Monday, May 09, 2005

Victoria Prison/Central Police Station as Museum of Justice

More on the movie theme - Over the weekend, I had the chance to watch a film from 1973. It was Papillon, starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffmann, and about two men sentenced for the rest of their useful lives to the godforsaken, malaria-ridden prison of French Guiana known by the area's most evocative name - Devil's Island. It is based on a true tale by Henri Charriere, about his terrible experiences there, and his eventual escape that finally forced France to acknowledge the horror they had created.

The movie itself actually only scratched the surface of the evils committed on the prisoners there and also on escaped slaves over a one-hundred year period. Any google search on "Devil's Island" will yield you harrowing tales of life in the fields of death, of failed escapes resulting in being eaten by piranhas or killed by bounty hunters on the way to Paramaibo.

What is interesting about movies like these, as great as it was, is the equally great morbid fascination with tales of suffering of our fellow men and women. Particularly with prisons, and with people in captivity do to survive and escape. There is a penchant for the macabre in all of us - hence our interest in places like Devil's Island, Alcatraz, the Tower of London, the Conciergerie, Lushun in Port Arthur (where the Japanese kept Chinese and Korean prisoners) Robben Island (where Mandela was jailed), and many others. What is clear is that there is an appetite for prisons.

Which makes it incredibly baffling why the Hong Kong government does not see that the site of the former Central Police Station and the soon-to-be-closed Victoria Prison would make an excellent tourist attraction. It would make a fascinating Museum of Justice, given the unequal treatment under the law of Europeans and Chinese in the early colony of Hong Kong, and the subsequent evolution of the justice system to address issues of fairness, opium and drug addiction and corruption. But the site would not have to be just another Museum. Given that there is still a working prison in situ, like all the other prisons that are now tourist attractions, the heritage experience could include 'simulated imprisonment' and night-time visits that are incredibly popular with both cultural tourists and more 'Disney-experience' visitors alike. And really, as much of the site as possible should be preserved, given that the fact that the Central Magistracy, Victoria Prison and the Central Police Station are all in one area harkens back to the early colony (1840s-1850) when all of those jobs - enforcer, magistrate, correctional officer - were all done by one man (the infamous Caine, who I shall blog about another time). And finally - and perhaps most importantly in Hong Kong - economically, the attraction could be hugely economically viable, as proven by the success of all of the prison attractions I mentioned earlier. Who wouldn't want to visit a site where macabre stories abound and that once housed political prisoners like Ho Chi Minh?

We at Mobile Adventures submitted a proposal to the Tourism Commission about this idea, they demurred and said it was up to the developers that were proposing solutions - it was not their responsibility. We have made our proposal available online - please judge for yourself, and also we'd love your feedback!

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