Cover Before and after shots of 379 Queen’s Road Central, a tong lau redeveloped by architecture firm PMDL

While Hong Kong remains critically short of housing, the city continues to lose its heritage buildings in the name of development. We ask the experts: could the future of Hong Kong’s housing lie in its past?

Housing is a hot topic in Hong Kong. The annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey has ranked Hong Kong the most expensive housing market for nine years in a row. It is also one of the most densely populated cities in the world, with more than 7.4 million people living on 1,105sqkm of land, much of which is hills, making it unsuitable for habitation.

At the same time, another crisis faces Hong Kong—the continuing disappearance of its old buildings, as they’re torn down to make way for new developments. The Antiquities Advisory Board (AAB) has identified 1,444 buildings as deserving of varying levels of preservation, but this designation does not always guarantee protection. Five buildings with Grade 1 status—which is given to ‘a building of outstanding merit, which every effort should be made to preserve if possible’ according to the AAB’s website—have been demolished in the past two decades alone.

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Across the city, however, revitalisation projects have seen heritage buildings transformed into sites that fulfil contemporary needs while preserving their pasts: the Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Arts that opened last year, for instance, is located within the former Central Police Station, a complex that includes 16 heritage buildings. The Murray, meanwhile, is a swish hotel that used to be a government office in the 1960s. If redevelopment can work for these projects, why not residences, too?

Supply and Demand

From a practical standpoint, redeveloping older buildings might be a more viable solution—in terms of expediency, at least. “If you talk about the future of housing, you’re looking at a somewhat urgent situation, where you want to create immediate solutions,” says Alan Lo, executive director of Classified Group, who transformed a 19th century tenement building and pawn shop into modern British restaurant, The Pawn. “Doing a retrofit of an old building and turning it around in 12 months is a lot faster than building something from scratch, which probably takes three to four years.”

On the other hand, there are plenty of drawbacks that interfere with the idea—the supply and flexibility of the buildings, for instance. “There’s a great number of tong laus in Hong Kong still, but I don’t think we have enough of them to solve the housing problem,” says Alan. Additionally, since certain aspects of the buildings would remain fixed even after redevelopment, they might not meet the varied needs of buyers.

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“When you deal with an existing building, it is what it is, and it is where it is,” says Frank Leung, founder and principal of local design studio, Via. “It would be niche by definition, simply because it would attract sectors of people who have more freedom to live in these kinds of conditions or locations. What you’re able to turn it into would definitely be a custom residence, which is not really made for a broad market.” Projects that he’s seen with heritage as a major selling point, he explains, seem to feature in the market in only very small quantities.

But according to Andrew Bell, the Australian founder of Hong Kong-based design company Andrew Bell Interiors, this quality is a selling point in itself. “The supply is finite,” he says. “Older buildings are increasingly rare, and therefore more desirable.”

Red Tape

Legal restrictions are another obstacle. Many old factory buildings, for example, are still subjected to strict, dated zoning laws from the 1960s, stipulating they can only be used for industrial or warehousing purposes. While former industrial buildings are regularly turned into highly desirable residences in cities such as New York and London, in Hong Kong, outdated regulations mean these buildings are often left empty.

And it’s not just factories—other buildings are also falling through the cracks. “Hong Kong has a lot of abandoned schools that could become very interesting housing solutions but—bureaucracy,” says Alan, recalling how he once worked on transforming an abandoned school in Tai Po into a community arts centre, when he was still with the Hong Kong Arts Development Council. “What are we waiting for? I don’t know.”

Living in an old building brings you back to a certain time, or a slower lifestyle
Frank Leung

Striking a Balance

Despite these obstacles, the city is dotted with new residences that are housed in successfully redeveloped older buildings. Such projects usually require a careful balance between preserving the building’s original design and introducing more contemporary comforts and safety requirements. “Honour the building and work with it for what it is,” advises Andrew. When adapting an older building for residential use, he always reinstalls the original iron-framed windows. “From the street, these windows always elicit delight from passers-by,” he says.

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Although Frank’s studio does not specialise in older buildings, he never passes up the opportunity to work on them when he can. “We respect the existing building, creating a dialogue with modern comforts,” he says, explaining how new elements should be relevant to both the building and the needs of its occupants. When he worked on a striking two-storey house in Kowloon built in the 1930s, he emphasised the original Bauhaus design language by highlighting the curves of the house’s canopy, and stuck with simple materials so as not to overpower the existing structure.

In fact, in the eyes of design enthusiasts, the original elements of these old buildings are what grant them such appeal. “There’s an aesthetic appeal or nostalgia effect,” says Frank. “Living in an old building brings you back to a certain time, or a slower lifestyle. I think a lot more people are interested in the contrast of the new and contemporary with the old nowadays. Living in a space with a connection to the past is now recognised as more interesting, for having layers and depth.”

Heart and Soul

Perhaps most importantly, the preservation of older buildings has the potential to enrich neighbourhoods, imbuing them with unique charm and character, thus making them more attractive places to live. Larger developments provide less opportunity for residents to build relationships, which negatively impacts an area’s sense of community. Not only that, but the homogeneity of these developments can erase authenticity and diversity, as well.

You don’t really get much street-level sociability anymore, and that’s very important. That’s what defines Hong Kong
Alan Lo

“Look at new large-scale developments like mega-malls and residential developments on top of MTR stations,” says Alan. “You don’t really get much street-level sociability anymore, and that’s very important. That’s what defines Hong Kong. We walk through the streets and see people; smell bread coming out of bakeries. It’s what makes a place real.”

“When an old tong lau is torn down, to be replaced by architecturally unworthy and overly expensive residential skyscrapers, one must ask oneself, how have Hong Kong’s people benefitted?” adds Andrew. “Hong Kong’s cultural heritage is part of its soul, and these older buildings are part of that heritage.”

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