August 2000


Museum of Coastal Defence
Fortified heritage

About seven years ago the Architectural Services Department (ArchSD) was approached by two Urban Councillors about the development of a musuem for some Hong Kong Voluntary Defence Corp (VDC) artefacts. The VDC was to be disbanded in 1995, ahead of the handover in 1997. Would the ArchSD investigate how the artefacts could best be stored and where?

An old barracks at Lei Yue Mun had been identified as a possible site and, in response to the request, ArchSD commissioned Dr Solomon Bard, the first head of the Antiquities & Monuments Office, to prepare a guide for storing the artefacts.
        Then an unexpected discovery transformed what was originally a humble idea into something grander and more meaningful.
While inspecting the elevated site near Heng Fa Chuen, the department found a 19th century redoubt containing a network of underground chambers. Built by the British in 1887 to defend its interests against the hawkish French and Russians, it was also the site of a fierce World War II battle between the British, Canadian and Indian soldiers entrusted with the task of defending Hong Kong and 20,000 Japanese soldiers who crossed the Gin Drinker's Line into the territory.
        The site had been used as a holiday camp since it was handed over to the Urban Council in 1987 but was otherwise closed to the public. The Civil Aviation Department and Hong Kong Observatory also had equipment set up there to collect data on aircraft movements and the weather. Being under the flight path of the old airport, the site was also subject to civil aviation height restrictions. Despite these constraints on development, the potential of the site, with its history as well as spectacular seaview and greenery, was simply too great to be ignored.
        "We wondered whether putting the artefacts on display there would attract visitors. The redoubt itself and its location were very attractive, so we submitted a proposal to the Urban Council for developing a museum," recalled ArchSD architect Kenneth Tam.
        The Urban Council liked the idea, but had reservations about the lack of utilities and space for the modern facility it wanted.
        This was not the only challenge faced by the architect.
        Designed as a defence position overlooking the narrow channel and shielded by thick vegetation, the redoubt was never meant to be easily accessible to others. However, if it was to be turned into a museum, the architect had to find a way to improve access without destroying the original character of the site with its fine example of Victorian fortification. Then there was the need to bring water and electricity there to make the museum concept feasible and a demand by the Fire Services Department for the provision of emergency road access.
        Seeking guidance from similar projects, a team comprising Mr Tam, the two Urban Councillors, the museum curator and an antiquity manager went to North America to study other defence museums. They visited the Queen Beatrice Museum in Calgary, the Citadel in Halifax, the West Point Military Academy and the War Museum in Ottawa. It was at Halifax that they saw a restored redoubt where the British and French had battled for control of North America in the 19th century. At the War Museum in Ottawa, they walked into a room showing the Battle of Hong Kong.
        To think a war museum in Canada should have a record of such an important part of Hong Kong's history while Hong Kong itself had none!
        That strengthened the visitors' resolve to develop the Museum of Coastal Defence, to preserve a piece of Hong Kong history for posterity. With the support of the Antiquities Advisory Board, the department began to develop its ideas in greater detail.
        Apart from a large courtyard and various tunnels and passages, the 1,600 sq m redoubt has more than ten underground casemates which were originally used as the soldiers' quarters, kitchen and ammunition store. It was subjected to ten days of heavy bombardment by the Japanese during the war, an episode in its history to which the many bullet holes can testify. However, although it was damaged, the redoubt was still structurally sound, so a decision was taken to preserve it and convert it into a museum.

Tension structure
To develop a permanent, self-contained museum with air-conditioning and state-of-the-art temperature control, the architect decided to enclose the area with a tension structure. According to Mr Tam, the decision was influenced by two factors.
        "We wanted a material which would allow the site to be restored to its original condition. A tension structure would allow for preservation of the artefacts in an optimum environment with minimum interference with the site. Tents also invoke military associations," he explained.
        The tension structure is supported by 100 mini piles driven to a depth of 14 m at carefully chosen spots around the historical site. To ensure that it would be strong enough to withstand typhoons, a mock-up was taken through wind tunnel tests in Germany before a permit was issued for its erection. According to Mr Tam, since the Chek Lap Kok airport project was not yet confirmed at the time the museum was being designed, a lower tension structure was developed to ensure it complied with civil aviation height restrictions.
        The structure, which was computer-designed by a specialist, has a lifespan of 25 years. Recent experiments have indicated that it will remain robust up to the end of its designed life.
        According to Mr Tam, the structure will provide a unique experience for visitors as it will actually shift in the wind. However, this fact also proves a design challenge as it is not intended to be a free-moving structure, but is fixed to glass walls to form a fully enclosed environment.
        The underground casemates, which used to accommodate approximately 100 soldiers and other facilities, have been converted into exhibition rooms, offices and an audio-visual theatre offering information on Hong Kong's coastal defence over the last 600 years.

Historical ammunition
Apart from the redoubt, the 6,200 sq m site also includes other military installations of great interest. These include the emplacements of two disppearing guns, a torpedo station, a central battery, an underground magazine and a caponier which guards the ditch in the southeast corner of the barracks. These have all been restored and organised into an historical trail which also takes in the ruin of the blacksmith's house, the remains of which nature has claimed as its own, with a tree flourishing within and above the original brick chimney.
        Although the original guns in the emplacements have been replaced by replicas, visitors can still see the mechanical device once used to raise the guns to the surface for firing before being retracted to foil enemy detection.
        Another feature is a torpedo station which was built inside an original cave. This is no ordinary torpedo station. The torpedoes once fired across the narrow channel, invented by the Australian, Joseph Brennan, could be remotely guided and winched back after being fired, for the next attack on hostile shipping. This is one of just two Brennan torpedo stations in the world. The other example is in Australia, and there is a model in the UK.
        There is a battery where bullet holes in the crumbling brick wall, at the height of an average person's head, suggested it might have been used for executions in the past. The brick wall has been repaired using bricks from the demolished mental hospital in Sai Ying Pun, another 19th century structure, and the battery is now used to exhibit a range of period cannons.
        Among all these historical features, there was one which could not be displayed - unexploded ordnance. To make the site safe, Mr Tam said a team of retired Gurkhas was hired to comb through the soil by hand, often going as far as 4 m down, to uncover old bombs. Most of the bombs discovered were outgoing shells the British army didn't use, which posed relatively less risk; and not incoming shells that failed to go off. Nevertheless, the Gurkhas did discover 26 bombs which required controlled explosions.

New structures
In order to improve the accessibility and attractiveness of the museum, new structures and facilities were added. The most important of these is a lift tower which was built at the entry point to the park which provides access via the Island Eastern Corridor and is served by a small car park providing dropoff for coaches and shuttle buses.
        The lift tower contains two lifts, a display room, a reception and toilets. A model of the museum has been sunk into the floor of the entrance to help with visitor orientation. The tower stands like a monolith in the midst of the green strip lining the Shau Kei Wan shore. It is clad in plain concrete, intended to reflect the simplicity of a military installation, and features a deliberately compact design which minimised the need to remove vegetation from site.
        In addition to visitor transport, the lift tower is also used to channel cables and pipelines to the redoubt, thus minimising excavation work.
        The lift tower leads to a footbridge which replaces the original retractable bridge leading to the redoubt. Used for carrying utilities to site, the footbridge is fitted with glass parapets designed to open up the view for visitors.
        Near the museum end of the footbridge, a viewing platform has been created to take advantage of the panoramic view. Another new structure is a new cafe block which has been constructed in an open courtyard to the east of the site, to provide refreshments to visitors.
        The HK$273 million project, which was constructed by Leighton Asia, is believed to be one of the largest fort restoration projects in the world.

-- Building Journal