At peace in Hong Kong’s arts oa­sis

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION ASIA -

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

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