Hong Kong’s traditional walk-up tenement buildings, or tong lau (“Chinese building”), were originally constructed from the end of the 19th century through to the 1960s. Today, many of them fall into disrepair or face demolition—though some have been remarkably transformed by ingenious designers

Tung Fat Building

The distinct facade of Tung Fat Building stands out on the serene waterfront of Kennedy Town.

Originally built in the 1960s, this property is known for its reinterpretation of features often found in tong lau in Hong Kong, like high ceilings and a curved exterior. The transformation is the work of Victoria Allan, developer and founder of Hong Kong-based real estate firm Habitat Property.

“I saw the building in 2004 and loved it,” remembers Allan. This was thanks to its prime oceanfront location, she says, as well as it being “quite an unusual tong lau”.

“Tung Fat was large, being nine storeys [high]; it had a lovely rounded corner and amazing views over the water,” she explains. Tong lau in Hong Kong are typically between three to five storeys. “As soon as I saw it, I saw the potential to turn it into New York-style loft apartments.” 

Allan acquired the building, which originally housed 12 units, and carried out a total refurbishment of the structure. This includes the addition of an elevator, and an upgrade to the interiors. Despite the overhaul, she’d wanted to maintain as many historic features as possible, such as the building’s original nameplate and the terrazzo railings in the stairwell. “There were many challenges—we had several rounds of submissions to the Buildings Department, and the process took five years.” 

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Today, Tung Fat Building features eight apartments between approximately 1,100 sq ft to 1,350 sq ft each, all with large windows that face the western harbourfront. The top floor unit enjoys private access to the rooftop. The shop space on the ground floor is home to Mexican restaurant Chino. The building was sold a few years ago to a buyer “who also loved the renovation of the tong lau and its history.” 

“I think the building is very appealing to young professionals—especially if they have lived in cities like New York or London, and also to people with a strong design aesthetic,” adds Allan. 

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55 Tung Street & 11 Upper Station Street

It’s hard to believe that less than a decade ago, uber-trendy Po Hing Fong, Tai Ping Shan Street and the surrounding alleys—which sit on the border between Central and Sheung Wan—were mainly occupied by fruit stalls and car repair shops. Or that property developer and interior designer Helen Lindman, responsible for transforming two walk-ups in this tiny cul-de-sac, was “said to be mad for investing so far from SoHo”. 

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Swedish-born Lindman, who was initially buying and renovating homes in the SoHo area, also leased and managed them as founder of Lindman Properties. They were typically one-bedrooms, she remembers—but the market was after something different. “I learnt that many tenants were looking for a similar type of space—in a tong lau—but with more bedrooms.” 

She then started looking for entire walk-ups to renovate. It coincided with a time when she was “also ready to do something bigger”. 

“I had a vision to bring out the beauty in the older buildings, take them back to their prime, and show the Urban Renewal Authority (URA) that they need not be taken down, and that they indeed are sought-out places to live in,” she says. The URA, a quasi-governmental body, had faced criticism in the past for demolishing heritage buildings and neighbourhoods.

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In 2007, Lindman acquired 55 Tung Street, which was built in the 1950s. And in 2013, she took over 11 Upper Station Street. Constructed in the 1960s, it is a stone’s throw away from her first walk-up purchase. She transformed both entirely, though always with the goal of preserving the Chinese architecture of the buildings while fusing a Scandinavian aesthetic.

Both were repainted black and white, though their exteriors maintained the elegance of the mid-century tong lau. Inside, major changes include the addition of internal staircases in the duplexes. 

Both buildings now have a similar layout: they each have one 540 sq ft simplex, two 1,400 sq ft duplexes, and a shop on street level. 55 Tung Street’s ground floor houses fashion boutique The Only Alice, while 11 Upper Station Street's mezzanine is occupied by Nordic restaurant Frantzen’s Kitchen

Shortly after the completion of both projects in the early 2010s, the area—which is now popularly known as PoHo—began seeing a string of openings, from trendy cafes and art galleries to fashion boutiques.

Reflecting on the development of PoHo, Lindman points to Hong Kong’s fast-moving nature—something that's long been a part of the city’s history. “If you look at any old photographs of Hong Kong, it is not difficult to understand the expansion of neighbourhoods,” she says. “It’s ongoing in Hong Kong—when one is done, the next is to follow.”

The Gage

Constructed in the 1960s, The Gage on 36 Gage Street in Central is a “typical example of a post-war tenement building,” says architect Danny Ng, co-founder of Hong Kong-based 4N Design Architects. Ng’s firm was commissioned by property developer Sino Properties Hong Kong to redesign the walk-up’s facade, lighting and interiors, transforming it into a residential complex. 

The building consists of six storeys, with a ground-level shop floor and five storeys above, totalling approximately 5,000 sq ft. “In the days when this was built, Hong Kong’s economy was still in its [early] development stages,” explains Ng. Like in many other tong lau, Ng says, the proprietor of the business on ground level would have resided upstairs. 

But while walk-ups are a dime a dozen in the area—to this day, the building neighbours other older low-rises—The Gage is particularly special thanks to a design quirk. On the top two floors, there are balconies attached to the units.

“We believe this was not a typical style during those days [the time period it was built],” explains Ng. “We don’t have a record of why the original architect or landlord did that, yet these are certainly very nice features.” 

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Ng and his team highlighted the unique design by adding wall washer lamps and lightstrips to the building’s profile, while the white stucco walls of the structure were retouched. Combined with black-and-white colours painted on the exteriors, this ensures a dramatic effect—the building would become “prominent during night time”. The colour palette was chosen to enhance geometry. Inside, the apartments are redesigned as one-bedroom suites, ranging from 382 to 490 sq ft of interior space per unit. The two balconies each consist of approximately 50 sq ft.

Ng says the team selected natural materials like stone, timber, metal and glass to create a young, energetic vibe. Each apartment has a fully equipped kitchen and walk-in closet.

On street level, the architects wanted to pay respect to the surroundings, which are an “important context” for the site, says Ng. The team built a public pathway that runs along the ground floor of the building, leading to Pak Tsz Lane Park next door. Located just off the hustle and bustle of Hollywood Road, the park is an unassuming spot with major historical significance: it’s where Chinese revolutionaries assembled for meetings in the lead-up to the 1911 Revolution. 

“[The path] is an interesting design element in this project,” reflects Ng, who says he wanted to make the building more accessible. “We were designing not only for the client and future tenants, but also for Hongkongers and visitors to the city.” 

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