Hong Kong shophouse saved from wreckers' ball is new lifestyle hub

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 May, 2015, 6:05am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 May, 2015, 11:19am

Jakie Leung is standing in JL Ceramics, his new Prince Edward Road ceramics and antique shop, as a handyman fixes a crack in the 83-year-old amber tile floor. "The floors and the doors are all original," he says. "This is the only unit in the building that was left as it was. All the others were wiped out [by renovations through the years]."

Leung is one of eight new tenants in GoodPoint, a lifestyle complex that opened this year in a Mong Kok Flower Market shophouse that is one of the last of its kind in Hong Kong. Built in 1932, the building was part of a row of 16 mixed-use four-storey buildings for shops and middle-class families developed by a Belgian construction company.

Six of the shophouses were torn down in years past, leaving a row of 10 surviving structures that now have grade two heritage status. It is one of only two clusters of pre-war shophouses remaining in Hong Kong, along with a row on Shanghai Street in Mong Kok.

Both of those clusters have been acquired by the Urban Renewal Authority, which is now renovating them for rent to grass-roots businesses, according to URA architecture and design director Michael Ma Chiu-tsee. GoodPoint is the first renovation to be completed, with the remaining buildings slated for completion by the end of 2016.

Half of the eight-unit building has been leased out by the URA to commercial tenants; the other half was rented at below-market rates to the Hong Kong Council of Social Service (HKCSS), which in turn has leased out four 1,000 sq ft units to a mixed bag of social enterprises, including Zen in Five Seasons, a vegetarian cafe and Chinese teahouse; a variety store named Wecons that sells organic and fair trade products; an arts workshop named Running Horse Lantern; and a community centre.

"We target people with a social conscience," says HKCSS social enterprise centre head Jessica Tam Wing-sai, who oversees GoodPoint.

"Especially now, after the umbrella movement, people are much more concerned with social issues."

Tam sees GoodPoint as a way to bring together visitors from the high-income areas to the east of the building, such as Kowloon Tong, and working-class neighbourhoods to the west, such as Sham Shui Po.

"It's like a bridge," she says. "There are more than 450 social enterprises in Hong Kong, but most of them are located in remote districts. We want to demonstrate that we can operate them in a central area with high social impact."

But the building itself is sure to attract visitors. The URA's Ma describes it as "remarkable", not only because it has survived the wrecking ball for so many years, but because of the quality of its construction. Built with reinforced concrete at a time when most buildings had timber frames, each of the 96 flats had a fire escape and a private indoor toilet - a luxury for a pre-war shophouse. Large balconies faced Prince Edward Road, ceilings were 3.5 metres high and fishscale-like art deco reliefs adorned the top and bottom of each stairwell shaft.

Ma says he was most impressed by the ceiling inside each stairwell, which was built with vents to let in natural light and "chimney effect" ventilation that kept the building cool in the days before air conditioning. "It's so advanced, I've never seen anything like it," says Ma.

Because a major structural overhaul was unnecessary, the URA's renovations consisted of removing illegal structures, repainting the facades and burnishing vintage features such as the terrazzo stairwells. Most balconies had been enclosed through the years, but Ma says he wanted the buildings to keep the motley appearance they had acquired through decades of minor alterations, so some were left enclosed and others reopened.

"We will try to make it as organic as possible," says Ma. "We want to create a sense of it as being as eclectic as possible. To me, buildings do have a life."

The shophouses have had a varied life indeed. By the time the URA began acquiring them in 2010, most of the residential flats had been converted to commercial use, including a dance studio, offices and a film production studio whose occupants have included directors Fruit Chan and John Woo. There were also 31 residential occupants, but Ma says that if the URA had retained the residential units, the Buildings Department would have required more intrusive changes, including lifts and enclosing rear fire escapes.

Ma says about 20 per cent of the buildings' owners have refused to sell to the URA, but since the goal is preservation, not redevelopment, the agency is satisfied with its progress. "No single owner can redevelop the buildings now."

We will try to make it as organic as possible. To me, buildings do have a life
Michael Ma, URA architecture and design director

As for finding tenants, Ma says priority will be given to flower shops on the ground floor, while the upper floors will be rented to a mixture of businesses and NGOs. In the case of GoodPoint, he says the agency "tried to create some sort of cross-culture" between social enterprise and commercial tenants.

Tam says that is already happening. "Some commercial tenants are very interested in our social enterprise model. When we advertise GoodPoint, we promote the whole building, not just our half."

It helps that GoodPoint offers such unusual spaces. On the first floor, variety store Wecons sells local produce and sustainable food products from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Manager Lily Ho says she plans to use her 1,000 sq ft unit's ample space for cooking workshops.

Upstairs, Jakie Leung has outfitted his sunroom-like enclosed balcony with an antique table he will use for afternoon tea service. "I'm lucky I found this space," he says. "It suits my style."

GoodPoint is at 202-204 Prince Edward Road West, Mong Kok. For more information, call 2876 2492 or visit goodpoint.org.hk JL Ceramics can be reached at 9658 9959