Text Jane Steer / Styling David Roden / Photography John Butlin
This apartment is an homage to Hong Kong's odd corners. Its old, ramshackle bits. Its make-do-and-mend bits. The places that were built for practicality and then grew organically, sprouting aerials, washing poles, window boxes, cocklofts, balcony cages, tarpaulins, post boxes and all the other quirks that make this city's streets unique.
It's an urban vernacular that speaks fluently of the city's refugee past. And it's disappearing. Fast.
It's easy to mourn the passing of the city's older, grittier quarters from the comfort of a modern apartment. To actually live in a fifth-floor walk-up tenement, with the dodgy plumbing, erratic electricity supply, crumbling plaster and overcrowding that came to characterise the old tong lau apartments, is a lot less romantic. (Don't get us started on the cockroaches.)
So when Central's low-rises started to be knocked down and replaced by shiny new towers, most of Hong Kong shrugged and carried on making money. But there is, of course, a middle way. And that's where American advertising executive Dare Koslow comes in. With his team, which includes designer Andrew Bell, Koslow has been buying up apartments such as this one in Sheung Wan since 2004 and sensitively upgrading them.
By sorting out the utilities, bringing in mod cons - split-system air-conditioning, contemporary kitchens, Wi-fi - but retaining the wonky walls, lofty ceilings, iron window frames and streamlined 1950s minimalism, they are creating desirable homes in the heart of the city.
"We have 25 tong lau apartments between SoHo and Po Hing Fong," Koslow says. "I have two in this building, where nine of the 10 flats have been gentrified. Places are getting snapped up more quickly now; there are a lot more people chasing a shrinking pool of old apartments."
It's easy to see the appeal. This tiny, 350 sq ft space punches well above its weight in the style stakes, with beautifully crafted, top-quality finishes and some carefully considered rough edges.
The whitewashed walls have been left gouged and battered and the cabling is on show. But those cables lead to perfect industrial-style brass lamps, which turn out to be vintage and sourced in London. The paint-splattered beaten-up wooden floor was relaid from elsewhere in Hong Kong. And those chunky iron hooks - now used by the photographer tenant to hang his cameras from - were found in New York.
The degree of rawness is calculated, but it works.
"I bought the lamps for my own place, originally, but they've been in my warehouse for ages - it's full of junk; of 'treasure'," Koslow says. "The floor is an experiment - it's the first time we've used such distressed wood. When it arrived, the boards had been sanded smooth so the supplier had to send another batch. The tenant was a bit worried about splinters, but it hasn't been a problem.
"And I love the paint on the boards - their story is probably richer than the real story of this apartment. It's about creating history."
More history has been created with the bespoke iron window frames, which reproduce the trademark Hong Kong kink in the security bars. Ironwork and glass also divide the small bathroom from the rest of the apartment.
"I usually go a bit overboard in bathrooms," Koslow confesses. "This is the most compact bathroom we've worked on, so we created a wet room rather than use shower curtains or walls. It feels bigger."
The stone basin was based on a picture Koslow saw in a magazine. "We tried several sinks before we found the right one. This one was made for us in China."
Other than the bathroom, the apartment is one open space, with a curtain that can be drawn to screen off the bed. Yet Koslow's team has managed to squeeze a desk, sofa, breakfast counter, built-in kitchen, bookcase and bedroom into the tiny area and still preserve a feeling of openness.
"You develop an eye," he says. "Then you tear down all the walls to get a feeling for the space."
It helps that the tenant appears to be a man of few possessions. The overhead kitchen cabinets contain only one plate, a bowl and a cup, plus salt, whisky and olives. The bespoke iron shelves under the breakfast counter are also virtually empty. It's an asceticism that, coupled with the raw quality of the apartment, seems refreshingly liberating.
"This tenant has been with us since the early days. We find that people who like tong laus tend to stay in them until they leave Hong Kong," Koslow says. "But we're losing the battle to save the tong laus. The Town Planning Board has no idea of what urban renewal could be."
