It sounds like a place that is off the beaten track, and it is. The Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defense stands overlooking the eastern approach to Victoria Harbor -- a 20-minute subway ride from central Hong Kong, it offers up a rarely-glimpsed side of the city that is suffused with history.
It's understandable that visitors to Hong Kong don't know or even seek its historical roots, but it's definitely present for those who care to look. The Museum of Coastal Defense is one of the little-known stories of this port city, that has seen colonial vicissitudes to Japanese occupation, and a centuries-old insistence on standing slightly apart from the mainland.
Though largely open-air with several vantage points and displays of disused weaponry, the museum also houses permanent exhibitions about Hong Kong's naval history going back eight centuries. Enthusiasts of naval jargon and weapons inventory will not be disappointed by the detailed explanations of the British Empire's strategic decisions or trade treaties hammered out by the Chinese over the centuries. But sprawling grounds that have been preserved since World War II enrich the narrative of Hong Kong's trade and colonial status, making the museum an enjoyable stop for the majority of visitors.
Designers of the museum have made full use of the natural light in which this eastern hilltop basks, while also preserving a bunker-like atmosphere inside the building. A stroll around the ruined battlements, underground ammo storage spaces, and a path leading right down to the waterfront gives the place a nostalgic feel, invoking all the commercial and military activity the city has seen over the years. The narrative of the exhibition presents many perspectives on the city's evolution--local, Mainland Chinese, British, Portuguese--but there is a marked shift in tone when describing the Japanese occupation of 1941, which caused much social and economic hardship on the island till 1945, when the British regained control. This change in tone is just as noteworthy (though more negative) as the statements on the 1997 Handover to Beijing, which are clearly government-generated.
Along with replica models of heavy artillery, the exhibition holds documents and artifacts, and the odd reference to "legendary" Chinese pirates, British "Volunteer" soldiers, and similar remarkable figures.
The museum offers sweeping alternative views of the harbor, unencumbered by pollution and billboards, as part of its presentation. There is also a marketplace and a small temple just down the road that are worth exploring before taking the scenic bus ride to destinations on the south-eastern tip of Hong Kong Island.