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Hidden Hong Kong: A history of 1881 Heritage

By Celia Lee 11 January 2024

Header image courtesy of @house1881hk (via Instagram)

Hong Kong has no shortage of historical buildings—on Hong Kong Island, in Kowloon, or even in the New Territories—that shed light on the city’s vibrant past. 1881 Heritage, located just opposite the Hong Kong Cultural Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui, is a declared monument and one of the oldest surviving government buildings in Hong Kong. Although it has now been transformed into a bustling shopping paradise for seekers of luxury goods and a destination for upscale dining, a careful look at its infrastructure reveals the diverse and colourful stories that are hidden in plain sight. Join us as we delve into the history of 1881 Heritage, the former Marine Police Headquarters that has stood the test of time, war, and globalisation since—you guessed it—the year 1881.

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Portion of a Qing scroll on display at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum. Photo: triotriotrio (via Wikimedia Commons)

Policing the waters

In the past, Hong Kong was, on occasion, dubbed the “Island of Thieves,” and was a haven for pirates up until the nineteenth century. Playing host to notorious marauders such as Cheung Po Tsai and Cheng Yat Sou, it is no surprise that piracy was an issue that plagued indigenous inhabitants and colonial settlers. To combat these marine disturbances, in 1842, the colonial government established the Water Police to patrol Hong Kong Island’s coasts. The original unit, led by harbourmaster lieutenant William Pedder, consisted of a humble platoon of 40 men.

Photo: “Min Bay: Gunboat operations out of Hong Kong against pirates in 1864–1866” (1864) by Henry Craven St John (via Wikimedia Commons)

The first ever Water Police station was, in fact, a decommissioned opium hulk ship named John Adams. Although the aged hulk was in bad shape as a cargo vessel, the colonial government saw it fit for use as a floating police station and commissioned it from an American trader in 1868. The John Adams served 15 years as the headquarters of the Water Police, moored along the coast of Hong Kong Island where the Central MTR station now stands, until the vessel caught fire in February 1884.

The number of naval police officers gradually grew after Kowloon was acquired as part of the colony in 1860. Multiple vessels were brought into service throughout the operation years, from gunboats and pinnaces to traditional junk boats. Due to the introduction of steam-powered vessels, however, many constables were transferred to posts on land. With the John Adams in ashes, and to accommodate the influx of seafaring officers on land, the colonial government commissioned for a new station to be built on land in 1881, and the Water Police Headquarters in Tsim Sha Tsui opened in September 1884.

Photo: @house1881hk (via Instagram)

Setting up shop

The Water Police Headquarters was built on the abandoned Kowloon West I Battery in Tsim Sha Tsui. Up until the land reclamation project that led to the creation of Salisbury Road in 1887, the station enjoyed a clear view of Victoria Harbour from its vantage point on a grassy hill, which led down to a dedicated slip for docking police vessels.

An emblem of colonial architecture, the Water Police Headquarters was an elegant white building with verandas and balconies, decorated with Roman arches and Greco-Victorian columns. The original two-storey complex consisted of a main building, a stable block, and a signal tower, all circling a courtyard in the middle.

The main building served as married quarters for constables, with the top floor reserved as residence for the superintendent, and a small jail to hold captured seafarers. Carrier pigeon coops were mounted on the courtyard-facing exterior of the building, relics that have been preserved in 1881 Heritage till this day.

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Marine Police Headquarters, Tsim Sha Tsui, showing the signal tower with the time ball. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The signal tower is a two-storey structure located on the southwest corner of the complex. On the domed roof is a time ball mounted on a pole, which was raised and dropped manually each day to signal the passing of time, allowing seafarers to set their chronometers. Given the significance of the time ball for maritime travellers, the tower was also known as Round House or Time Ball Tower. A typhoon mast was later mounted next to it.

The Water Police Headquarters was colloquially referred to as T-Lands Police Station (“T” as in Tsim Sha Tsui, Lands as in a “a marine station located on land”), as per the brevity code used in maritime communication.

Photo: @house1881hk (via Instagram)

Hidden histories

During the Japanese Occupation in World War II, the Water Police Headquarters was used as a base by the Japanese Navy. A network of tunnels connecting air-raid shelters and magazines for storing ammunition were constructed under the lawn at the front of the building by Japanese soldiers. These tunnels were promptly blocked off from public access after the war, and since the lawn was returfed, there is virtually no trace of them today.

