(UChicago News)

The view from the tree house of knowledge

With the opening of a campus in Hong Kong, the University begins a new era of intellectual partnership.

When Ka Yee Lee was growing up, her mother taught at a girls’ school on Mount Davis, a peak on Hong Kong Island’s western edge. On trips to and from her mom’s workplace, she would pass a complex of buildings enclosed by a white barbed-wire-topped wall. “I never knew what was inside the site,” she recalls, “because the gates were always closed.”

On November 30, those gates opened for good at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for The Hong Kong Jockey Club University of Chicago Academic Complex | The University of Chicago Francis and Rose Yuen Campus in Hong Kong. The celebration continued with a gala dinner later that night, a December 1 academic conference, and a December 2 open house for alumni and the public.

What was once a military depot and a police detention center is now UChicago’s largest foothold in Asia. In a nice bit of full circularity, Lee, a professor in chemistry and vice provost for research, chairs the new campus’s faculty advisory board—making her responsible for shaping the future of a place she remembers so well from her past.

She’s gotten to witness the transformation of 168 Victoria Road up close. The process began in 2013, when the government of Hong Kong granted the land to UChicago for redevelopment. The next five years saw a whirlwind of architect selection, historic preservation planning, and construction. (A literal whirlwind, the deadly Typhoon Mangkhut, made landfall in Hong Kong less than three months before the campus’s grand opening but didn’t cause the buildings any damage. At the ribbon cutting, University trustee Francis Yuen, AB’75, commended the architect and builders for creating a structure that could survive “the toughest possible endurance test.”)

Today the campus boasts renovated historic buildings and a new 44,000-square-foot structure designed by the late Bing Thom. There’s a small museum devoted to the site’s history, the remnants of a British gun emplacement, and public walking paths. “It’s just breathtaking to see it,” says Lee.

As the new campus came to life, the University’s presence in Hong Kong began its own transformation. Chicago Booth’s Executive MBA Program in Asia relocated there from Singapore, and the College launched a new Study Abroad program focused on the history and legacy of colonization in the region. An economics-focused Study Abroad option for undergraduates will begin in 2020.

Those programs will anchor the new campus, along with the Hong Kong Jockey Club Programme on Social Innovation, supported by Chicago Booth’s Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation. The program provides scholarships and professional development opportunities for Hong Kong nonprofit leaders.

“This is the beginning of a new era of collaboration and intellectual partnership between the University of Chicago, the people of Hong Kong, and China more broadly,” University president Robert J. Zimmer said at the ribbon cutting. Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, also spoke at the event and echoed that sentiment, predicting that the new campus “will surely be a win-win” for the University and Hong Kong. “This, I think, will bring many benefits to the city as a leading higher education hub,” agreed Anthony Chow, chairman of the Hong Kong Jockey Club.

For Eddie Lau, AB’02, the president of the Alumni Club of Hong Kong, the start of this new era means many things: He’s excited to take a financial mathematics course and to host events and guests at the new campus (he’s already invited the alumni club of nearby Shenzhen, China, to visit). It also means that his phone has been lighting up all weekend. He’s gotten text after text from friends asking if they can come by the center. “Suddenly, we’ve become so hot,” Lau says. It’s a pleasant change from the old days when he had to call alumni club members to remind them about events. “We used to beg you guys to show up!”

He’s joking, but Lau thinks there really is something powerful about having a permanent physical presence in the city. “It’s the landmark that makes people proud,” he says. That may explain why, all weekend long, the most popular spot for group photos and selfies wasn’t the courtyard overlooking the South China Sea—it was the University of Chicago sign.

But the campus isn’t just a landmark. By December 4, two days after the grand opening celebration wrapped up, it’s back to business. Students from a Chicago Booth training program aimed at social entrepreneurs, Global Launchpad: Positioning Your Startup for Scalability and Sustainable Impact, fill one of the downstairs classrooms. Upstairs, University Professor of history Kenneth Pomeranz has snagged an empty office to catch up on work.

