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Tuesday, October 20, 2015, 09:21

From spinning mills to spinning tales

By Chitralekha Basu

From spinning mills to spinning tales
The site of a 19th century lime kiln, run by the Hakka community, has been turned into Sheung Yiu Folk Museum in Sai Kung.

Support for startups

If the point of revitalization is to acknowledge and bring public awareness to a forgotten chapter in the city’s history, it’s difficult to sustain such projects on strictly non-commercial bases. Only fully-funded government undertakings are able to pull it off without a hitch. For example, the Sheung Yiu Folk Museum in Sai Kung, New Territories, built on the site of a 19th-century lime and brick kiln, is a tribute to both the “traditional life of the Hakka people, (who built the kiln) as well as the rise and fall of the Sheung Yiu Village and the lime industry”, says Brian Lam, curator (history) at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum.

“The lime industry played a major role in the development of the village, from its heyday to its decline. Preserved in-situ, the lime kiln exemplifies how the residents of the Sheung Yiu Village made a living, participating in this early industry, and gives visitors a better understanding of the connection between the village and the marketplaces, located in the adjacent area,” he adds.

Lee, however, feels the government expenditure on small museums unable to draw substantial visitors might be “better utilized to subsidize rents for creative enterprises, startups and support the building of Hong Kong’s creative industry”. The former Police Married Quarters on Hollywood Road, which have since been turned into a bustling activity center for artists and fashion designers, is “a step in the right direction”, says Lee. The tenants pay a reasonable, HK$18,000 per 40 square meter studio space and sometimes are subsidized further, depending on the needs of particular artists.

Despite the government’s offer in 2010 to waive the land premium normally charged for developing old industrial buildings in case of “wholesale conversions” with minimum tweaking of the original framework, there have not been many takers. Hong Kong’s former entrepreneurs prefer to play it safe, pull down defunct factories and build blocks of flats, rather than going for creative re-use.

Frank Wong, committee member of RicsAsia, an agency monitoring trends in real estate the world over, agrees it’s not easy for a property owner “to ignore profit, especially in Hong Kong where land is in such short supply. Private owners have to consider investment return, which is at least partially guaranteed, if it’s an out-and-out commercial project”.

The other stumbling block, he says, has to do with logistical constraints. “Owners are not too keen to take advantage of the scheme as the costs of retaining the original superstructure and revitalizing is similar to building a new structure. The original structure is often outdated, and functionally unsuitable for modern purposes. Revitalization entails replacing the original pipes, electrical wiring, installing lifts and more washrooms. The lay-out of an older building from the 1960s looks very strange compared to that of an A-grade office.”

“Typically industrial buildings from the past are 10 storeys high, 20 at most, whereas those in Europe are single-storeyed, and lend themselves better to creative re-adaptation of the space,” he adds.

From spinning mills to spinning tales
Left: Nan Fung Mills, founded 61 years ago, is being turned into a creative hub for textile entrepreneurs. Right: Artist’s impression of The Mills to be completed in 2018.

The Mills Project

Such limitations have not deterred the Nan Fung group. Formerly textile barons, realty is the group’s mainstay now. The company is converting the now inoperative factory site at Tsuen Wan into a space to celebrate Hong Kong’s industrial past as well as nurture creative entrepreneurs of the future. The HK$700-million Mills Project, says person-in-charge Cherry Chan, “is about giving back to Hong Kong (where the textile industry was the backbone of manufacturing in the 1960s and 1970s) and while we’re at it, we hope, foster entrepreneurship”.

Sprawling over 260,000 square feet, the project entails three components — The Mills Fabrica, where young craftsmen and designers will meet with investors, suppliers and entrepreneurs; The Mills Gallery, an interactive platform for dialogue among the fashion, arts and culture community, and The Mills Shop Floor, “an immersive online-to-offline retail experience for all”.

“The Mills Project is meant to serve as an intersection of textile, art, society and culture,” says Chan. “We are trying to explore textiles as a vehicle of contemporary art that people can relate to. We hope to reach the standard for a museum and not just be an arts space.”

When the spiffy new reincarnated version of Nan Fung Mills, now simply The Mills, with its futuristic interiors, opens in 2018, it will showcase elements hearkening back to its 61-year-old history. “We’ll keep the old stairwells, clocks, signage, numbered lights used to set off fire alarms, metal triangles that previously contained clock faces, fluorescent lights, also some of the old elevators which are too slow by today’s standards,” informs Chan.

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