LONG A FINANCIAL powerhouse, Hong Kong is fast emerging as a creative hub for a new generation of artists and designers, led in no small part by recent efforts to provide a cultural home in the heart of the city.
By its very nature, creativity is often associated with activities that transcend rules and ideas to create something new, so it's no surprise that many assume creative “hubs” naturally develop in a somewhat
organic, uncontrolled way. Artists have long colonised derelict buildings and flocked together; however, Hong Kong's experiment in regenerating a historical site into studios, boutiques and restaurants suggests that it's possible to plan for creative activities.
What's notable about PMQ (named after its previous incarnation as the Police Married Quarters) is that its roots lie in a completely different mindset from other design-led urban renewal projects in the city. Although the land and buildings (constructed in 1951) are government owned, the creative elements have been driven by a trio of savvy businessmen – Stanley Chu, Lawrence Fung and Leong Ka-chai – who have proven records for delivering successful projects in the city and donated HK$100 million to PMQ through their Musketeers Foundation.
PMQ Creative and Programme Director William To, who has been involved in promoting design for more than two decades and is also a senior consultant and project director at the Hong Kong Design Centre (HKDC), says the central location on Hollywood Road has been key to PMQ's early success.
“It's in such a busy and trendy area,” he says, “and that helps with exposure for designers. We've also not just used an old building; we've integrated new elements to make it a multifunctional hybrid space so that it'll act as a magnet for many activities. That's very rare in the city.”
To points to the tenant mix as another critical factor in the project's high profile. The complex, which celebrated its soft opening in mid-April this year, deliberately avoids big-name brands that sell similar products, or the ubiquitous tourist fare peddled elsewhere. Instead, the first wave of PMQ tenants presents an unusually eclectic array of contemporary fashion, avant-garde jewellery, accessories, stylish product design, furniture and artisan crafts.
“We wanted to add an element of surprise right from the start,” says To. “Our connection with the HKDC and Business of Design Week meant we could bring in great designers that we already had good relationships with. It would usually take years to develop that for a new venture.”
Two other important design factors help. First, prospective tenants are subject to a rigorous, independent and transparent selection process undertaken by a jury of their design peers. Physical placement throughout the 100 units is also carefully arranged to avoid conflict between similar products. Second, the mix offers a blend of emerging young designers and established brands, such as British designer Tom Dixon and Japan's Found Muji, resulting in an engaging choice of products.
The benefits are not entirely for younger designers, says To, who has already seen several established brands identify PMQ's younger designers to collaborate with. Elsewhere, it has helped some start their first business.
Jewellery designer Mag Tse, for instance, had been making accessories as gifts for friends and says PMQ provided the catalyst for launching her brand aogp with an inaugural collection of contemporary necklaces that evokes draped scarves.
“It's an interesting place where designers with similar visions can meet,” Tse says. “We all want to share and communicate with people, so PMQ is a good platform to communicate with other designers as well as with the public.”
Unusually for Hong Kong, where rents are notoriously steep, the units are rented at a highly discounted rate for two years. Tenants are expected to maintain an open-door policy for the public and stay open seven days a week to maximise public access, the idea being to embrace PMQ's potential as a creative hub rather than simply as a retail mall. To this end, tenants are encouraged to integrate the retail and design elements. A communal lounge and meeting place with audio-visual facilities also provide business support and facilitate networking.
Hong Kong architect and product designer Johnny Li has already seen the benefits of having his creative design studio, Yiline, easily accessible to the public and clients alike. The space is decorated with a selection of his elegantly simple furniture, works of art and home accessories, including a distinctive rug inspired by the 16th-century Chinese poet Li Bai.
“Since we moved in we've already secured a new project, working with Van Cleef & Arpels,” says Li. “It's all because of PMQ. People like William [To] have an incredible energy and passion and that translates to an open attitude.”
Fifteen PMQ units are devoted to temporary pop-up displays such as Herman Miller's covetable furniture and Hong Kong-based style tastemaker Ross Urwin's vintage interior accessories presented at The World Beyond.
Urwin says he was drawn to PMQ's 1950s architecture and heritage as a setting for his unique pieces from the '30s, '40s and '50s: “Having an architectural backdrop from the same period is an added bonus that we feel will most certainly complement the furniture and accessories.”
Beyond the individual tenants, a continually changing programme of art installations and events has been at the core of capturing public attention, says To. The first to be showcased in the central courtyard area is avant-garde designer duo Fredrikson Stallard's four-metre-high circular outdoor sculpture created in steel and decorated with 8,000 champagne-coloured Swarovski crystals.
PMQ also offers restaurants such as Aberdeen Street Social, designed by famed Shanghai-based architects Neri&Hu, while local architect Joyce Wang brings her trademark style to Tony Cheng's Spanish fine-dining restaurant Vasco, with interiors that are a contemporary celebration of machine fabrication and handcrafted detailing referencing an early 1900s aesthetic.
“I wanted the space to be a celebration of the Bauhaus-era approach to design, where all artistic disciplines came together to form a greater whole,” says Wang. “PMQ has become a local platform where young designers can develop a unique identity representative of Hong Kong's future design culture. I thought the space should reference that very notion.”
With distractions like these, the only downside is that the designers may spend more time out of their studios than in them.