An explosion of beauty

An explosion of beauty

Leon Lee checks out the new Asia Society Center in Admiralty ...


Asia Society Center_L
Photo: John Nye
Arts and war don't mix. Or then again, sometimes they do.

If you need proof, consider this: The Asia Society Hong Kong Center has found a new home at what was once a depot for gunpowder and explosives.

The Former Explosives Magazine Compound, in Admiralty, is Hong Kong's largest remaining British military site. It was created in the mid-19th century for making and storing explosives. By the 1980s the site was no longer in use.

Then in 2005 along came the Asia Society to give the site's four historical heritage buildings brand-new leases on life. Today, thanks to donations of HK$385 million by charities and individuals, the one-time military ground functions as a dynamic educational complex.

In February, the Asia Society Hong Kong Center, The Hong Kong Jockey Club Former Explosives Magazine opened its doors to the public.

The society is a non-profit group which was founded in New York in 1956 by philanthropist John D Rockefeller III. In 1990, it set up its Hong Kong office to educate Asians about America as well as their own continent.

"We've been doing this for 21 years," notes Ronnie Chan Chi-chung, co-chair of the society and chairman of its Hong Kong Center.

"But not having a home, a permanent space, it was difficult for people to identify with the institution. We just rented hotel rooms. So having a home certainly helps Hong Kong people identify with us more. It also strengthens our [connection to] the public."

One of the buildings at the site is Former Magazine A, an explosives storage facility. It has been converted into a gallery where the society holds exhibitions and displays art works.

Former Magazine B in turn now serves as a 107-seat theatre for film screenings and stage performances.

As you head to exhibitions, you can walk past old ammunition tracks at the site. Make sure not to miss the Hong Kong Center's brand-new pavilion, which features a large multi-purpose area with a store and a cafe. A spacious roof garden affords a view of the Admiralty's skyline and provides access to the other buildings via a beautifully designed double-deck footbridge.

Everything on the 7,500-square-metre site has been carefully planned from how much of the original building should be exposed in the gallery to the path of the footbridge. Designers also took pains not to disturb the roosting areas of fruit bats living in the woods around the site.

The Former Explosives Magazine Compound and the new centre, Chan stresses, make for "a match made in heaven".

Thanks to its prime location near Central and its storied past, the site serves the society's goal of promoting culture to the public through an appreciation of cultural heritage. The society offers students free programmes and school trips to the site.

"While we're adding content to Hong Kong as Asia's World City with exhibitions, concerts, tours, and lectures," Chan says, "we also give young people an exposure that is not usually there. Obviously, the internet is a great help, but sometimes you need to do more: to see, feel and touch.

"Young people who come here will have their horizons expanded."

Yasumoto Bridge Photo: John Nye

The Hong Kong Center's inaugural exhibition Transforming Minds: Buddhism in Art is on show until May 20. Free public heritage tours are available

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