North Point and arts have never been comfortable partners. With its reputation as a residential hub filled with skyscraping blocks of dinky apartments, the area's only artistic merits might be a twisted - and badly done - attainment of Le Corbusier's architectural maxim: the provisions of modular flats that are to become 'living machines' for men to reside within. The Oil Street neighbourhood is certainly no different from the hundreds of streets that make up the area's concrete labyrinth. Just off the main traffic artery of King's Road, the short lane lives up to its name with a recurrent stench of lubricants and petrol, an atmospheric backdrop provided by the handfuls of shops that master the maintenance of cars and machinery. In these drab, depressing environs, the behemothic buildings that used to be the Government Supplies Department depot were like rubbing an already irritating eyesore. The cheerlessly functional structures - two buildings and two warehouses fenced in by a grey wall topped with barbed wire - offered no respite for pedestrians. With such low expectations, the depot's new incarnation will surely come as a pleasant surprise. With the hustling and bustling of government trucks a distinct memory, a walk inside the precincts provides a well-deserved breather from the choking traffic and imposing concrete blocks that cover the neighbourhood. The warehouses still look minimalist: the least of embellishments exist within the rectangular spaces with high ceilings, while sunlight touches a few pieces of ochre-coloured furniture through sizeable windows. Some of the offices in the high-rise blocks retain the same atmosphere; the prices of food and beverages are still in evidence as the menu hangs over what used to be the top-floor canteen. However, the people who took up the immense space have provided the difference that has suddenly propelled the site into the hip-stakes of today. The warehouse now plays host to several arts groups - among them artists doing painting, installation art and video montages - as well as an architectural firm, while a number of artists have taken up residence to do their painting and photographing where bureaucrats used to do the accounting and photo copying. The abundance of space made available - at a monthly rent of $2.50 per square foot - by the relocation of the depot to a new site near Quarry Bay attracted artists to gather together. Suddenly, Oil Street is Hong Kong's version of New York's artistic commune, East Village. And ironically it would never have happened without the economic maelstrom Hong Kong has weathered over the past year. For a profession that thrives on aesthetics rather than pragmatism, the local artistic clique has never realised how a slump in the property market would provide a turning point in the development of the local arts scene. When Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa announced the nine-month freeze on land sales in June, the former depot for the Government Supplies Department was among the sites that escaped immediate sale and redevelopment. With the site left idle at least until March, the Government decided to let out the space within the depot on contracts that would last until the end of the year - and the low rent was too attractive an option for local artists who used to put up with puny apartments at ludicrous rents. Painter Kwok Mang-ho - also called the Frog King - was one of those who hopped on board. He says the rent he pays for his present studio at the site is more or less the same sum he paid for a small apartment in Wan Chai: the difference is he now has 3,000 square feet instead of 300. 'Now I can work at 10 paintings at a time instead of just squeezing in one,' he said. The natural light allows him to know the shades of colour he is using, he adds, facilitating his creative processes. Howard Chan Piu-hoe is another beneficiary of the site's rejuvenation. The arts group he is involved in, 1aspace, now utilises its unit on the first floor of the high-rise block at the site as a gallery-cum-studio, holding occasional exhibitions and workshops. Chan said the simple no-frills structural design the site sits on - wide regular divisions and the minimal superfluities - helped in putting the space into good use. The artists who have managed to launch their own pastures at the site will say this is like a dream come true. But just as even the best of dreams are destined to end somehow, their euphoria has been dented by the looming spectre of termination: their contract runs up to December 31, and the Government has not made any pledge on what the future holds. When asked about the situation, a Lands Department spokesman explained that the site was included in the Land Sale Programme for 1998/99, but the site's future is still unclear. 'It is still not decided if the Government should resume the lands sale arrangement after March 1999. Therefore, we are not in a position to advise the precise date for disposal of the site,' the spokesman replied. Obviously, all the tenants have expressed pleas to the Government to extend their contracts. However, even if their fantasy has to come to an end as 1999 chimes in, they say their hopes will be pinned on the Government's looking on their self-initiated 'Artists' Village' project as an experiment for similar future developments. The former Government Supplies Depot is at 12 Oil Street, North Point, just off Fortress Hill MTR station. Due to government restrictions, members of the public need invitations to enter the site. Those interested should call, from 2pm onwards, the arts groups concerned, among them 1aspace (1/F, Block E) at 2529-0087, Z+ (1/F, Block B) at 2234-6478, or Videotage (9/F, Block A) at 2573-1869.