Currently in its third year of construction, the Student Activity Center (SAC) will cost over $1 billion Hong Kong dollars when completed. It will be also be one of the most ambitious building projects to appear on the southside of Hong Kong Island. So why did HKIS embark on building the SAC and who is set to benefit from it?
When you visit the current athletics facilities on the Tai Tam campus, it’s hard not to be impressed. Where it is now, the building forms the central spine of the campus and houses multiple levels of sports facilities. It’s expansive and connected by a long exterior staircase that overlooks the athletics field on the ground level. To visit the whole thing, you will rise seven storeys up, starting at the field and first meeting a busy indoor swimming pool that’s rarely empty. In fact, you smell it before you see it, the hit of chlorine packs a punch even from outside and is backed by the steady rhythm of vigorous splashing, the sound of a swim team backstroking their hearts out. As you continue up the stairs, next is a fitness center that oozes Dragon Spirit, not just because of the floor-to-ceiling branded murals. This space has undergone recent expansion to meet students’ increased desire for personal fitness and is often packed with groups of friends circuit training or weight-lifting.
Above this cramped Dragon cave of physical activity is the High School gym, which first opened in 1988. For thirty-five years, this gym has been the home of HKIS varsity sports teams. The proof of their success is expressed in decades of championship pennants lining the walls. The gym is large by most standards, so it’s almost always in use. Sometimes it’s buzzing with PE class time trials or multiple volleyball teams practicing side-by-side. Sometimes it’s packed with the entire High School cheering in the bleachers at a basketball tournament. Behind the High School gym is a separate gym used predominantly by the Middle School for both sporting and non-sporting events, like colorful Spirit Gatherings that pit houses against each other in a fierce dance-off. Overlooking the courts and wrapped around the perimeter of the gym is a second level mezzanine where the Fitness Center has spilled out, with more treadmills and rowing machines squeezed into the balcony space.
Finally, almost at the top of the stairs that take you all the way up to the High School plaza, you stop to catch your breath. You turn around to take in a stunning view
that looks over a huge green sports field, shared simultaneously by a soccer team, rugby practice and runners circling the track. Having climbed all of its floors, it’s clear this well-loved facility is filled to the brim with activity; it’s clear the students need and want the opportunities this building affords them. But just beyond the field you see a busy construction site where the new Student Activity Center (SAC) is taking shape and poised to replace the tiered sports facility you just summited. You wonder, if the current space is so great and clearly producing greatness, why change it?
“We’ve simply outgrown ourselves,” says Pat Hall, the man tasked with executing the HKIS Master Facilities Plan (MFP) since 2003. He oversaw the completion of the Repulse Bay campus redevelopment and leads the team managing the SAC construction project.
“We’ve maximized the space we have, and now it’s time for growth.”
From inside the Athletics Department, you get a better sense of how the program has outgrown the space. Take the swimming pool for example. Despite being the aquatic home for the Stingrays, HKIS’ number 1 ranked competitive swim team, the pool has been plagued by a string of issues that’s made it feel less than homey. One recent leak almost derailed an invitational tournament the day before hundreds of student athletes from around Asia arrived on campus to compete. Even though the tournament was able to proceed, there were no seats or viewing platforms around the pool venue for visiting spectators to watch live from the deck.
And although the field looks stunning from a distance, any teams that use it can tell you a less-than-stunning limitation it has–the toilets. “No amount of air freshener can fix that space,” says Sharon Leung, a former HKIS Athletics Director who steered the athletics program for 18 years. “There are no proper locker rooms at field level, just a set of temporary toilets that don’t meet the need for hosting sports events.” The closest locker room? In the High School gym, eight flights up the exterior staircase.
Pat Hall describes more of the limitations the new SAC is built to address.”The gym is too short for volleyball games,” he says joking that our teams may have an advantage because they practice what to do when a ball bounces off the ceiling rafters back onto the court. Even still, the gym is too popular, creating bottlenecks or clashes when PE classes and sport practices are pushed out by non-sporting events like graduation, SAT exams and all-school gatherings.
On the current tennis courts that also happen to be a great shortcut to get from Middle School to High School, rallies are often interrupted by people trying to get across campus. As recently as October 2023, the school had to perform emergency surgery to repair the floorboards in the gym after record-breaking rain caused extensive water damage to the wooden decking. When you think about it, the current facility starts to sound as tired as most things born in the 80s.
The Power of the Program
Despite the increasing limitations of its space, the athletics program has not fumbled in its output or mission. HKIS Dragons have a reputation as top competitors and are a mainstay on leaderboards. Each year, HKIS students are inducted into the National College Athletics Association (NCAA) and receive university scholarships based on athletic
merit. HKIS alumni have competed in countless top-level sports competitions all over the world, even the Olympics. Since 1968, HKIS has lived out a decades-long commitment to building a robust sports program that thrives alongside academic rigor. It’s a winning combination that the whole school community celebrates. This experience is partly what defines an American-style education and one of the top reasons families choose HKIS.
So what happens when the perfect storm forms from a swirl of people, programs and a need for space meeting the generous donations of supporters? HKIS has the opportunity to dream big.
When you read out just some of what the new SAC has to offer, it’s difficult to say in one breath: dance and yoga studios, fitness rooms with spin bikes and state-of-the-art equipment, a rock-climbing wall, a virtual golf simulator, a multi-lane pool with a viewing gallery, an event space with an outdoor terrace that overlooks the field, 2 gyms, several tennis courts, Athletics and Activities offices, a cafe, carpark and more. Gasp! All together, it’s an impressive list. And a perfect new home for an energetic Dragon that’s outgrown its den.
This new den offers an exciting future; the school has so much more potential to unlock.
The SAC is not just a space for athletes, it’s more than just a new gym. It offers a blueprint for improving the overall physical, emotional and mental health of our entire community. During the pandemic, students experienced the negative effects of poor mental health caused by inactivity, isolation, and boredom. They remedied this with the opposite, proactively pursuing ways to be well. HKIS matched this organically grown interest in self-improvement by enhancing its schoolwide health and wellbeing curriculum, recently hiring additional health teachers in Middle School and inviting external audits of the current program.
Contributing to the Community
This new venue to pursue wellbeing will not only impact the closer HKIS community, but a wider active community that can take advantage of its facilities. The SAC introduces a much-needed carpark with over 180 parking spaces, a huge benefit for current families and those wanting to access the natural beauty of rolling hills and the secluded bay of neighboring Tai Tam Country Park. Todd Parham, the new Athletics and Activities Director with leadership over the SAC, shares his vision for using the center to serve the community. “I’m excited to develop an activities program that will utilize the facility to the best of its ability, not just for students. We are exploring plans to host things like water aerobics classes for the elderly and Special Olympics events.”
With a closer look at the limitations of the current facilities and understanding the potential of expanding the athletics, activities and wellbeing programs, it’s clear the Student Activity Center is so much more than just a building. It is a space that embodies core HKIS values of teamwork, wellbeing and service to the community while carrying the legacy of activating generations of Dragons to come.