We thought we had set our phone alarm for 7.30 a.m. but for some reason we didn’t wake until just after 9.00 a.m. Fortunately, our lie in didn’t affect our schedule and we still had time for breakfast in the hotel before going out.
Our plan for the morning was to take the MRT to Central and then ride on the mid-levels escalators as far as Tai Kwun, the former Central Police Station. The buildings have now been transformed into a centre for heritage and arts, funded by the Hong Kong Jockey Club in partnership with the Government of Hong Kong SAR. Admission is free of charge but numbers are strictly limited to 3,500 at any one time, so before leaving home we had pre-booked a visiting time of 11.30 a.m. It was actually quiet when we arrived and a sign by the entrance advised that ‘walk-ins’ were permitted but if you are considering visiting this newly opened attraction I think it would be a good idea to book a slot on it’s website to avoid disappointment.
Tai Kwun means ‘big station’, the colloquial name used to refer to the former law enforcement complex. This name has been adopted as a reminder of the historical importance of the compound.
The Central Police Station was decommissioned in 2004 and the adjoining prison two years later. Victoria Prison was the first and longest running prison in Hong Kong, opening in 1841. The complex comprises 16 historic buildings grouped around the police station, built between 1864 and 1925. We started our self guided tour at the Police Headquarters block which was constructed in classical, Victorian style with red brick walls. This building now contains a permanent exhibition about the history of the Hong Kong police force.
Next to the Police Headquarters we looked in the Barracks block which is home to the information centre and main heritage gallery. This building also contains numerous art and craft shops and attractive cafes and is connected to the buildings overlooking the prison yard in the northern part of the complex by means of an elevated walkway.
The large prison exercise yard now serves as an open air concert and performing arts venue. An ancient mango tree stands in the middle providing shade. Over the years the prison grew in size from one hall to six but during the Second World War it suffered major damage and had to be restored. The east wing (D Hall) of the main block and a watchtower now known as Bauhinia House survive from this period. It was interesting to be able to enter some of the cells ourselves and to feel what life might have been like as a prisoner there. Prison Hall B includes an exhibition entitled ‘Life in Victoria Prison’ with examples of meals and displays indicating daily routines of prison life.
Cafes had been attractively integrated into the complex with one cosy cafe having alcove seating in a former cell block. Also on the site are two new buildings, Tai Kwun Contemporary Art Gallery and J Cube both sympathetically designed to resemble the solid brick work of the prison. These art museums / galleries offer free admission and in one of them we found modern art installations featuring robots.
It took quite awhile to see everything at Tai Kwun and I would definitely recommend a visit if time permits.
From there we made our way back downhill via the old stone steps on Peddar Street where a small market exists. Whilst in Central we looked in some of the shops and then caught the MRT over to Hung Hom station. From there it was only a short walk to the Hong Kong Museum of History. It was sad to observe that as we approached the museum along Chatham Road so many large trees had been uprooted and damaged by the recent typhoon. It seemed to be one of the worst affected areas that we had visited but huge efforts had been made to clear roads and pavements making everywhere safe and accessible.
Entrance to the museum is free of charge, the main exhibition being ‘The Hong Kong Story’. It was my second visit to this museum and I enjoyed it just as much as my first as there is so much to see. The story begins in pre-historic times following the island’s history up to the present day. The most interesting aspect for us was about British rule and the handover to China on 1st July 1997 which I vividly recall watching on television.
Leaving the museum, we popped across the square to visit the Hong Kong Science Museum which offers free admission on Wednesdays (regular admission HK$20 (£1.90) so we had timed our visit well. Here, we explored the various galleries but were unable to watch the giant marble run in operation as it had just finished operating a few minutes before we arrived.
Leaving there, it was drizzling so we sped along to a McCafe at Tsim Sha Tsui for some toasted sandwiches and cappuccinos. After our little rest we continued the short distance to the Star Ferry terminal and sailed across the harbour to Wan Chai on the upper deck of the Day Star ferry, once more enjoying the breathtaking views of Victoria Harbour.
From there it only took a few minutes to walk to the nearest tram stop to return to North Point. On the way back we called in a small family run bakery to buy some warm, egg custard tarts which cost only HK$3 (29p) each and were absolutely delicious with their creamy texture and rich, crumbly pastry to accompany our cups of tea. A short rest in our hotel room followed before heading back out again to catch another tram. This time to Happy Valley, the home of the Hong Kong Jockey Club so that we could attend their Happy Wednesday race meeting.
It was to be my fourth visit to Happy Valley which might sound as if I’m an avid fan of horse racing or gambling. Neither could be further from the truth but visiting Happy Valley on a Wednesday evening is an experience not to be missed. The racing commences at 7.15 p.m. but we always aim to arrive by 6.00 p.m. to secure seats in the grandstand. Admission is a nominal HH$10 (£1) with seats on the 2nd floor costing an additional HK$20 (£2) each. These seats were reserved for the entire evening enabling us to wander around whenever we wished.
Fortunately, we managed to secure seats on the front row with good views of the track, finishing line and the party stage. Wednesday evenings are themed and our visit was an Oktoberfest evening with German beer, music and dancing. We picked up two race catalogues and randomly selected a horse for each of the eight races. The minimum bet is HK$10 (£1) which we placed on each race to add a little excitement to our evening.
Just before the first race we bought some bowls of soup from the rear of our stand and then settled down to watch the racing. Our horses came 3rd and 2nd respectively in the first two races so we were hoping for great things in the third as our horse was in the lead for most of the race but disaster struck as it pulled up on the finishing straight and came in last!
At the mid-way point we bought glasses of lager and giant sized hot dogs and unbelievably in race 5 our chosen horse actually won so we excitedly dashed to the cashier’s desk with our betting slip to claim our winnings of HK$24 (£2.40)! No more wins followed, but we had enjoyed a fun filled evening, the time having sped by and we happily boarded a tram back to our hotel at 11.00 p.m.
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