Haw Par Mansion: A look at the building's colourful history and plans for restoration

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The Haw Par Mansion is a vital piece of Hong Kong’s architectural heritage. Amanda Sheppard examines its colourful history and explores how the building is being restored for the public

Haw Par Mansion

The year is 1935. The Hoover Dam reaches completion, straddling the Colorado River. Persia is renamed Iran. In Germany, Adolf Hitler establishes the Luftwaffe in defiance of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and later enacts the Nuremberg laws, stripping German Jews of their citizenship. Burma continues to be afflicted by seemingly endless revolt as a result of the country’s continued subsumption within British India. This is the tale of two Chinese-Burmese brothers, Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par, who fled the upheaval of their home country and were residing between Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong. The brothers made their fortune manufacturing Tiger Balm ointment– the famed cure-all heat rub – based upon a recipe formulated by their father, a renowned Hakka herbalist.

Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Pa
Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par

The Aw family influence throughout Southeast Asia remains palpable. Haw Par Mansions were erected in Singapore, in China’s Fujian province (location of the family’s ancestral home) and in 1935, the brothers began construction of their Hong Kong mansion, which was to be completed one year later. Its adjoining (and aptly named) Tiger Balm Gardens evokes strong memories and nostalgic sentiments for many a Hongkonger. The sprawling estate covers more than 2,000sq m in Tai Hang (southeast of Causeway Bay), and the two-storey mansion formerly boasted intricate, hand carved furnishings and antiques, many of which remain today. The first floor was primarily for entertaining purposes, with the second floor serving as living quarters for the family. This included a walk-in safe and a bathroom larger than some entire apartments in the city.

The gardens, which were open to the public until the last plot of land was sold in 2000, contained statues and monuments symbolising Chinese mythology as well as Buddhist and Daoist philosophies. Perhaps the most famed of these was the Ten Courts of Hell – the Chinese equivalent of Dante’s nine circles. The stuff of children’s nightmares, the feared and revered statues depicted the punishments enacted upon those destined for eternal damnation.

Ten Courts of Hell
Ten Courts of Hell

Here in the present, where the enchanting gardens once took prominence, there now resides a mammoth residential complex – The Legend – four high-rise buildings built by Cheung Kong Holdings nearly a decade ago, covering the mansion’s former driveway and main entrance. The house itself remains relatively untouched by the elements – the intricate ceiling tiles and grandiose staircase having stood the test of time, as have the building’s unique handcrafted Burmese artworks. But will this remain the case? Will what remains of the past, give way to the future?

Burmese carvings in Tiger Balm Mansion
Burmese carvings in Tiger Balm Mansion

With Haw Par Mansion’s merit recognised by the public and the government alike – the building was Grade I listed in 2009 – what is to become of the few remaining testaments to times gone by? If all goes according to plan, the building will be given a new lease of life and open as a music school in 2017, under the care of the Haw Par Music Foundation. At the helm of the foundation is Roger Wu, an architect with experience in the preservation and restoration of historical buildings. Wu’s most high profile such assignment has been with the Central Police Station Revitalisation  Project. He tells us this is not the first attempt to revitalise Haw Par Mansion. “People were interested in turning it into a wine cellar or a restaurant. But [the government] wanted to keep the house open to the public, so those two attempts came to nothing.”

haw par mansion in its heyday
Haw Par Mansion c.1952

Conservationist Haider Kikabhoy of Walk in Hong Kong explains that the preservation of a historical site should consider not only its architectural merit, but also its role in socio-political heritage. The mansion itself was private property, remembered perhaps only by its residents and guests, while memories of the Tiger Balm Gardens are held in the collective mind of a generation. In looking to preserve the social, historical and cultural heritage of a territory, a private estate may not seem an obvious choice. But Haw Par Mansion is not without obvious merit. 

Kikabhoy describes the building as ‘a rare piece of opulent period architecture in the Chinese eclectic style’. For Kikabhoy, the mansion joins the ranks of Nam Koo Terrace and King Yin Lei, unique buildings with a ‘fusion of styles […] which signalled the rise of a new group of rich Chinese businessmen in Hong Kong. From their stately homes, one can begin to appreciate the rising socio-economic status of these figures and the society that they lived in before the outbreak of the Second World War.’ It allows for a unique insight into a time when Hong Kong was changing, and rapidly.

