Not many homebuyers would have had the confidence to put money down on an old tenement flat without even seeing it. But interior designer Andrew Bell, whose penchant for old buildings has seen him bring more than 20 apartments back to life, jumped at the chance to play out his 'romantic view of old Hong Kong' once again when a third-floor walk-up became available on a tree-lined block in Western earlier this year.
'I didn't need to see the flat to know it would work for me,' Bell says. 'I love the location and my shop [homeware store Earth Home, now online only] was just around the corner. Plus, it was quite a bargain because of the fire order.'
The recent fire safety ordinances for residential developments built before 1987 meant internal fire-retardant materials had to be fitted in every apartment in Bell's building. To ensure the 350 sq ft flat met regulations, Bell installed fire doors on either side of the small foyer separating the bathroom from the rest of the apartment, which then became an open-plan space. He delineated the bedroom area at the front with a large glass-paned folding wall, allowing natural light into the living area and small open kitchen.
Bell primed the flat for his favoured 'pre-war Shanghai look' with traditional iron windows with Chinese-motif grills, and old-world brass door handles and switch plates. He then filled it with antique furniture - including a Qing dynasty dining table with its original stools, an 18th-century vanity unit from Shanxi that had been modified to hold the bathroom sink, and a mid-19th-century canopy bed from Suzhou, Jiangsu province.
Now sitting pretty and prominent in the light-filled bedroom, the antique bed frame was relacquered, from red to black, and resized to fit a queen-sized mattress. The legs were shortened so the top could fit under a beam.
'The bed went through quite a transformation,' Bell says. 'When it was finally delivered, we couldn't fit the base through the door, so it went back to the shop to be cut in half. The carpenter concocted a solution for reassembly without the use of nails or screws, in keeping with the traditional methods.'
Bell's choice of tiling, which he describes as 'the most outrageous I've been with a floor', was decided on by happy accident at a supplier's factory in Thailand.
'Another customer was unwrapping samples that had been specially produced for him,' he says. 'My partner and I spotted a green and white patterned tile - and made our choice instantly. The colour combination was not included in their normal production run, but they agreed to make a small bespoke batch for us.'
The tiles' distinctive celadon green became the point of reference for the apartment's soft furnishings. Bell chose raw-silk seat and cushion covers, as well as ceramic pieces in similar shades.
'When the floor was completed, I have to admit, I found the pattern a bit overwhelming,' he says. 'But now I love it more every day, especially when it catches the reflection of light from the windows. Combined with the leafy view, the effect is very refreshing, especially during Hong Kong's punishing summers.'
1 Living room nook
Andrew Bell found the late Qing dynasty table, with four matching stools (HK$19,000 total), and the 1930s nan wood frame, with its original bevelled mirror (HK$2,000), at Art Treasures Gallery (42 Hollywood Road, Central, tel: 2543 0430). The iron-framed glass door and adjoining glass wall that partitions the bedroom were built by Bell's long-time contractor, Lau Fu-yuen, at Winspeed Engineering (6/F, Tsun Win Factory Building, 60 Tsun Yip Street, Kwun Tong, tel: 9034 9504).
2 Living room
Bell paired a daybed (HK$19,000), custom made by Zitan Oriental Antiques (47 Peel Street, Central, tel: 2523 7584), with Chinese horseshoe chairs (HK$7,000 for two) from Wonder Dragon (54A Hollywood Road, tel: 2526 8863). He sourced Aspen silk (HK$7,250) from Jim Thompson (9 Surawong Road, Bangkok, Thailand, tel: 66 2632 8100), which was then turned into upholstery and cushion covers by Wai Kee Curtain & Furnishing (1/F, 30 Cochrane Street, Central, tel: 2544 3730) for HK$7,260. The pedestal and tray were bought years ago. The painting, titled Music of Autumn, by Jia Juan Li, came from Connoisseur Art Gallery (Chinachem Hollywood Centre, 1 Hollywood Road, tel: 2868 5358).
The mid-19th-century nan wood canopy bed cost HK$20,000 from Art Treasures Gallery. The double-glazed reproduction tong lau (tenement building) iron-framed windows (HK$66,100 for five) were built by Winspeed Engineering, with security grills featuring a Chinese motif that Bell found in an old building in a lane off Shelley Street. To enhance the evening view of treetops, Bell installed two exterior spotlights (HK$2,500 for the pair).
Bell found the Qing dynasty desk (HK$6,000) at an antiques shop on Hollywood Road that has since closed. The self-closing fire doors (HK$5,500) on either side are painted oak veneer and were built by R&R Fire Material (3/F, Wing Shun Building, 64 Bonham Strand West, Sheung Wan, tel: 2316 7781).
The geometric white and green tiles (HK$310 per square metre from Fired Earth, 24/F, Dominion Centre, 43 Queen's Road East, Wan Chai, tel: 2861 3864) echo the colours of the floor in the living area. The rectangular Valencia wall tiles (HK$2,500 per square metre) were also from Fired Earth. Bell placed a late- 19th-century bevelled mirror with black wood frame (HK$3,000) from Shanghai above an 18th-century elm wood side table from Shanxi province (HK$5,500), both sourced through Art Treasures Gallery. The side table is fitted with a Fuori basin (HK$1,450), which Bell bought, along with a Hansgrohe tap (HK$1,800) and Toto toilet (HK$3,000), at Sunny Building and Decoration Materials (345 Lockhart Road, Wan Chai, tel: 2893 9118). The Edwardian shower set (HK$52,000), shaving mirror (HK$7,100) and glass shelf (HK$3,600) came from Czech & Speake (1/F, Ruttonjee Centre, 11 Duddell Street, Central, tel: 2524 6298).
Winspeed Engineering built the black-painted oak veneer cabinetry for HK$31,900, which included the white marble countertop. The bronzed cupboard handles (HK$45 each) came from Chiu Kee Metal Works (23 Tung Street, Sheung Wan, tel: 2543 1176).
7 Study area
Bell created a small study space in the bedroom with a narrow late-19th-century ju wood desk (HK$5,000 from Art Treasures Gallery) from Suzhou, Jiangsu province, and a glazed Chinese ceramic stool (HK$2,300) from a shop that has since closed.
Tried + Tested
Andrew Bell so liked the green-and-white encaustic tiles, which he found in Thailand, that he now sells them through Earth Home (tel: 2547 0101; firstname.lastname@example.org) for HK$600 a square metre.
Styling David Roden