In Hong Kong, History at a New Hotel

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HONG KONG -- Hong Kong is a city in constant flux, reinventing itself virtually every day. New buildings seem to appear overnight, shops are suddenly transformed, and everyone is always on the go.

But on Lantau Island, within sight of the gambling enclave of Macau on a clear day, there is a town that is not much changed from the Hong Kong of 150 years ago.

Tai O is a classic Chinese stilt village. Hawkers sell shrimp paste, dried scallops and duck eggs at the side of the road. There are no cars. And it is not uncommon to see women wearing the traditional Hakka headgear, a wide-brimmed straw hat with a veil of sorts to keep the sometimes-fierce sun at bay.

The Tai O Heritage Hotel, a renovated century-old police station on the very western edge of this westernmost point in Hong Kong, is an unusual blend of the city's history and its preoccupation with commerce.

The way that Hong Kongers view development has changed sharply in recent years. Residents once virtually worshipped tycoons like Li Ka-shing, the richest person in Asia, who has been called "Superman" for his business prowess. Now they march through the streets to protest the widening wealth gap; the cost of housing that is, by some accounts, the most expensive in the world; and the unseemly interaction of government and business.

Conservation efforts have not been particularly strong in Hong Kong. Property owners would rather tear down old structures and build more expensive residential or office property on the same site. Some buildings from this former British colony's past have been preserved -- like Flagstaff House, the former home of the commander of the British forces; the Central police station; and Western Market, a Victorian-era covered market -- but the government traditionally has auctioned off historic buildings, letting the highest bidders recast the structures as they wished.

Then came the renovation of the former marine police headquarters in Tsim Sha Tsui, a spot right in the heart of tourist territory in Kowloon, near the Star Ferry Terminal, the Peninsula hotel and Hong Kong's art and space museums.

In 2009, Cheung Kong, a company that Mr. Li named for the Yangtze River, finished turning the sprawling building into a 10-suite hotel with restaurants and luxury shops at its base. The criticism was fierce -- and the government decided that future sales of protected buildings would be open only to nonprofit organizations.

So when the Tai O Police Station came up for sale, Daryl Ng, a grandson of the founder of the Hong Kong-Singapore development company Sino Land, established the Hong Kong Heritage Conservation Foundation to transform it into a boutique hotel that still honored the building's history. The nonprofit foundation in 2009 won the bidding for the station, which had been abandoned since it was closed in 2002. The hotel opened at the end of February this year.

Mr. Ng said that he was inspired by trips to London and New York, where he would conduct business during the week and then spend a day or two in the countryside. He realized that nothing like that existed in Hong Kong -- executives jet in to spend a few days in the city's skyscrapers and never see the beauty of the mountains and the outlying islands.

The station was built in 1902 and has a classic East-meets-West design: a Chinese tiled roof, Victorian granite steps and French windows.

Local residents say that its position at the very edge of Lantau Island means that it bears the full brunt of storms when a typhoon roars through. Metal shutters were installed on every window, not only to keep out the weather but also as a defensive measure. (One shutter at the building's rear has nine bullet holes: A police officer who had been fired came back to the station and shot and killed his former sergeant.)

Renovations, which began in 2010, were done so that the nine guest rooms and facilities could be dismantled and removed without damaging the building. (Knock on the walls and you will hear a hollow sound.) Parts of the original structure still can be seen, like the two holding cells alongside the reception desk.

Finishes, like the retro-style bathroom taps, were chosen to match the historic atmosphere, as were the photographs of Tai O that hang on the walls.

As part of the foundation's effort, half of the hotel staff of 34 are Lantau residents. Room rates were kept to 1,580 Hong Kong dollars, or $204 -- roughly similar to midrange rates in other city hotels. And there has been a pledge that if the hotel generates a profit, it will be reinvested in the Tai O community.

For the moment, though, the owners of the stores down the sole route to the hotel benefit by selling a Coke to the occasional stranger who stops by. Visitors also are encouraged to take a boat trip to see the sunset, or to try to find the increasingly elusive pink dolphins that live in the mouth of the Pearl River.

The hotel restaurant uses local produce whenever possible, staff members say. There is even a mountain begonia drink made with blossoms from a nearby hill. And the food is priced to attract not only overseas tourists but also Hong Kongers. A four-course set dinner featuring smoked duck breast with mango salsa costs 250 dollars.

"The Hong Kong country parks and coastline are stunning," Mr. Ng said. "I am hoping that this heritage hotel project achieves three aspects: to allow visitors to experience the delights and charms of a local Hong Kong village, to appreciate the heritage and history of Hong Kong, as well as eco-tourism."

The hotel has not advertised, but its management says it has an occupancy rate of 90 percent. Some Hong Kong residents say they have been told that the waiting list for a room is months long.

But the building is open to the public from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, and there is plenty of outdoor seating for visitors.

GETTING THERE

Buses run regularly to Tai O from Tung Chung Station on the MTR, the Hong Kong subway system. There are also buses from Mui Wo, a town in eastern Lantau Island that has direct ferry connections to the Central district on Hong Kong Island.

The light blue taxis that serve Lantau may be found at Hong Kong International Airport, Hong Kong Disneyland, Tung Chung or other parts of the island. But there are only a few in service, and waits on weekends can be lengthy. Cabs may be ordered at +852-2984-1328 or +852-2984-1368.

It is also possible to hike to Tai O from Tung Chung, but it is a challenging walk that takes about four hours.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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