A Pair of Developers Break With Tradition in Hong Kong

 The Tung Fat Building in Kennedy Town was converted to eight apartments, one per floor. The exterior was refurbished, but its corners retain the curves characteristic of Modernism. – Credit: Denice Hough

The Tung Fat Building in Kennedy Town was converted to eight apartments, one per floor. The exterior was refurbished, but its corners retain the curves characteristic of Modernism. – Credit: Denice Hough

HONG KONG (The New York Times) — The Tung Fat Building has a prized waterfront position in Kennedy Town, the westernmost neighborhood on the crowded north shore of Hong Kong Island.

Its Cantonese name translates as the “Get Rich Together” building, one of many such aspirational titles for Hong Kong apartments and offices, old and new.

But for its owners, the “tong lau,” or walkup tenement, has been a decade-long cash sinkhole, although the expense should be ending now that the concrete building’s unusual renovation is all but completed.

It took five years for the husband-and-wife team of Victoria Allan and Mark Cumming to accumulate all 12 units, which had been subdivided into commercial and residential spaces, and then another five years of working with government departments to secure renovation permits.

“If I ever thought it would take this long to get the building finished, I don’t know I would have taken on the project, to be honest,” Ms. Allan said.

Preserving old buildings doesn’t exactly run in the psyche of Hong Kong, where locals joke that the sound of pile-driving and construction is the “Hong Kong symphony.” Major developers typically search for chances to pull down city blocks of tong lau and replace them with residential skyscrapers.

At Tung Fat, however, the developers decided to keep the original building, designed as a homage to Modernism. They converted the interior to eight apartments, one per floor, while the ground-floor retail space now is home to Chino, a Mexican fusion restaurant run by a chef who formerly worked at several Nobu locations.

The original plan was to sell the completed apartments but, having put so much effort into the project, the owners decided to lease them instead. Monthly rents start at 55,000 Hong Kong dollars, or $7,095, for the smallest, 1,100-square-foot unit to 120,000 dollars for the 1,340-square-foot top floor apartment, which has a private roof. As of mid-December, five of the apartments have been rented.

The building cost around 30 million dollars, and another 30 million to renovate. The owners believe they can achieve yields of 8 to 10 percent, more than double the norm in Hong Kong, because rents have risen considerably since they bought the structure.

The building’s exterior was refurbished during the renovations, but its corners retain the curves characteristic of Modernism. Also, the ground floor is recessed, as is typical with tong lau, to offer protection from Hong Kong’s strong summer sun and occasional heavy rain.

In the apartments’ living rooms, six-foot-tall windows were created to capture views of Stonecutters Bridge, the residential towers of Kowloon set against green hills and the hydrofoil ferries speeding to Macau. The windows originally featured faceted glass but, thanks to modern molding techniques, they now are single long curves.

“The building now looks very modern again, even though it’s an old building,” said Stephen Javens, the project’s architect. “What we have tried to do is reinvigorate the ideas of Modernism in this kind of building.”

Kerry Phelan Design Office, Mr. Javens’s firm, is based in Melbourne, Australia, and specializes in boutique residential projects and renovating heritage buildings. It had refurbished a 1920s building in Shanghai that is now the Cachet Boutique hotel. But it had never worked on such a project in Hong Kong.

“We have been described as romantic modernists,” Mr. Javens said. “Once these buildings are gone, they are gone forever. I hope this building encourages people to preserve other parts of Hong Kong’s built heritage. Otherwise it will all disappear.”

The developers ensured that some of the Tung Fat building’s original features were preserved, such as the terrazzo balustrades in the stairwells, a common feature of pre-World War II buildings in the city.

“I had to get them to cover it up and give them a penalty if it went,” said Ms. Allan, founder of Habitat Property, a local real estate brokerage firm. “Same with the original sign of the name on the front of the building. They just wanted to chip it off, this beautiful terrazzo writing.”

Hong Kong’s rules required that the building, which had been renovated illegally many times over the years, had to be restored to its original state before the developers could apply for a legal renovation permit.

The interim changes also involved modern safety standards. For instance, the sidewalk had been built up over the years so it was level with the retail space. But the original plans showed the sidewalk had been lower so the developers had to build an access ramp for wheelchairs, then apply to remove it.

One of the main challenges was to install an elevator. The shaft space could not be dug below the building so, instead, the elevator lobby is at the top of a short flight of stairs. Even the elevator’s cab size had to be adjusted so there would be enough room left for a back staircase, as a fire escape.

With all the changes, the contractors actually held two ceremonies to mark the “start” of the work, with suckling pork placed at a temporary shrine as a traditional offering to appease the gods and lead to safe work.

“Two pigs have lost their lives in the making of this building,” Ms. Allan said.

The repermitting process was particularly painful, Ms. Allan and Mr. Javens said, because the Buildings Department would not give any initial guidance on the changes. So the contractors and architect had to guess what would be acceptable, begin the work, and then call officials down to the building to see if they approved.

The department officials did, however, have instructions about the floor plan and the building’s overall look. The top floors were slightly smaller than the other levels, creating a tapered silhouette that had to be maintained despite the renovation. So rather than use the sliding windows that were installed elsewhere, the architect inclined the windows on the top two floors — keeping the “slant” while also maximizing the interior space.

“What was a problem has actually created something really unusual, a unique feature,” Mr. Javens said.

The apartments have English oak floors, laid in a herringbone pattern, and used plantation-raised American oak for the doors and cabinetry, with custom-made curved brass handles that hint at traditional Chinese design. The owners and the architect scoured more than 40 marble shops in mainland China before settling on Arabascato marble for the sinks and kitchen countertops.

“I wanted to make sure we did something that would stand out in the market,” Ms. Allan said. “I definitely feel I’ve achieved what I set out to achieve with the building. It’s just taken a lot longer than I expected.”

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