looms up over the sidewalk: a walled, imposing compound, containing a former prison, courthouse, and police station. Tai Kwun was undoubtedly not a place that inspired joy. But a recent $484 million spruce-up job has turned that around.
Its oldest buildings preceded Hong Kong’s founding by only a decade. Honored “guests” in its prison cells included the Vietnamese revolutionary Ho Chi Minh. British bureaucrats and policemen called it the Central Police Station, but Cantonese Hong Kongers called it the "Big Station," Tai Kwun (大館).
You’ll find no judges, police officers, or prisoners in Tai Kwun’s 300,000-square-foot space today. Its grim organs of justice have since been replaced with shops, restaurants, bars, exhibit spaces, and immersive historical experiences—transforming Tai Kwun into a “Centre for Heritage and Arts,” and an essential stop for tourists visiting Hong Kong’s Soho district.
Walking Around Tai Kwun
Tai Kwun’s revitalization program embraced its history while reorienting it towards the future. Existing buildings were preserved, and some gaps were filled in with new architecture that complements the lot’s overall look and feel. The renovated facade uses 15,000 bricks made by the same brickworks in England that made the building’s original, century-old bricks.
The buildings in Tai Kwun surround two courtyards—the more extensive Parade Ground to the north, and the smaller Prison Yard at the southern side. These two courtyards are some of the largest open spaces in Central and are great places for people-watching.
The oldest building in Tai Kwun faces the Parade Ground. Completed in 1864, the Barrack Block used to serve as housing for Hong Kong’s new police forces. It now houses Tai Kwun’s Heritage Gallery, Visitor Center, and an assortment of restaurants and shops.
Directly across the Parade Ground from the Barrack Block stands the Police Headquarters Block (pictured above). Completed in 1919, the Headquarters Block contained facilities that catered to the multicultural nature of the territory’s police forces—from a Sikh gurdwara to separate mess halls for Indian and Chinese officers.
A mango tree standing on the western end of the Parade Ground was intentionally preserved for its historical connection to the Police rank and file. Patrolmen believed that when the mango tree bore plenty of fruit, it portended plenty of promotions for that year.
An Old Prison and Two New Buildings
The walkways and narrow passageways winding through Tai Kwun’s buildings show that the complex was initially intended to be a “one-stop-shop” for the law. Prisoners could be arrested, brought to the Headquarters Block for processing, to the Central Magistracy for their trial, and Victoria Prison for confinement—all without leaving the area.
Both the Central Magistracy and Victoria Prison now contain storytelling spaces and museums that recount the daily goings-on in both buildings and the experiences of prisoners waiting for their turn at the docket. The former Prison Yard (pictured above) now hosts socializing locals and tourists; only the massive curtain wall reminds visitors that this open space was meant for prisoners.
Two new buildings flank the Yard, designed by Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron to contrast with its historical surroundings visually. The aluminum cladding on JC Cube and JC Contemporary were recycled from automobile wheels—they look textured and reflective, where the other buildings are flat and dull.
Both buildings are designed to be Tai Kwun’s main exhibition spaces. JC Contemporary hosts art exhibitions, while JC Cube contains a 200-seat auditorium for theater performances, concerts, and seminars.
What to Do in Tai Kwun
There’s plenty to do and see in Tai Kwun once you get there. Here’s a thumbnail sketch of a day spent in this historic Hong Kong compound:
- Hear the stories of Tai Kwun’s historic residents. Eight storytelling spaces reveal Tai Kwun’s history, based on the testimony of the people who lived and worked in the former Central Police Station. One moment you might walk in the footsteps of a patrolman bringing street hoods to justice; another you’ll be a prisoner standing trial for your crimes at the Magistracy (pictured above). The storytelling spaces use modern technology—LED video screens, projected moving silhouettes, and audio recordings—to make visitors feel as if they’re living the moments themselves.
- Tour Tai Kwun on foot. Every 2 p.m. on Tuesdays and Saturdays, guided tours wind through Tai Kwun’s heritage spaces. These tours take 45 minutes to complete and are conducted in English. Self-guided tours are also available, using the audio guide on the Tai Kwun app; these tours offer a choice of six thematic routes.
- Buy bric-a-bracs at Tai Kwun’s shops. Independent, artisanal retailers make up the bulk of Tai Kwun’s shopping scene. Wander through the stores and take in their unique finds: from Bonart’s creative terrariums to Taschen’s colorful coffee-table books to Touch Ceramics’ thoughtfully-produced crockery, every shop is a surprise waiting to be revealed.
- Take a “cell-fie” at Victoria Prison. Victoria Prison’s B-Hall retains its old cells, though the walls have been painted over and its floors scrubbed. (Historians decry the erasure of the graffiti that once decorated the walls.) Visitors can enter the cells, close the bars, and imagine what it was like to be cooped up inside, day after day.
- Watch a concert. Tai Kwun’s performers are an eclectic lot: there’s enough space for classical operas and contemporary rock stars alike. Beyond the JC Cube’s auditorium, musical performances can take place in Tai Kwun’s courtyards and the “Laundry Steps” under the Cube.
- Dine at a high-end restaurant. The food at Tai Kwun may be pricey, but the artisanal experiences at each joint are worth the expense. Try traditional Chinese cuisine courtesy of Old Bailey’s Jiangnan menu; Madame Fu’s Cantonese selections; and Lockcha Tea House’s tea and dim sum platters. Cafe Claudel’s menu evokes 1930s Paris, while Aaharn gives Thai food a delightful spin.
- Admire Tai Kwun's art & architecture. Tai Kwun is an architectural enthusiast’s dream. Sharp-eyed watchers can spot plenty of unique details: the Edwardian and Victorian styles of the buildings on the Parade Ground; minutiae like the “George Rex” inscription and the brickwork on the Headquarters Block; and the blocky hyper-modernity of the JC’s on the Prison Yard, designed by the same firm that conceptualized the adaptive reuse of London’s Tate Modern. The buildings’ interiors regularly host exhibitions covering a wide range of modern art forms, from Japanese anime to postmodern portraiture.
- Join a hands-on workshop. Tai Kwun’s studios host a constant stream of workshops for a wide variety of hobbies. From pottery workshops to traditional bookbinding classes to hand-drawn animation seminars, you’ll find a workshop that tickles your particular field of interest.
- Have an after-dark drink. Tai Kwun’s bar scene caters to tipplers who like equal measures of art, ambiance, and alcohol. Dragonfly uses Louis Tiffany artwork in their interior design; Behind Bars and the Dispensary lean heavily into their space’s former use, jail cells, and a patrolman’s pub, respectively; and Gishiki serves up a drinks menu with significant Japanese influence.
Transportation to Tai Kwun
Tai Kwun stands on the eastern end of Hollywood Road in Central, and can serve as the starting point for a walking tour of this historic Hong Kong street. To get to Hollywood Road by MTR, disembark at Central Station, exit the station at Exit D1 (Google Maps), then walk up Pottinger Street to the Pottinger Gate into Tai Kwun (Google Maps).
To get to Tai Kwun from the Mid-Levels Escalator, take the stairs down at the Hollywood Road intersection and walk the block east to Tai Kwun.
After visiting Tai Kwun, you can proceed to the rest of Hollywood Road, or walk to two areas in Central that promise a good time. Lan Kwai Fong caters to younger, rowdier nightlife-seekers, while Soho serves up pricier but higher-quality food and drinks.