In the beginning there was no road, so Tai O faced the sea. Then the tarmac arrived in the 1970s, snaking through Lantau—the largest island in the archipelago of Hong Kong—to connect, and forever change, the remote fishing village on its far western fringe. Gradually the center of Tai O moved away from the old pier, by which everyone used to come and go, and started spreading towards the road. The grand old buildings in formerly prime seafront locations were left out of the way.
The old Tai O Police Station, built in 1902 on a strategic headland overlooking the pier and South China Sea, became one such lonely structure. For nearly a century it housed the marine police that served as Hong Kong’s first line of defense in waters once frequented by pirates and then latterly illegal immigrants. After the police moved out for good in 2002, it sat empty. But after nearly four years of renovations, the site—listed as a Grade II historic building by the city’s Antiquities Advisory Board—reopened in March as the Tai O Heritage Hotel, a boutique property run by a non-profit heritage group.
The Hong Kong Heritage Conservation Foundation was set up in 2008 by the family of the late Singaporean real estate tycoon Ng Teng Fong, who had substantial interests in Hong Kong. It has brought the old police station back to life in meticulous detail. Restoring the police station—constructed in a colonial style with some Chinese touches like its tiled roof—was a battle between preserving its history and maximizing its new potential, says Winnie W.Y. Yeung, the foundation’s assistant manager. “We like to call it a live museum,” she says.
A former prisoners’ cell has become a souvenir shop, and there’s a rooftop restaurant as well as space for local art exhibitions. The old briefing room, canteen and superintendent’s office have each become one of the hotel’s nine suites, which start from a reasonable $180. Every room has an original fireplace and a plaque describing its former use; the names (Sea Tiger, General’s Rock, Eagle’s Point) are inspired by the history of Tai O and the marine police. Some of the building’s scars have been preserved too: bullet holes mark the heavy metal shutters over a rear window where a shootout took place between officers and one of their disgruntled former colleagues, who showed up brandishing a gun after he was sacked. He was shot dead.
Local holidaymakers, retired policemen and their families, and conservation enthusiasts form the hotel’s core clientele, but there’s no reason why long-haul travelers wouldn’t relish a night or two here as part of their Hong Kong experience. The chief attraction is Tai O itself. It was settled predominantly by the Tanka, a boat people from neighboring Guangdong province in China, who fished the surrounding waters and harvested salt. The Tanka traditionally lived on sailing junks and sampans, but upon settling in Tai O built stilt-houses along the local creeks and tidal flats.
The town remains full of these strange-looking structures, and even though many are decrepit they preserve within them the remnants of an old way of life. Staylong enough in Tai O and you’ll likely hear stories of bygone fishing days, when young men and women would sing traditional “saltwater” love songs to each other from their respective boats. (The town still holds waterborne marriages; on the day TIME visited a bride was being led to her groom aboard an elaborately decorated junk, amid music, flags and flowers.)
“It’s a very different way of living,” says Yeung, who has spent a good portion of the last few years living in Tai O as part of the restoration team. The biggest contrast with downtown Hong Kong is, of course, the pace of life and the lack of development. Until as recently as the late 1990s, there wasn’t even a bridge crossing the main creek of this seafaring settlement. Instead, locals used a rope-drawn punt to ferry goods and people back and forth.
“Fishermen are simple people,” says Yeung, “and even though many don’t fish anymore, they lead orderly lives. [They’re] up at 5.30, out of the dim sum restaurant by 7; they have dinner at 5.30, then play mahjong. The place is shut down by 10.”
It’s a way of life that’s under threat, however. Tai O’s population peaked in the 1970s, at around 30,000 residents, but has dwindled to very low levels in recent years. It currently stands at just 2,000; more than half are aged over 65, prompting concern for Tai O’s long-term future, but also a great deal of interest in the heritage that it has managed to maintain.
Local resident Ping Ki, 48, was born in the town and left to work elsewhere in Hong Kong for many years, before returning recently. Although he lacks much enthusiasm for the new boutique hotel, he appreciates that the restored building adds another layer of history to his home—and may help bring more visitors to learn about it. “If you want to understand a Chinese culture better,’ he says, “this is the place.”