At peace in Hong Kong’s arts oasis
Perhaps it’s because the Asia Society Hong Kong Centre blends effortlessly into the lush tropical hills surrounding the island’s financial district skyscrapers, or maybe it’s the short, steep and steamy walk to reach the site in the hotter months that makes this remarkable cultural institution such a hidden gem.
Step inside and cool air, soft lighting, mossy green marble walls and muted grey stone instantly create a tranquil retreat within one of the world’s most urbanised cities. Floor-to-ceiling windows draw the eye towards the verdant vegetation outside the foyer, where water tumbles through an opening from the level above, effectively blocking all city sounds.
Designed by award-winning New York architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, the low-rise structure, with a serene Asian-inspired roof garden and reflection pool, is an impressive counterpoint to the surrounding skyscrapers. The site also includes carefully restored colonial British military buildings dating from the 1860s, when it was used as an ammunition storage facility.
Now five years old, the complex has a wonderful sense of being at ease within the landscape. Asia Society executive director Alice Mong says the building’s success lies in the balance of indoor and outdoor space, blending historic and contemporary themes.
“Nature, water and greenery co-exist with the built environment. It’s a harmonious place and not at all intimidating. When you are inside, you see greenery all around [and] outside, you appreciate the grandeur of the surrounding buildings and the harbour,” Mong says.
One of her favourite places is the so-called kissing bench, at an unexpectedly sharp turn in a walkway leading to the roof garden. In overcrowded Hong Kong, privacy is hard to find for courting couples, so it’s not too much of a stretch to guess how this bench gained its nickname. The odd angle, jutting out like a ship’s prow, was created to avoid disturbing a small stand of squat, broadleafed palm trees colonised by a rare variety of fruit bats. Wild pigs occasionally wander through the grounds.
Despite presenting about 200 events each year, the Asia Society remains one of Hong Kong’s best-kept secrets. With a focus on business and international policy, education, art, culture and identity, its broader aim is to widen local appreciation of arts and culture. Programs include talks, films, forums, music and even yoga workshops.
Exhibitions are held in the impressive Chantal Miller Gallery, where 2m-thick walls maintain a constant temperature. A recent exhibition, Breathing Space, focused on the pressure of high-density living, seen through the eyes of 11 young Hong Kong artists. From September 27, the gallery will showcase the work of Chinese painter and calligrapher Fang Zhaoling.
It’s best to book if you are planning to eat at Ammo, the complex’s sleek, glass-walled restaurant and cocktail bar. Lunchtime can be crowded but staff helpfully let you know if service might be slowed by high demand.
The menu is Eurasian and a three-course lunch is good value at the equivalent of $38. Afternoon tea is an elegant affair; so too are cocktails.
There’s no charge for visiting the Asia Society and exhibitions are also free this year, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the creation of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
Dovetail an Asia Society visit with a walk to nearby Hong Kong Park, home to Flagstaff House, another beautifully preserved colonial building, ceramics museum and teahouse.
Be sure to stop at the Museum of Tea Ware to sample its refined teas and vegetarian dumplings and browse the gift shop for rare varieties, pots and delicate cups for an authentic Hong Kong souvenir.
Roof garden and reflection pool, left; the recent Breathing Space show, above