There’s lots of space for faculty members whose research might bring them to Hong Kong for extended periods—people such as Robert Chaskin, AM’90, PhD’96, McCormick Foundation Professor at the School of Social Service Administration, who’s gone back and forth to Hong Kong to support a student exchange program with Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

The student lounges are quiet for the moment, but that will all change in early January when the Executive MBA Program starts back up again. For the EMBA students, and the next cohort of College Study Abroad students, the campus provides a home away from home.

Even before they had a permanent base, former Study Abroad students say they liked the constant scholarly inspiration of Hong Kong. Khoa Phan, Class of 2019, spent spring quarter of 2017 participating in the program about colonization. The history he learned in the classroom was mirrored in everything, down to the food and the street names. He could “feel these multiple layers of historical change and interaction.” Jerónimo Martínez, Class of 2019, who took side trips to South Korea, Vietnam, and Cambodia, appreciated the gateway to Asia that Hong Kong provided.

For Lee, that’s exactly what the campus, and the University’s partnership with Hong Kong, is meant to do: open the door to all of Asia. “The center is stationed in Hong Kong, but it doesn’t serve solely Hong Kong,” she says. It’s a gateway to southern China’s rapidly developing Guangdong Province and to Taiwan, Japan, and Singapore. With the Hong Kong campus joining centers in Beijing and Delhi (which opened in 2010 and 2014, respectively), there’s a University presence in three of Asia’s most important metropolises.

Lau says he and other alumni he knows are thrilled to have a little of Hyde Park in Hong Kong. “For the alums who visited yesterday, they said to me, ‘This is like a library for me. I feel like I’m in a library and am keen to pick up books to learn again.’”

UChicago Hong Kong campus
The centerpiece of architect Bing Thom’s design, around which both new and historic elements revolve, is what he called the “tree of knowledge.” (UChicago News)

When Francis Yuen described the Mount Davis site as “architecturally challenging,” he wasn’t exaggerating. In addition to the usual difficulties of building on a hillside, the project team had to contend with complicated historical and environmental considerations.

The site was home to 500 trees (and their associated fauna) and several heritage structures, including buildings known in the detention center era as Block A and Block B. These were important to preserve for historical reasons but badly needed maintenance and modernization.

“If you name a study, we’ve done it,” says Gavin Tun, the campus’s executive project director. He rattles off a list: traffic assessment studies, environmental impact assessment, visual impact assessment, structural assessment, hazardous materials assessment. (At one point the project team learned that a protected species of bat was living in tunnels on the site. That led to, yes, a bat assessment. “The Bat Man came and we consulted with him,” Tun says.)

All in all, not a simple site to build on. That’s what made Hong Kong–born, Vancouver-based architect Bing Thom’s vision so appealing. Adapting a phrase from Australia’s Aboriginal people, Thom said he wanted to “touch the earth lightly” with a minimally invasive design. At an architecture-focused panel discussion on December 2, Thom’s colleague Venelin Kokalov recalled, “We started with the idea, ‘How can we make this building invisible?’”

Invisibility meant lots of glass on the exterior, so the building would reflect the surrounding vegetation and not upstage the bright white historic structures. “Touching the earth lightly” necessitated an unusual form for the building: Thom proposed putting it on concrete stilts, called piles, so it would “float” above Block A, Block B, and the tree line—a concept he called “the tree house of knowledge.”

From the entrance, the building and its front courtyard appear to be sitting on flat ground. The illusion only becomes apparent when you walk to the back and see the massive soaring piles supporting the structure. Visitors arriving from the front entrance often ask, “What was here before?”

The answer? Nothing. The new building disguises geographic reality. The mountain slopes from Victoria Road to the sea.

Inside, the campus’s new and historic structures connect through a mazelike set of hallways, doorways, and elevators. The soft lines of Thom’s design give way suddenly to the sharp angles of Block A and Block B. Classrooms, group study rooms, and student lounges are arranged throughout the old and new spaces (all audiovisually equipped, with easy-to-move furniture for flexibility). “It’s meant to flow,” Tun explains.