Koslow and his ilk are trying to renovate and preserve the buildings, adopting a gentrification process that has been seen in the world's greatest cities for decades. The evolution of any city must allow old neighbourhoods to be reinvigorated, they say, but while retaining their unique character - albeit tidied up and slicked over. Yet Hong Kong's planners continue to resist the trend, out of step with changing values (witness the outcries over the Star Ferry and Queen's piers and Graham Street Market).
"Battle too hard and too long against the government and you realise that it's fruitless," Koslow says.
"The Urban Renewal Authority tells me buildings more than 50 years old used substandard products and were not designed to last. Rubbish! I've brought in engineers to take a look and they tell me the concrete is better than that used in many modern buildings.
"But [the government] keeps knocking them down at the expense of the heritage of Hong Kong and of allowing us a choice of having somewhere interesting to live."
Living area and bedroom The bespoke iron window frames (HK$48,800) and bed with built-in storage underneath (HK$8,500) were by Winspeed Engineering (6/F, Tsun Win Factory Building, 60 Tsun Yip Street, Kwun Tong, tel: 9035 9504). The raw linen curtains (HK$9,800) and curtain rail (HK$1,200) were from Wai Kee Home (1/F, 30 Cochrane Street, Central, tel: 2544 3730). The Atelier Sconce bedside lamps (HK$1,600 each) were from Restoration Hardware (restorationhardware.com) in the United States.3 Living area detail "There's a lady who runs a stall on Cat Street who calls out, 'I have something new … ' every time I walk by," says Dare Koslow. "Sometimes I can't resist." The oversized clock (HK$4,500) was one of the irresistible items. The bookcase (HK$2,500) and wardrobe (HK$21,000) were by Winspeed Engineering. The marine wall lamp (HK$2,500) was from Lassco (www.lassco.co.uk) in London, Britain. The sofa and rugs belong to the tenant. The distressed timber flooring (HK$110 per square foot) was reclaimed from a site in Wan Chai by Winspeed Engineering.
Living area detail “There’s a lady who runs a stall on Cat Street who calls out, ‘I have something new … ’ every time I walk by,” says Dare Koslow. “Sometimes I can’t resist.” The oversized clock (HK$4,500) was one of the irresistible items. The bookcase (HK$2,500) and wardrobe (HK$21,000) were by Winspeed Engineering. The marine wall lamp (HK$2,500) was from Lassco (www.lassco.co.uk) in London, Britain. The sofa and rugs belong to the tenant. The distressed timber flooring (HK$110 per square foot) was reclaimed from a site in Wan Chai by Winspeed Engineering.
Desk The desk is neatly tucked under the window between the bathroom and bed. The desk (HK$2,000) and front door (HK$20,000) were by Winspeed Engineering. The butchers’ hooks (HK$150 each) came from Olde Good Things (ogtstore.com) in New York.
Kitchen The cupboards, granite countertops, overhead shelves and breakfast counter (totalling HK$56,500) and the sink (HK$2,500) were all custom made by Winspeed Engineering.
Bathroom The iron and glass bathroom wall and door (HK$13,500) and floor and wall tiles (HK$25,000) were all from Winspeed Engineering. The shower and taps (HK$43,350 in total) were from Sunny Pro (193 Lockhart Road, Wan Chai, tel: 2156 0388). The stone sink was made on the mainland for HK$2,500 by Winspeed Engineering, which also made the metal sink stand (HK$1,000).
Grass roots A three-tiered window box outside the kitchen pays tribute to all those rickety plant holders dangling off buildings across the city. This one, however, was solidly constructed by a metalworker who runs a stall in a Sheung Wan alley. Winspeed Engineering engaged him for the work.
"We try to use local craftsmen wherever we can," Dare Koslow says. "I was inspired by the fact this window gets direct sunlight - and the frames open inwards. It's the perfect spot for a herb garden."
The window box cost HK$3,000, bespoke window frames HK$3,500 and handles HK$600 per pair.