Hong Kong's heritage: Béthanie

Posted on March 15, 2013 by Toothpicker There have been 0 comments



When I used to live in Hong Kong many years ago, I never bothered to explore the city ( partly because I was working most of the time), but in recent years, I am more determined to look for unusual sights that are off the beaten track. Recently I found out about Béthanie, a Grade II historic buildings in Pokfulam, now part of The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts and I decided to pay it a visit.

Although there are daily guided tours, it was not easy to find an available slot because the venue is constantly being hired for different purposes, so it is best to call and check beforehand.




Béthanie was originally built in 1875 as a sanatorium by the Paris Foreign Missions Society ( Missions Étrangères de Paris). It was almost demolished in the 1970s, but was eventually saved and declared a Grade II listed building in 1981. An 80 million HKD restoration project took place between 2003-6, and turned the building and the adjacent historic Dairy Farm cowsheds into the HKAPA School of Film and Television.



Former Dairy farm cowsheds, now an exhibition hall and a performance venue


The tour started at the cowsheds and we were then led into the main building to visit the beautiful neo-gothic style George C. Tso Memorial Chapel. We were told that many of the original furnishings have been removed when it was sold in 1974, so a full-scale scavenger hunt across Hong Kong had to be conducted by the project's director, Philip Soden and architect, Philip Liao. Eventually, the original chapel doors, main altar, reredos, communion rails, sacristy doors and nine of the seventeen original stained glass windows were found and restored. The remaining windows were replaced with hand made replicas of the originals. Now this chapel is regularly being used for weddings, weekly religious services and music concerts.




After the chapel we took the lift to the top floor to see the Sir Y.K. Pao Studio, a new addition to the building. The contemporary multi-purpose room has a high glass roof and enjoys spectacular views of the Peak and South China sea.




Our last stop was the BNP Paribas Museum of Béthanie in the basement, which was once used as a wine cellar and dry goods storage. The small but highly interesting museum contains many historical documents, photos and artifacts that not only trace the history of the sanatorium but also of Hong Kong.

At the end of the tour, we were free to walk around outside and enjoy the tranquil and beautiful setting. This place is so unique and far from the typical image of Hong Kong, all I could think of was how lucky are the students who get to use the facilities here!


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Secluded on a hill opposite Béthanie is another historical building, University Hall, a historical male students residence of the University of Hong Kong. The Tudor and Gothic style building was built in 1861 by Scottish businessman, Douglas Lapraik and it was known as Douglas Castle. The castle was then sold to the French mission ( who also owned Béthanie) and was turned into a monastery and renamed Nazareth. Finally in 1954, the castle became "university hall" and was declared a monument in 1995.

While I was walking on the grounds outside of the building, I almost forgot that I was in Hong Kong, if it weren't for the tropical plants and trees, I felt I could have been in the U.K. or somewhere in Europe, in fact, it reminded me a bit of Sintra, a town full of historical palaces outside of Lisbon.


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After visiting the two historical sites, I felt quite relieved that they were not demolished and turned into luxury apartments ( partly saved by the fact that Hong Kong Land determined the site of Béthanie was too difficult to develop in the 1970s). However, many historical buildings were already lost over the years. Although in recent years concerns over heritage building conservations are increasing and many have been saved as consequences, yet many have also suffered from commercialisation and have completely lost their original appeal. The best example is the former Marine Police Headquarters or "1881 heritage", which now operates as a "heritage" hotel with a Disneyland-like luxury shopping arcade. I came here once before and was horrified by the amount of tourists and the soullessness of this place. It really saddened me to see a magnificent and historical building being turned into a "themed" tourist attraction, if this is Hong Kong government's ideal case of historical conservation, then perhaps they need to rethink again.

Béthanie and University Hall prove that successful historical conservations can be achieved, but will the government be able to strike a balance between conservation and development for other upcoming projects? We shall wait and see.


This post was posted in Hong Kong, Architecture, Travel and was tagged with Hong Kong, Colonial architecture, heritage