The focal point of the site is a large Delonix regia. The flowering tree, which bursts into flame-red blooms each spring, is known in China as a “phoenix tree.” From the first time he saw it in 2013, Thom knew the “tree of knowledge,” as he called it, was essential to his design.

That put some pressure on the project team. Again and again, Thom asked for reassurance that the tree was in good health. “For almost every one of our update calls, Gavin [Tun] would begin by telling us the tree was still alive,” UChicago executive vice president David Fithian recalled at a December 2 panel.

Everyone worried about the Delonix regia, but no one worried about Thom. The energetic 75-year-old architect swam every day, practiced yoga, and meditated. “We were trying to keep up with him,” Tun says. His sudden death in October 2016, just a few months after the campus’s groundbreaking ceremony, shocked everyone.

Tributes to Thom were woven throughout the grand opening celebration. Kokalov talked of carrying forward his mentor’s mission to create “buildings that touch people’s hearts.” Tun, standing inside Block A, smiled as he described the inevitable push and pull between architect and client: “He was a visionary. He wanted the best, so he would push for things.”

For Fithian, the campus itself is an enduring tribute to Thom. “This was a labor of love. … [He] would be deservedly proud.”

UChicago Hong Kong campus dedication
The ribbon cutting at the November 30 opening of The Hong Kong Jockey Club University of Chicago Academic Complex | The University of Chicago Francis and Rose Yuen Campus in Hong Kong. (UChicago News)

Kitty Chong grins. “It’s show time!” she says to a participant in one of the weekend’s seven panel discussions—four on December 1, three on December 2.

Chong, the campus’s senior director, stands by the honor guard of flower arrangements flanking the building’s lobby (gifts from friends of Yuen and his wife, Rose). The scent of star lilies wafts down the corridor to a large auditorium space, where guests sip coffee and tea as they wait for the discussions to begin. Each topic highlights one of the themes of the campus’s programming: art and culture; science and health; economics and policy.

Moderator Haun Saussy, University Professor of comparative literature, kicks off the December 1 panels. He dispenses with lengthy introductions (today, it’s titles only) and goes straight to the topic at hand—migration, immigration, and cultural change in Chicago and Hong Kong. His fellow panelists approach the subject in different ways, exploring how poetry, Cantonese opera, and a classic work of sociology—Paul C. P. Siu’s (AB’36, PhD’53) The Chinese Laundryman: A Study of Social Isolation (New York University Press, 1987)—were shaped by contact between Chicago and Hong Kong.

Later that afternoon, at a conversation on the future of finance, the moderator introductions have become even less formal. “They are all brilliant,” says University of Hong Kong economics professor Y. C. Richard Wong, AB’74, AM’74, PhD’81. (“Thank you for this very effective introduction,” replies Luigi Zingales, Chicago Booth’s Robert C. McCormack Distinguished Service Professor of Entrepreneurship and Finance.) Over 90 minutes, Wong, Zingales, Booth professor of finance Zhiguo He, and fellow panelists fly through a history of credit and an examination of fintech policy in China, Hong Kong, and South Korea.

Another group talks about how Hong Kong and Chicago can partner to solve urban social problems. Deborah Gorman-Smith, the Emily Klein Gidwitz Professor and dean of the School of Social Service Administration, describes SSA’s collaborative effort to advance social work in China. She’s especially interested in how social workers can help China’s rural “left-behind children,” whose parents have migrated to cities for factory work. Stacy Tessler Lindau, AM’02, professor of obstetrics and gynecology and geriatrics, explains how a stronger sense of community can improve health.

Michael Greenstone, LAB’87, the Milton Friedman Distinguished Service Professor in the Kenneth C. Griffin Department of Economics, also focuses on health in his panel discussion on data science. He cites his research on air quality in China, which shows that pollution in some areas reduces life expectancy by as much as three years—a statistic that draws murmurs from the audience. Michael Franklin, Liew Family Chair of Computer Science, talks about the emergence of data science as a field, and Yu-Hsing Wang of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology shares his work using big data to detect landslides before they happen.

