Magical kingdom

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 March, 2011, 12:00am

There's something decidedly undesigner-y about the home of interior designer Liang Tan. In a good way. In a world of neutral palettes, open plans and walls of windows, his colourful, cosy apartment, tucked away in a post-war Mid-Levels walk-up, is something of an anachronism.

It's small, dark and festooned with possessions. Walls are stacked floor-to-ceiling with books, gifts and family heirlooms. Everywhere you look, something interesting arrests the eye: a large, colourful painting by 'Frog King' Kwok Mang-ho; tiny artworks, such as Terry Batt's head-bobbing, solar-powered man; a pair of vintage mannequins wearing towers of hats; or a souvenir model of Moscow's St Basil's Cathedral. A 'garden' of potted plants sits next to a reading chair under the brightest window.

Nothing matches and yet everything goes. It feels real, loved and comfortable - just like home. And that is where Tan's professional touch is evident.

With such a wealth of possessions, treading the fine line between charming and cluttered takes skill and imagination. There's nothing haphazard about the way things are arranged: book spines are colour coordinated, a red and gold painting by an unknown Japanese artist perfectly complements an antique obi table runner, and the wooden boxes that prop up the bookshelves frame appropriately sized treasures, such as barnacled porcelain vases from a Qing dynasty shipwreck.

'It's funny,' Tan says, 'because my designs for work are quite minimalist. But I've got too much stuff to do it here. Besides, I like the lived-in look.'

Does he ever throw anything out? 'All the time!' he exclaims. 'Actually, these days, I call my friends and they come round and take it away. I just got rid of a fish tank.'

Friends and gifts are a recurring theme: all the horses, for example, are presents ('I'm a horse in the Chinese zodiac and it's become a bit of a thing') and one of his sofas was a gift. Then there are the heirlooms, most precious of which is a Kwun Yum statuette left to him by his 100-year-old grandmother.

He also has a large collection of family photographs - black-and-white images of his Malaysian-Chinese relatives in ornate frames - and oddball items such as a 1920s mannequin that used to belong to his grandfather.

Tan has lived in the 800 sq ft space for more than two years and is negotiating to buy it, drawn by that rarest of features in Hong Kong apartments - original period detail.

'When I moved in, it hadn't been touched since the 70s,' he says. 'It was the only apartment in the block that didn't have a gas supply. But it had 11-foot ceilings, the original picture rails, parquet floors and a terrazzo staircase polished with the stones they use for [optical] lenses. You can't get that any more.'

Tan made some alterations, knocking out one of the two bedrooms to create a larger living and dining area and installing a frameless glass wall in the bathroom to create a bath ('There wasn't space for a full bath wall'), which runs at a right angle to and beneath the vanity unit.

He's particularly fond of the distressed front door.

'I ripped out the metal gate and window bars. I sanded back the front door but couldn't decide how to finish it, so I left it. It looks right.'

Creating a foyer between the entrance and the dining area is a Chinese altar table topped with an embroidered child's robe displayed in a glass case.

'It wasn't expensive,' he says, although it looks it. 'It's amazing what putting something in a glass box will do.'

If he's successful in his bid to buy, he plans to knock out the wall between the kitchen and dining area and enlarge the window in the reading area by extending it down to the floor.

'The lack of light is the biggest problem,' he says. 'Being in Mid-Levels, new towers are going up all the time, which block the light. I'm rarely here during the day so it doesn't bother me that much.'

Besides, you can't help feeling that the cold light of day would rob this wonderfully overstuffed and intriguing apartment of some of its magic.

1 The sofa on the right came from Aluminium (HK$1,600; 36 Cochrane Street, Central, tel: 2546 5904) and the other one was a gift. The Shaker coffee table was picked up years ago in New York and the rug was HK$6,000 from Persian Arts (67 Wyndham Street, Central, tel: 2524 8901). On top of the shelving are (from left) a painting by tenant Liang Tan, created at a Meli Melo artjam (, a painting by architect Tim Li Man-wai from Para/Site Art Space (4 Po Yan Street, Sheung Wan, tel: 2517 4620) and a Brazilian carnival headdress. The drawing of a dog was from Sin Sin Fine Art (1 Prince's Terrace, Mid-Levels, tel: 2858 5072).

2 Creating a foyer at the entrance is an altar table (HK$6,000) from Art Treasures Gallery (42 Hollywood Road, Central, tel: 2543 0430), on which stands a child's robe picked up for HK$800 at Dongtai Lu Market, in Shanghai. The rug was from Lhasa, Tibet, and the lanterns from G.O.D. (various locations; were gifts. The monkey figures were from Siam Paragon (991/1, Rama 1 Road, Pathumwan, Bangkok, Thailand, tel: 66 2690 1000).

3 Vintage mannequins next to the front door are a quirky take on the traditional hat stand. The coats are by DrizaBone (left) from Perth, Australia ( and Louis Vuitton (5 Canton Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 8100 1182). The elephant was picked up in Chatuchak Market, Bangkok, and the clock was bought a decade ago from Ikea (various locations;

4 The narrow, walk-up staircase posed a problem when it came to installing the long dining table, so Tan commissioned carpenter Tsoi Hau-shek (tel: 9470 3689) to make two (HK$8,000 for the pair), using recycled floorboards for the tabletops, which have removable raw-steel legs. The runner is an antique obi that cost HK$250 from Gallery Kawano (4-4-9 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, tel: 813 3470 3305). The Hoop dining chairs were HK$500 each from Posh (3/F, Warwick House, 979 King's Road, Quarry Bay, tel: 2169 9288). The antique Vietnamese glass candleholders were HK$2,400 for two from The Green Lantern (72 Peel Street, Central, tel: 2526 0277). The artworks (from left) include a painting by 'Frog King' Kwok Mang-ho from Para/Site; an antique embroidery - a stylised family tree - from Lijiang city, Yunnan province; and a painting by an unknown Japanese artist from Perth.

5 Tan had his carpenter make a bookcase (HK$1,600) to fill the awkward gap behind the bed. 'In Chinese culture, it's unlucky to have a space behind the bed,' he says. The rug on the wall was HK$2,000 from Barkhor Market, Lhasa, and the painting next to it is by Tan and was framed at Zetter Picture Framer (69 Wyndham Street, tel: 2542 4269). The cushions were HK$80 each from Lane Crawford (Pacific Place, Admiralty, tel: 2118 3668) and the zebra-striped herb pillow was a gift.

6 To make the most of his tiny bathroom, Tan installed a frameless tempered-glass wall to create a 'bath', running it under the vanity unit so that the bather can lie down, with a glass door at the end to prevent water splashing onto the mirror. The sink was from Sunny Building & Decoration Materials (345 Lockhart Road, Wan Chai, tel: 2893 9118).

7 'I love those French kitchens, where everything is hanging up within easy reach,' Tan says of the inspiration for his tiny kitchen. 'I was lucky to find a hanging rack of exactly the right size at Ikea.' The kitchen cost HK$65,000 to build. The green granite countertop was from Wing Ming Marble (160 Lockhart Road, tel: 2598 8430).

Tried + tested

Out of the box

The innovative bookcase has moved around with Liang Tan for the past 10 years. 'In my last place, it was the dividing wall between my living room and bedroom,' he says. It is made from Lack shelves (from HK$49.90 each) from Ikea and stacked on small wooden boxes made by carpenter Tsoi Hau-shek (tel: 9470 3689) in two sizes - for paperbacks and larger books. The vase was among items recovered from a sunken Qing dynasty galleon and bought in an antiques store in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Styling David Roden