Beyond (Designing) the Place
Re-tuning Haw Par Mansion
超越空間設計 : 重塑虎豹別墅
Roger Wu 胡燦森
While debates on the level of success of recent public and private heritage conservation projects are likely to continue, what is beyond dispute is that delivering heritage conservation in Hong Kong is complex and challenging on many levels and for many reasons, most notably high land values, unsympathetic building regulations and a lack of opportunities to retain skills and share resources with an effective economy of scale due to the small number of such projects. Nonetheless, it must be recognised that many architects have been working tirelessly in this area, not just delivering projects but also in raising public awareness and engagement as well as helping to steer government policies and professional guidelines.
Spirit of the place
One of the often-asked questions by visitors to Haw Par Music in the revitalised former Haw Par Mansion is ‘Why music?’ The answer is less of a one-liner than some might expect, but rather stems from the organic development of the site.
For clues to the answer, let’s look at the background of Hong Kong around the time of when the building was constructed is a good starting place. First, amongst the notable achievements of Sir Cecil Clementi, the first governor of Hong Kong (1925-1930) to speak Cantonese, was his appointment of Shouson Chow, a prominent Chinese merchant, as the first Chinese unofficial member of the Executive Council. This reflects a shift in the British Colonial government’s attitude to the governance of Hong Kong to respect local culture and traditions and to encourage members of the Chinese population to believe they could rise through the ranks to positions of power.
Second, Hong Kong has long been a somewhat transient city, thriving as a place where different cultures come together. In addition, there’s the fact that Hong Kong hasn’t been burdened with the weight of hundreds of years of deep-rooted culture. Instead, it offers plenty of opportunities for free-thinking people with an ‘anything-can-happen’ approach to life. This led to a context of eclecticism in Hong Kong, where Chinese and Western cultures mixed in art, culture and everyday life, which became the popular expressive style and which to some extent still exists to this day. Then, there is Aw Boon Haw, who built the mansion. The histories of the Aw family, of Aw Boon Haw’s relationship with his brother, Aw Boon Par, and of the family business empire and their buildings and gardens in Hong Kong, Singapore and Fujian have been covered extensively elsewhere. ¹ ²
A number of key aspects of Aw Boon Haw’s life contributed significantly to the Chinese eclecticism style present in Haw Par Mansion. First, his exposure to and fascination with different cultures during his travels for business and leisure no doubt fuelled his desire to express what he had seen through his creations. Second, the brothers’ close relationship combined with their different characters and educational background (the more outward going Haw was sent to Fujian for a more traditional Chinese education while the more reserved Par remained in Yangon and received a more ‘international school’ style education) further encouraged cultural exchange within the family. Finally, Haw’s motto, ‘That which is derived from society should be returned to society’, not only referred to his philanthropic endeavours, especially in education and healthcare, but also to his lifelong efforts to disseminate to ordinary people the virtue of Chinese traditions and culture and his views of the outside world through his buildings, gardens and newspapers. (He truly believed in wellbeing through spiritual and knowledge enrichment.) Second, the Chinese eclecticism that existed in Haw Boon Haw’s mind, capturing the ‘anything is possible and without constraints from the baggage of history’ mentality outlined above, is manifested perfectly in the details that can still be seen in Haw Par Mansion. One example is the two moon gates, features usually found in Chinese landscapes, used as main entrance doors into the mansion from the front and garden. Another is the stained-glass panels made in Florence depicting tigers and a combination and Chinese and Western birds and flora adorning the moon gates. Then there are the two flying eaves, features usually found on outside of buildings, with painted roof tiles patterns are main decorative features in the Main Hall and the seemingly ad-hoc selection of traditional Chinese folk stories of 八仙過海and 姜太公釣that adorn the underside of each of the flying eaves. Sally Aw Sian, Haw’s draughter, said that her father used get up at 6am every day to supervise construction workers on site, a demonstration of his idiosyncratic approach beyond stylistic stereotype and any academic/theoretical research/challenge.
Bearing all this in mind explains why Haw Par Music is positioned as a centre for cross-cultural exchange through music, heritage and the arts, with a social initiative. The aim is to provide visitors exposure to diverse cultural happenings and educational programmes while also taking care of their spiritual wellbeing.
One example of a programme that showcased this approach was a TV recording of the Italian opera ‘Rita’ by Donizetti that took place in the Main Hall. It was accompanied by two session of un-announced open rehearsal session that also coincide with an exhibition of Cantonese opera in an adjacent room. Another example was a performance of the 2020 Hong Kong Dance Award Best Special Venue Performance winner, ‘Contempo Lion Dance’, in which the lion dance artform was updated and combined with parkour, contemporary Chinese dance, flamingo and Nanyin. The show delivered an immersive Aw Boon Haw story-telling experience. A third example was an inter-generational orchestra performance featuring musicians of different ages, skill levels and nationality.
One of the most gratifying aspects of such programmes is that they would not have been possible without the connections made by the architects involved in the revitalisation project. Beyond the successful delivery a fit-for-purpose project, they demonstrated their commitment to Haw Par Music through their continued involvement, understanding and appreciation of the place’s spirit, the ‘Haw Par Ethos’.
Haw Par Music takes that spirit beyond the place through outreach programmes in which faculties and students perform in other locations. Doing this echoes the way the Aw family, after building Haw Par Mansion and Tiger Balm Gardens in Hong Kong built other similar mansions, villas and gardens in Singapore and Fujian. Perhaps other conservation projects in Hong that draw on the idea of the ‘spirit of a place’ from our city’s cultural history and identity can create a collective ‘Spirit of Hong Kong’.
Among the many skills that architects possess, the one that stands out most is the ability to consider various contextual, planning, environmental, design and technical aspects of a project to make an informed decision on the appropriate way forward. For conservation projects, there is a need to take this key skill even further so we can look beyond the physical functions of a space to grasp the more metaphysical concepts reflected in its ‘spirit of the place’. There is a need to engage a project’s client or operator further to avoid the disconnect that often happens operational issues discovered in the post-construction period. Perhaps, our engagement with clients post-contract needs to be developed beyond the client and consultant relationship. Better still, perhaps architects can step out of the role of being consultants and offer our skill sets and services as drivers, champions and facilitators of projects.
Roger Wu is the executive director of Har Par Music.
¹ Brandel, J. and Turbeville, T. (1998) Tiger Balm Gardens: A Chinese Billionaire ’s Fantasy Environments. Hong Kong, The Aw Boon Haw Foundation.
² 鄭宏泰 (12月2018年).《虎豹家族——起落興衰的探索和思考》。香港，香港中華書局出版 。
Tiger Balm Garden, 1940s.
Bird’s eye view map, from Judith Brandel, Tiger Balm Gardens: a Chinese Billionaire’s Fantasy Environments, Hong Kong, Aw Boon Foundation, 1998, p.105.
Haw Par Mansion corner tower (Credit: Ayman Tsui)
八仙過海 painting on the Main Hall East Flying eave.
Inter-Generational Orchestra Performance.
Recording of Italian Opera “RITA” by Donizetti inthe Main Hall
(Berton Chang, courtesy of Let Me Plan it Co.)
Haw Par Mansion front elevation, Haw Par Music.