Toward the end of the conversation, a good-natured debate breaks out, pitting Michael against Michael: Greenstone thinks you should have a specific question in mind when you collect broad-based data, but Franklin isn’t so sure.

The group may be divided on questions of data collection, but they are united on another front: “We’re competing for best dressed panel,” says the besuited Franklin. “Please vote for us at the end.”

Ka Yee Lee
Chemist Ka Yee Lee, shown here in The Hong Kong Jockey Club University of Chicago Heritage Courtyard and Interpretation Centre, chairs the new campus’s faculty advisory board. (UChicago News)

Sitting on a bench overlooking the South China Sea, Eddie Lau embarks on a mini course on Hong Kong history. This body of water, he explains, is part of why Hong Kong became a British colony—because it offered a valuable trading route.

Then Lau catches himself, realizing that he’d planned to talk about Hong Kong’s alumni community, roughly 800 strong. “Sorry,” he says. “This isn’t really part of the discussion.”

The past is present at 168 Victoria Road, and it can be hard to resist its pull. Signs of the campus’s history are everywhere: the massive gun emplacement, the wrought iron “RE” for “Royal Engineers” in one of the building’s gates, the barred doors of the detention center’s reception area in the Block B annex.

Preserving and interpreting the campus’s history was an important part of the University’s mandate when it was granted this parcel of land from the Hong Kong government. Some eras, such as the military and detention center years, were relatively well documented and apparent from the physical traces they left behind. Others took more time to piece together. Many new stories began to surface as well.

A team of historians and conservators, led by historian Pomeranz, was tasked with uncovering and honing those stories. (Lee, a chemist, pitched in too, even though “the last time I took history was when I was in eighth grade.”) Their research took them to archives and museums in Asia and across Europe.

The team ultimately grouped the site’s history into six eras. The first three span 1900 to 1961, when the campus was home to British military forces. Beginning in the 1940s, it also housed groups of squatters and refugees. In 1961 it was turned over to the Hong Kong police and used as a detention center and safe house. (After the police left in 1997, the site occasionally served as a movie location—the exterior wall can be spotted in Ang Lee’s 2007 film Lust, Caution.) The University’s involvement began in 2013.

Each era is explored in the Heritage Interpretation Centre, located in the renovated annex of Block B. The museum includes original architectural elements from the Victoria Road Detention Centre (VRDC), as well as photos, documents, video interviews, and ephemera. About 25 UChicago alumni are now trained to give tours of the interpretation center, which is open to the public. These volunteer docents were out in full force on December 2, sporting UChicago T-shirts as they offered tours in both English and Cantonese.

The research team talked to as many people with direct experience of the site as they could, including three political detainees held in the VRDC in the 1960s during an era of pro-Communist, anticolonialist unrest in Hong Kong. Although the VRDC was not a prison, some people remained in temporary police custody there for nearly two years.

Former detainees give mixed reports about conditions at the VRDC, also known as “the White House” and “the zoo.” They were not beaten or starved, they say, but the cells were minuscule and primitive—“it wasn’t Guantanamo Bay, it wasn’t the gulag, but it wasn’t good,” Pomeranz said at a December 2 panel on the site’s history.

In converting parts of Block B into classrooms and student lounges, the project team tried not to erase remnants of the detention center. The original concrete floors couldn’t be preserved, but the architects found a vinyl material that looked similar, and even recreated the distressed marks left by cell walls, “so at least the docent can tell the story,” Tun says. One Block B classroom features an original cell door, including the slot through which detainees received food.

It’s a complex and sometimes uncomfortable history, but “that’s why we keep certain places, because they tell us so much about ourselves,” Hong Kong University conservator Lynne DiStefano said at a December 2 panel discussion. “This particular site is an incredible educational resource that can talk to us about important themes in life today.”

The speakers titled their discussion “From Citadel to Campus.” That phrase, in Pomeranz’s view, captures the site’s history and reflects optimism about its future—because, he said, “a movement from citadel to campus is also a movement from fear to hope.”

See also: “Tree House/Art House