The Antiquities and Monuments Office (AMO) published a report assessing the revitalisation of Haw Par Mansion. As an architectural relic of cultural merit, they deem the mansion worthy of preservation. The AMO found it to hold a ‘high level of authenticity’ with little structural change since its construction in 1935, and drew the conclusion that Haw Par Mansion now represents ‘the only physical trace of the garden which was significant in the social context of Hong Kong from the 1930s-1990s’

Burmese  carvings in Tiger Balm Mansion; the  building’s rooftop and pagoda
The building's rooftop and pagoda

This is not the first residence of architectural merit to be returned to the public in a city that has long been criticised for its dismissal of the past. After much controversy, King Yin Lei, a mansion from the same era, will open to the public on August 22 and 23. Kikabhoy reminds us of the importance of this growing trend. “A city without a physical continuity with its past, or a clear and deep architectural heritage, is boring, and sad.” He continues, “These buildings belonged to a very particular period in Hong Kong history and they’re distinctive, beautiful buildings in their own right. They were landmarks once upon a time, before they got dwarfed or submerged by high rises.”

Around the time that Haw Par Mansion received its heritage status, Wu tells us, “The government began an initiative called the Revitalising Historic Buildings Through Partnership Scheme […] letting buildings under government ownership under the use of community benefit.” With the backing of Sally Aw, the mansion’s previous owner, the foundation submitted a proposal to transform the site into a music school – the Haw Par Music Farm – one which focuses on teaching students Western and Chinese music. Wu tells us that this is, in part, mirroring the building’s hybrid identity, blending Western and Chinese architectural elements. In the interests of returning the building to the public, the gardens and foyer will remain open to the public, and guided tours will be run six days a week, with Sally Aw personally training the tour guides. The mansion is expected to draw up to 75,000 annual visitors.

The building will be restored to reflect its former glory, with the foundation in charge intending to maintain the original furnishings left behind, right down to the Moutrie piano found in the entertainment room – a brand that was incredibly popular in the 1950s, originating in Nanjing. The mansion boasts an impressive entertainment room with a vaulted ceiling. On completion, the school will include 15 rooms for teaching, administration and performance. The foundation aims to have 600 students enrolled when the school opens, and although the curriculum is yet to be finalised, will teach music theory, performance and composition. Wu tells us, “The idea, particularly in Chinese musicianship, is that you aren’t a musician, but an artist. For us it’s not just music. It’s a way of introducing kids to art and culture.”

Roger Wu
Roger Wu

Wu tells us that the mansion is to be leased from the government for ‘peppercorn rent’, not only easing the financial burden placed on the charity, but also allowing them to give back to their students. He explains, “We can afford to offer a scholarship or bursary to a quarter of the children at the school.” Prior to the school’s opening, the foundation has run summer programmes, collaborating with professional orchestras. The foundation has entered into a strategic partnership with the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, and this year the programme will culminate in a concert to be held at Diocesan Boys’ School, in a concert entitled The Russian Masters, named after the summer orchestra camp.

Recently, the foundation received the news that the funding for the programme would be delayed. But this has done nothing to impede the foundation’s intent. “It’s really just a case of them getting through the backlog [of bureaucracy] that’s accumulated as a result of what’s been going on last year and earlier this year,” says Wu. “We’re still carrying on. We’re still moving forward. The timing is just a little out of kilter.”

At a time when conservation is perhaps not atop the list of priorities for the government, Wu still approaches the project with optimism. “The good thing is that there is a lot of debate and a lot of interest in this area. But it’s not yet mature enough – we are still defining where we stand.” The beacon of light, for him, is the future generation’s interest in preservation. “This is their home,” says Wu. “If you take away all those 100-storey, faceless commercial buildings, what’s left? How do you define this place?”  

For more information, visit hawparmusic.org.

The history of Haw Par Mansion

1935
Haw Par Mansion is constructed at 15A Tai Hang Road

1937
Tiger Balm Gardens opens to the public

1985 
The gardens are renamed the Haw Par Villa Amusement Park

2001
Haw Par Mansion is left vacant by the Aw family

2004
What remains of the Tiger Balm Gardens is demolished, and The Legend, a high-rise residential complex, is erected in its place

2009
Haw Par Mansion receives the status of a Grade I listed building

2017
The building’s newest tenant, the Haw Par Music Farm, is scheduled to open


 

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