Text Viv Jones / Photography John Butlin / Styling David Roden
Dare Koslow is a man on a mission. After eight years spent seeking out and renovating neglected tong lau, or walk-ups, in the SoHo/Sheung Wan area, he is as determined as ever to preserve what he calls “the architectural soul of Hong Kong”.
His latest home, a 1,500 sq ft twostorey unit on Tank Lane, Sheung Wan, is a testament to his talent for restoring diamonds in the rough.
“I chanced upon this space when I was walking around the neighbourhood. I was surprised it had remained empty for so long,” he says.
Not everyone would have seen the potential in the dark and dirty industrial space that had been home to a printing firm for more than 40 years, but the New Yorker, who has lived in Hong Kong for nearly two decades, enthuses: “This space was unique. I can’t bear the cookie-cutter homogeneity of Hong Kong’s urban highrises, with their inefficient use of space and soulless design. I love the character of the tong lau – it’s an addiction for me.”
Koslow has found and renovated some 25 similar properties over the years.
Working with contractor Winspeed Engineering, he took four months to renovate the Tank Lane space to his specifications. New bathrooms were installed, along with a fitted kitchen, and the entire apartment was rewired.
“It was a rabbit warren of rooms when we started,” Koslow says.
“It was filthy – not surprising, considering its previous use. Downstairs was subdivided by the heavy machinery and the upstairs area was cut up into lots of little rooms. I wanted to open up the space as much as possible.”
The solution was to have an open kitchen/dining/living area on the lower floor, where Koslow could entertain friends around an enormous marble kitchen workspace. “I’ve had dining rooms before and used them maybe twice a year,” he says. “Everyone congregates in the kitchen so in this apartment I decided to dispense with a dining room and dining table altogether and create a large kitchen area that could seat eight to 10 people comfortably around the work bench.”
A bedroom for his helper and a small guest bathroom were also fitted into the ground floor area.
Upstairs, Koslow knocked down walls to create one open bedroom area with a bank of wardrobes and master bathroom.
“Having never had much in the way of closet space in my previous apartments, I was determined to incorporate a lot of storage this time. To be honest, it’s more than I could possibly ever use, although I am testing that theory since with the additional space I have found more reasons to buy stuff.”
Beyond reconfiguring the space, which he planned with the help of designer Andrew Bell, Koslow has left much of the original building intact. Walls remain raw and unpainted, wiring is unconcealed on the walls, and the flooring, with its dents and blemishes, has been left was is to display its character.
“I didn’t want to modernise the space at all,” says Koslow. “I wanted to keep its industrial feeling. Keeping it ‘raw’ adds to its character and maintains that connection to the past.” For Koslow, the cast-iron buildings of New York have always been an inspiration.
“These relics are real treasures that have somehow survived modernisation and are now appreciated by people worldwide.
They are a reason why people visit New York.
“If only the Urban Renewal Authority understood the value of preservation Hong Kong would have a similar appeal long into the future. Instead, they believe these homogeneous towers are going to do the trick. With each project I do, I hope it helps in some small way as a turning point in how Hong Kong people view their special tong lau.”
Dare Koslow found the pulley on eBay (www.ebay.com) for HK$5,000 and had it shipped to Hong Kong for HK$2,000. He bought the light for HK$6,000 at Shambala (2/F, Horizon Plaza, 2 Lee Wing Street, Ap Lei Chau, tel: 2555 2997). The sliding front doors were made by the contractor, Winspeed Engineering (6/F, Tsun Win Factory Building, 60 Tsun Yip Street, Kwun Tong, tel: 9035 9504) for HK$24,500.
Living area The triptych of paintings, by Shen Hua, came from Schoeni Art Gallery (27 Hollywood Road, Central, tel: 2542 3143). The ceiling fan was bought from a shop that has since closed. The industrial-style coffee table (HK$7,800) and sofa and chairs (HK$32,000 in total) came from Restoration Hardware (www.restorationhardware.com). The rug (HK$15,000) came from Shambala. The vintage clock cost HK$5,000 at a booth on Cat Street, Sheung Wan. Koslow found the vases on a trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand. The television cabinet (HK$31,500) and shelves (HK$22,000) were made by Winspeed Engineering. The lighting was from I Lighting (388 Lockhart Road, Wan Chai, tel: 2803 5012). The cushions (US$500 each) were from www.euro-linens.com.
Living area detail The printer’s cabinet and fire extinguishers were left behind by the previous occupant. “Each one looked like a piece of art so I turned them into an installation,” says Koslow.
Work area Koslow works from home and had the desk unit with shelving custom-built by Winspeed Engineering for HK$25,200. The vintage office chairs were found on eBay and cost HK$3,500 including shipping. The photographs of buildings in Tribeca, New York, were taken by Koslow.
Kitchen Koslow’s spacious kitchen is the hub of his home. The hanging lamps were bought from Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market in New York (www.hellskitchenfleamarket.com) and cost HK$8,000 for the pair. The stools cost HK$4,000 each at Axis Collections (256 Hollywood Road, tel: 2858 6919). Displayed on the open shelving is Koslow’s collection of crockery that he bought on trips to Chiang Mai. Central to the kitchen and dining area is the marble bench, which, along with the cabinets, was made for HK$86,500 by Winspeed Engineering. On the wall is a reproduction tram destination blind from Colonial Hong Kong (HK$600 and up; www.colonialhongkong.com).
Bathroom The en-suite bathroom was installed by Winspeed Engineering and features a custom-made cabinet (HK$12,500) under the sink. The sink (HK$10,900) and tap (HK$7,860) were from Sunny (H2O) (193 Lockhart Road, tel: 2156 0388). The tiles were sourced from BMC (7/F, Car Po Commercial Building, 18 Lyndhurst Terrace, Central, tel: 2591 9619).
Entrance The cabinet came from eBay and cost a total of HK$4,500, including shipping. The coat rack came from Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market and cost HK$1,500. The black and white photograph was taken by Koslow in New York.
Bedroom The bed platform and side tables were made by Winspeed Engineering for HK$18,300. The rugs were bought in Nepal. The altar table cost HK$16,000 at Art Treasures Gallery (42 Hollywood Road, tel: 2543 0430). On top are cactus plants standing on inverted ceramic pots. The antique trunk at the bottom of the bed was bought several years ago in Guangdong province. The basket and stand were another eBay find and cost HK$8,000 including shipping. The hanging brass light fittings were HK$9,000 for the pair at Shambala and the fans were bought in Bangkok’s Chatuchak Market for HK$800 each. The photograph was taken by Koslow.
One man's meat rack Dare Koslow bought this vintage meat rack on eBay for HK$2,500. It was an impulse buy and initially he couldn't find a place for it. Finally, he settled on this spot near the walk-in wardrobe: its seven hooks are perfect for hanging belts from. "Now I can always find them," he says, "and they look interesting displayed."