A run-down Hakka house was converted into a welcoming home for a mother and daughter who brought its spirit back to life.
Luisa Tam was just about to renew her lease on a standard village house when an unusual alternative was brought to her attention by a friend. The cottage, built almost 160 years ago in what is now Sai Kung East Country Park, was in disrepair and the cons outnumbered the pros, according to her friend, who had considered moving in. Not so, thought Tam. 'I looked at it and said, 'There's a lot of work that needs to be done but I know what to do,'' she recalls.
Although a family had recently vacated the house, it required an extensive overhaul: the roof leaked, the walls were damp, the carpet in one room looked like a health hazard and the main bathroom did not do justice to the house. The building's five bedrooms, including three on the first floor reached by a set of wooden stairs, also needed attention.
The age and history of the property helped persuade Tam to take on the challenge. One of eight owned by a Hakka clan, the cottage was a rest stop for villagers going to and from Sai Kung town, according to the only member of the family still living in Hong Kong, Michael Wong. With his approval, Tam made sensitive improvements to the 3,000 sq ft interior, leaving intact its low doorways, 45cm-thick walls and small windows. Less than two months after employing contractor Joe Chan (tel: 8116 6469) to turn the house into a comfortable home, Tam moved in with her 14-year-old daughter, Myfanwy, their helper, two cats and a dog.
As a tenant rather than an owner, Tam cut costs where she could and opted for a bathroom that would be cheap to build but provide the desired ambience. Featuring concrete walls, shelving and a specially built tub, the bathroom is a blank and ageless canvas, says Tam, who has introduced leafy plants and candles for an exotic touch. In this space, as elsewhere, Tam restored what she could, giving the doors of the built-in cupboard a fresh lick of paint rather than replacing the unit.
With the help of her contractor, she transformed the kitchen by changing the cabinet doors and drawers instead of starting from scratch. Luckily, the terracotta floor tiles, which cover the ground floor, needed nothing more than a clean and polish; the wooden beams were a different story.
'My landlord suggested replacing them because they were rotten,' she says. But Tam feared removing them would eliminate some of the character. 'Joe suggested putting in metal beams above the original ones so we could retain them as cosmetic supports.'
The new structures, painted black like the kitchen ceiling, now remind her of stage hands. 'It's like watching a play with those characters dressed in black in the background supporting the cast.' Although much of the inspiration behind the revamp was Tam's, her daughter provided input for the dining room. She suggested the ceiling be painted blood red, the attention-seeking hue providing the perfect 'backdrop' for several pieces of antique Chinese furniture Tam salvaged from their previous home.
The piece de resistance, however, is Tam's bed. Standing in an open space and decorated with yards of diaphanous material, which affords privacy and lends romance, her 'chamber' stands beneath another of the cottage's interesting features: an old-fashioned sky light. 'It's original,' she says, pointing to a square piece of glass overhead surrounded by roof tiles.
Although it may not be to everyone's liking, the muted light throughout suits Tam. 'I like my house to be dim,' she says. 'If you work in an office it's always very bright, so when I can, I prefer to have soft, gentle lighting.' It also encourages mother and daughter to spend time outdoors during the day.
Blessed with tall trees in a setting as lush as Eden's garden, the property constantly tempts the curious to peer over the fence. 'As long as they don't come in it's all right,' Tam says blithely. 'It's a nice house, so people will come.'
1 Instead of drawing attention away from the low ceiling of the dining room, Luisa Tam's daughter, Myfanwy, suggested making it stand out by painting it red. The Tequila Kola dining table was bought second-hand from a friend and the display cabinet, bearing a Lunar New Year greeting, cost HK$6,000 from Design Factory (shop 20, Sai Kung Building, Fuk Man Street, Sai Kung, tel: 2791 0106). The decorative lights came from Amsterdam and the cushions (HK$40 each) are from Ikea (various locations; www.ikea.com.hk). Most of the other items are from shops that have closed. The wooden stairs lead to three bedrooms on the upper floor.
2 Instead of removing a rotten beam in the kitchen, Tam retained the original structure for aesthetic purposes and had her contractor build a new one above it. He also constructed the island, which serves as extra work space and a breakfast table. Rather than ripping out the tired-looking cabinets, she saved money and gave herself a 'new' kitchen by replacing the doors and drawers and installing granite countertops. The stainless-steel shelves (about HK$1,100), which accommodate pots and pans, are from Ikea. It cost about HK$160,000 to re-roof the house and HK$12,000 to refurbish the kitchen.
3 The stairs divide an open area into Tam's bedroom and work space. Diaphanous fabric draped over beams and the four-poster teak Javanese bed (HK$8,500 from Island Collection, 183-B Po Tung Road, Sai Kung, tel: 2791 0383 or 9853 3665) affords privacy and seductive charm. The material for each pair of curtains cost HK$480 from Ikea and the rug came from Wales years ago. Two other bedrooms are on this floor.
4 In the entertainment room, Taco-san, acquired from Hong Kong Dog Rescue (www.hongkongdogrescue.com) in Pok Fu Lam, rests on a chair that complements a decorative red umbrella (HK$1,200, base included) from Island Collection.
5 The guest bedroom on the top floor (there's a second spare room downstairs) features a platform that accommodates two single beds. The blond-wood beds, salvaged from furniture left by the previous tenants, were given a new lease of life with black paint. The curtains (about HK$150 for a set of two), bedding (about HK$200), pouffe (HK$350) and sheepskin rug (HK$400) came from Ikea. The Chinese screen cost HK$1,800 from Design Factory. The bedside lamp (HK$200) came from B&Q (MegaBox, Enterprise Square 5, 38 Wang Chiu Road, Kowloon Bay, tel: 3651 1000).
6 Little remains of the old bathroom except for the cupboards (unseen), which Tam painted black. A fan of concrete because of its cool touch and timeless look, she used the material to build the bath, countertop and shelf. The natural stone tiles on the wall were sourced through her contractor. The sink (HK$2,100), tap (HK$1,000) and toilet (HK$2,600) came from American Standard (233 Lockhart Road, Wan Chai, tel: 2507 2107).
7 Tall trees shade the back garden, where Tam holds barbecues. The table cost HK$2,100 from Tai Sun Canvass Awning (17A Po Tung Road, Sai Kung, tel: 2792 7806) and the chairs cost HK$1,000 each years ago from a shop since closed. The umbrella (HK$150) came from Shun Kee City Houseware (6 Yi Chun Street, Sai Kung, tel: 2792 9850).
tried & tested
Thinking she had a wobbly floorboard, Luisa Tam asked her contractor, Joe Chan (Sui Hang Enterprises, Lanton Industrial Building, 99 Wai Yip Street, Kwun Tong, tel: 8116 6469), to fix it. Little did she realise the piece of wood concealed a small gutter in which to hide valuables. The 'safe' is the only one she has found in her near 160-year-old house.
styling David Roden