However, one piece of history is preserved at the heritage site. While strolling around the picturesque complex, you might have come across a wooden door frame with the phrase “Indian Constables” engraved at the top. British officers and Indian constables made up the majority of the Hong Kong Police Force when it was first established in the 1840s, and they had separate quarters within the station. Chinese officers indigenous to Hong Kong and mainland China were not recruited until later in the decade. Their numbers would remain low until after World War II, in comparison to British, European, and Indian officers in the force.

Aerial picture of Tsim Sha Tsui in the early 1930s. The Former Marine Police Headquarters are located to the left of the image. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Relocation and decline

The Marine Police Headquarters saw its share of relocations and renovations. It all began in 1907, when the time ball was moved to Signal Hill, a cape on the other side of Tsim Sha Tsui also known as Blackhead Point in English, and indigenously as Tai Pau Mai (大包米; daai6 baau1 mai5; “large bag of rice”). The time ball continued to serve seafarers until 1933, when chronometers became obsolete with the introduction of electronic navigation systems.

During the 1920s, the complex underwent several major renovations, with a floor added to the main building and a block to the complex to accommodate for the growing number of Water Police officers. While these structural additions spelt hope for the complex’s continued use, several developments in the surrounding areas limited its expansion.

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Photo: Gindrinkersline (via Wikimedia Commons)

After World War II, the Hong Kong Police Force saw a complete reorganisation of its land and water divisions. The Water Police was renamed the Marine Police, and a dedicated criminal investigation department was set up to deal with an increased volume of maritime felonies. The reorganisation also expanded the Marine Police’s area of jurisdiction to cover the Sai Kung Peninsula and outlying islands.

In the 1970s, the eastern slope of the headquarters was levelled to construct Kowloon Park Drive, while its dedicated slip was relocated to the Yau Ma Tei Typhoon Shelter to make way for the Kowloon Railway Station, the former southern terminus of the Kowloon-Canton railway. As the Marine Police outgrew the complex in the coming decades, the Marine Police Headquarters relocated to its present-day Sai Wan Ho location in November 1996. The former site in Tsim Sha Tsui ceased operation the same year.

Revival and conservation

After seven years of disuse, the government commissioned the restoration and revitalisation of the former Marine Police Headquarters in 2003. Hoping to preserve and maintain the original buildings in the complex, the project also aimed to incorporate the heritage site into the fabric of urban life by turning it into a commercial destination. With the preliminary vision of a modernised monument in mind, a team of experts were employed to give the headquarters a new life.

The project took over six years to complete, and the brand new 1881 Heritage was opened in 2009. The heritage site was expanded to include the Old Kowloon Fire Station and the accompanying accommodation block, while three additional levels were built into the hill on which the complex originally stood. Taking inspiration from the Greco-Victorian architecture style, the new levels sported façades with semi-circular arches and paired columns. They house a series of luxury retail outlets, while a giant nautical chart of Hong Kong covers the newly constructed ground floor piazza, a spacious and picturesque walkway that often doubles as an event space for festive displays.

The main building was renovated into a boutique hotel and renamed Hullett House, honouring the nineteenth-century explorer and botanist Richmond William Hullett, who spent his seafaring days around South Asian islands. The original holding cells were preserved, and one was converted into a chic bar for hotel guests and visitors. The main building was once again renamed in 2019 to House 1881.

The original wooden doors of the stable block were preserved, although the interior of the block is no longer in use, nor is it open to the public. The time ball tower has been fully restored, with a new time ball added to replace the relocated apparatus. Visitors will also find a replica of a three-pounder Hotchkiss quick-firing gun on the lawn, representative of the cannon that used to be mounted onsite. Finally, the original bomb shelter below the site was preserved as an underground walkway that leads to the heritage hall, which serves as an art exhibition space today.

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Photo: Daniel Lee (via Flickr)

Criticism

While the revitalisation project of 1881 Heritage is successful in restoring and maintaining the historical buildings on site, the project has been criticised for its predominantly commercial role. Apart from guided heritage tours and a few preserved features, there is virtually no trace of the heritage or history of the former Marine Police Headquarters. In 1986, a study showed that at least 39 non-native plant species were found within the headquarters’ land, many of which were believed to be planted by visiting sea captains throughout the years. With the development of 1881 Heritage, many trees, shrubs, and plants were uprooted to accommodate for the new site.

1881 Heritage, 2A Canton Road, Tsim Sha Tsui

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Celia Lee

Staff writer

Born and raised in Hong Kong and educated in the UK, Celia is passionate about culture, food, and different happenings in the city. When she’s not busy writing, you can find her scouting for new and trendy restaurants, getting lost in a bookstore, or baking up a storm at home.

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