When the hoardings come down at The Mills, the four years spent on rejuvenating the cluster of disused cotton mills in Tsuen Wan will not be immediately apparent – and the architects wouldn’t have it any other way. “We didn’t try to change the external look of the buildings at all. It would have been too easy to erase the past. This is all about augmenting the past,” says Ray Zee, head of design at Nan Fung Group’s Hong Kong property division and former assistant professor of architecture at the University of Hong Kong.

Zee was seconded to this unusual project by the upmarket developer in 2014, and recently took Post Magazine on an exclu­sive tour of the property before its opening later this year.

In 2010, the Hong Kong government rolled out a policy making it easier and cheaper for industrial buildings that are at least 15 years old to be converted for non-industrial use. It had, after all, already been decades since the bulk of Hong Kong’s factories had moved to the mainland and Southeast Asia.

The buildings known as Mill 4, Mill 5 and Mill 6 were built in the 1950s and 60s by Chen Din-hwa, the late founder of Nan Fung. Chen had moved to Hong Kong from Ningbo, in Zhejiang province, when the Communists took power in 1949, and proceeded to build the city’s biggest yarn-spinning business, Nan Fung Textiles, becoming known as the king of cotton yarn. Mills 1, 2 and 3 were knocked down in the 80s, a few years after China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping opened up the mainland for outside investment. But, surprisingly, the family business left the three remaining low-rise buildings standing, even though the spinning business closed in the 2000s. Nan Fung had, by this time, become a property developer and the temptation to knock them down and turn the old mills into some­thing far more valuable must have been strong.

Vanessa Cheung, Chen’s granddaughter and head of Nan Fung’s Hong Kong property development business, convinced the company to preserve the site on which its fortune was built (after all, Nan Fung – which had the cash last year to pay HK$24.6 billion for a plot of land in Kai Tak – could afford to preserve its birthplace).

There is, in fact, a fashion for nostalgia in Hong Kong – a result of the city’s confidence being undermined by the mainland, formerly its large but poor-relation neighbour, becoming increasingly affluent and assertive. It was all very different when refugees from China flocked to the then-British colony to start their lives from scratch, even though some, like Chen, escaped with assets. Buildings like the old mills in Tsuen Wan are seen as symbols of a never-say-die spirit and the potential for dreams to come true.

Hong Kong 'techstyle' incubator The Mills awards top prize to fashion start-up

But it is construction dust rather than fairy dust that is visible inside the sprawling Mills compound today. The HK$700 million-plus project is near completion, and much has been removed from what used to be a cramped, dark space. A three-storey-high atrium in Mill 6, the biggest of the three buildings, sacrifices valuable square feet in favour of an airy “nave”, as Zee calls it, that is flooded with natural light from a glass ceiling. A wide staircase descends from the second floor and will make a dramatic backdrop for the catwalk shows planned for the atrium, showing designs and products from Fabrica, the fashion and technology incubator Nan Fung will establish in Mill 5.

We want to be honest about our industrial history. What you see is a concrete building that is 60, 70 years old. The structure is sound. It just needs a bit of surgery to reinforce it
Ray Zee, head of design at Nan Fung Group’s Hong Kong property division

Another three-storey atrium has been knocked through in the incubator’s co-working space, creating a vertical com­mon area, with a 13-metre-high ceiling. It sits on the side of the building that has had an original concrete wall replaced by glass. Those working on higher floors will be able to look down to the bottom of the atrium through glass balconies.

“This is not wasting space, but creating space,” Zee says. “If it weren’t for the atrium, there wouldn’t be a place where people would want to gather.”

Another unusual feature here is a recessed inner wall that has been added to create an open-air corridor running along the side of the main floor of Fabrica. It may be politically incor­rect to have a smoker’s corner (and unexpected, consider­­ing that Cheung is a fitness fanatic), but this is where future tenants can take ciggy breaks or stretch their legs. The wall, half covered in shade, will help lower the indoor temperature and reduce the air-conditioning bill.

