The tenements of Wing Lee Street were rescued from demolition by a film. Now it is hoped that some of the surviving buildings will preserve that link with the arts.
One of the tenements bought by the Urban Renewal Authority has been opened as Artist Home Base, an artist-in-residence programme run by the Hong Kong Arts Centre.
The centre's executive director, Connie Lam Suk-yee, said she hoped the four flats in the Chinese-style tenement at 5 Wing Lee Street in Central would spearhead the kind of cultural exchange the city has been lacking. The flats will be made available to overseas and mainland artists to live in and create works inspired by their surroundings, Lam said.
"Hong Kong needs this kind of facility because rents are too expensive, which makes it hard to invite artists to do works in Hong Kong," she said.
The film Echoes of the Rainbow, set in Wing Lee Street, received a Crystal Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2010. It sparked a public outcry that saved the street, the only cluster of Chinese-style tenements remaining in the city, from demolition.
The Urban Renewal Authority has been able to acquire four of the 12 tenements, with others to be run by the University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Youth Federation. The rest are either decaying in the hands of property companies or still occupied by their old residents.
Lam said the centre wanted artists in the programme to commit themselves during their stay to producing works inspired by the place. "They also need to interact with the local community," she said, pointing out that the adjacent No 6 was still occupied by its original residents.
Residencies for visiting international artists are common in countries such as Germany, where a floor of Frankfurt performing arts venue the Kunstlerhaus Mousonturm provides accommodation and rehearsal space for international artists.
Lam said the Wing Lee Street site was perfect for artistic creation because of its history and its location in the city's most varied area. Original features such as the staircase, high ceiling and some of the floor tiles were kept in the renovation.
The authority's planning and design director, Michael Ma Chiu-chi, said the tenements were old and the restoration was costly and technically challenging. Refurbishing cost HK$2,000 a square foot, for a total of HK$14 million.
Each air-conditioned flat is fully furnished and equipped with kitchen and bathroom. The arts centre has spent HK$100,000 to furnish the building, with the help of donations from companies such as the houseware and furniture manufacturer Red A.
The programme will be officially launched in January, when applications are invited from local arts organisations wishing to bring in overseas artists, and reviewed after two years. The centre will charge only a management fee of HK$350 a day for residences up to three months.
The award-winning mainland film director Ying Liang, who moved into Artist Home Base a few days ago for a trial, said it would help him plan for creative workshops and to make a film in Hong Kong. "This is very good because I'm living in an old district and surrounded by a local community," he said.