Fabrica is intended to be an incubator for so-called techstyle companies making “wearables” that merge fashion and technology, and companies inventing retail models for fashion or improving the materials and supply chains for the industry. There is already a Fabrica Fund – a venture-capital fund taking stakes in new companies such as Goxip, an online lifestyle platform that tells consumers what’s hip and where to buy it.

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It all sounds very up to the minute, but many remnants of the past will be left untouched, and could look to the uniniti­ated like design oversights: the peeling paint on walls, the stencilled no smoking signs, the structural haunch beams battered by big machinery of old and steel reinforcements for columns.

“We want to be honest about our industrial history,” Zee says. “What you see is a concrete building that is 60, 70 years old. The structure is sound. It just needs a bit of surgery to reinforce it.”

Above the Mill 6 atrium is the recently renamed Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile, otherwise known as Chat. This is an exhibition and studio space with three galleries measuring between 1,116 sq ft and 4,458 sq ft. One, the D.H. Chen Heritage Centre, will be reserved for old machi­nery and archive materials about the textile industry and Tsuen Wan’s history. The other two will be used for exhibitions of artwork and research related to Hong Kong’s fashion and textile industries. There is also a studio for an annual residency programme, which will be debuted this summer by a Filipino artist.

Above the two main floors reserved for Chat, a public roof garden is likely to prove popular at lunchtimes. And a 20-metre wall will feature commissioned artworks beside a vegetable patch that will keep some of the food outlets in the retail area well-provided with herbs.

“We will encourage our retail tenants to sign a green lease,” Zee says. “What it means is, if they recycle more, they get given extra space to promote their products. We will provide compost bins for organic waste and glass bottle crushers.”

Inside the Hong Kong cotton mills being transformed from old eyesores into creative hub

Hong Kong’s private revitalisation projects are often required to be financially self-sufficient in the long term. About half of the total floor space in the three buildings will be reserved for retailers and food and drink outlets. Cheung, a landscape architect, has promised to give preference to independent local brands. She is also planning a CrossFit gym to promote her favoured exercise regimen.

Nixie Lam Lam, district councillor for Tsuen Wan West, where The Mills is located, says she has introduced village chiefs to Nan Fung so that the new project has a connection with the community.

“Many of them used to work in the Tsuen Wan mills, and they provided valuable background for Chat’s archives,” Lam says. “They are pleased that someone is taking an inter­est. On the whole, local residents don’t really know much about it, since the whole building is still under wraps, but I think it is good that it will be a new place for people to hang out.”

Lam adds that when it comes to gentrification, that ship has already sailed.

“This hasn’t been an industrial area for a long time,” she says. “It is a business and residential neighbourhood. There will be tens of thousands of people moving into Tsuen Wan when the new flats near Tsuen Wan West MTR station are all completed. Many are new to the area and are younger.”

Lee Ho-yin, head of architectural conservation programmes at the University of Hong Kong, says he sees The Mills as being in line with government efforts to develop creative industries. It is encouraging that the building has been conserved and that there will be art exhibitions, he adds, but these are incidental.

“The measure of success of the project should be made in terms of how many fashion start-ups have been enabled, and how many of these start-ups have become locally, regionally and internationally known brands,” Lee says.

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The ultimate measure of success cannot be The Mills alone, he adds, but requires a broader look at whether this and other facilities that target product designers turn Hong Kong into an innovation-driven economy and raise the city out of the “property-driven economic hole we have dug ourselves into”.

Ada Wong Ying-kay, an advocate of cultural and social innovation whose official roles include honorary chief execu­tive of the Hong Kong Institute of Contemporary Culture (HKICC) and supervisor of the HKICC Lee Shau Kee School of Creativity, also sees The Mills’ main role as part of a broader attempt to boost the city’s fashion-technology industry, a specialist segment in which Hong Kong may stand more chance of success than it does in fashion design. In January, the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau announced details for a five-storey fashion and design hub in Sham Shui Po.

Visitors will soon be able to see for themselves whether The Mills has got the balance between nostalgia and progress right. The first Chat programmes will be unveiled during the soft opening, which is scheduled for August or September.