It’s a classic Hong Kong story: huge, heritage-filled building in a prime location becomes vacant, followed by extended governmental indecision over what exactly to do with the site, leading to a building worth thousands of millions of dollars lying dormant for years and years on end. In a nutshell, this is the story of PMQ, formerly the less sexily named Police Married Quarters, a grade three historical site in the middle of Soho.
PMQ, which consists of an adjacent pair of expansive, functional buildings, was constructed in 1951 – on the site of the former Central Government School Victoria College, which was destroyed during the Japanese Occupation in WWII – to provide accommodation to married junior police officers, with the intention of boosting recruitment following the huge influx of mainland Chinese into Hong Kong after the Chinese Civil War.
When the PMQ buildings were eventually vacated in 2000, they were valued at $3,000m, yet remained empty for years amid a mire of indecision. Eventually, in the policy address of 2009, the government unveiled the ‘Conserving Central’ plan, which promised preservation of several key heritage sites in Central, including Murray Building, Central Market, the Central Police Station Compound and, of course, PMQ.
“[PMQ] is representative of the [local] architectural style that has a simple, functional outlook with repeating units,” says Stephen Tang JP, deputy director of the government’s Architectural Services Department, who worked on the renovation. “Many of these types of buildings have been pulled down [already]. But this one was preserved – you could say accidentally – when people realised we needed to keep at least one!”
Indeed, the fortuitous saving of PMQ has now translated to good fortune for the city’s creative community. After the site hosted the Detour design festival in 2009 (it also later played a part in Detour in 2011), the government put forward funds for basic renovation, and allowed four NGOs to bid for how they might utilise the building permanently. The winning bid, awarded in late 2010, was made by a mysterious, charitable trio of local businessmen who support culture and education, and go by the roguish name of ‘Musketeers Foundation’. These three Musketeers donated a cool $100m, which was put towards renovating the building and turning it into a hub for entrepreneuring local creatives – ‘create-preneurs’ in PMQ lingo.
A new hub for creativity
The new incarnation of PMQ as a home for ‘create-preneurs’ opens to the public in mid-April (exact date still to be confirmed), and is promising to provide a base to ‘nurture local designers’ and provide a stage for ‘creative happenings’. The old accommodation units have been rented out to over 100 different locally based designers at a discounted rate, for a maximum lease of two years, in order to give them a chance to create their own, viable businesses.
On top of that, there is The Cube – a huge exhibition space that links the two buildings, as well as a glass-covered courtyard, around five restaurants, one floor given over as a communal lounge and meeting area, plus several commercial spaces on the lower floors, which will help to subsidise operation costs. There are a handful of rooms for invited, live-in ‘designers in residence’, which will increase dialogue between local and international talent, plus 15 units reserved as ‘pop up’ spaces. What’s more, the foundations of the old Victoria College are accessible via an atmospheric underground tunnel in the central courtyard, giving extra gravitas to the heritage of the site.
William To, PMQ’s creative and programme director, is clearly excited that the project is finally about to come to fruition, pointing out that The Cube’s exhibition space has already been booked out for most of the upcoming year. “There’s a really nice mix of designers joining PMQ, from furniture designers, architects, product design, fashion design to accessory design and more,” he explains. “We’ll provide different training programmes to help them run their business. By bringing a lot of international designers in, plus a lot of people-traffic, their products are being exposed by distributors so they have a chance to be seen.”
So why is this concept so important in Hong Kong? “We need to help young designers to grow,” says To. “We have very talented people here, but because of the lack of space and cost of rent, theywere never given that opportunity to showcase their talents.” To explains that, in return for their opportunities, tenants are expected to have an ‘open-door’ policy to the public, as well as remaining open for seven days a week to maximise the site’s potential.
The designers entering the first tenancy of PMQ were chosen after a laborious application process. Retail outlets and studios confirmed so far for the site include Goods of Desire, Crafted in Hong Kong by Kapok, Coney & Co, Museum Context, S.Nine by Susanna Soo, The Refinery by Elizabeth Lau, Marijoli, Flying Zacchinis and SOIL among others.
Simon Zeng is a co-founder of Stylus Studio, a two-year-old interior architecture company that is taking up one of the small number of office spaces in the new complex. So, how did he feel when they were accepted? “We were so happy, very happy, the location is great,” Zeng says enthusiastically. “I think if Hong Kong is to be a hub of the design world in the future, PMQ should be right there, helping young and passionate designers.” Zeng explains that having many other designers in proximity to his studio at PMQ will be a ‘very good playground’ for brainstorming, which he feels will ‘boost the energy’ of his business.
The location card is undoubtedly one the strongest in PMQ’s hand – right among the galleries and boutiques of Sheung Wan, Central and Hollywood Road, it’s in a perfect location for capturing a design-oriented crowd. To points out that his team studied creative hubs all around the world, but most were on the outskirts of cities – making PMQ ‘very unique’.
The full list of PMQ’s tenants is still officially under wraps, although it’s known that another edition of Wan Chai bar Tai Lung Fung is entering the site, as well as a restaurant, bar and retail shop called Aberdeen Street Social (by Jason Atherton and Yenn Wong), plus two swanky new restaurants from the Drawing Room Concepts group – the Mediterranean-focused Isono Eatery and Bar on the sixth floor of block B and Vasco, a Spanish fine dining restaurant, on the seventh floor. This classy new spot is welcoming Paolo Casagrande, from Barcelonan two-Michelin star restaurant Lasarte, as its executive chef.
Chocolate Rain, a popular local design company that features whimsical characters, was the first of PMQ’s tenants to open when it launched its new flagship store on the ground floor last month. “In PMQ we have more space [that our other stores]!” explains Janice Liu, the project manager for Chocolate Rain. “We have a gallery space so we can invite artists to join this platform and show their design talents in our store. We also have a [new] restaurant, Eat & Play, which is focusing on having fun with food – we are having workshops and cooking classes,” she says. “We will also be inviting famous artists and designers to join our workshops – next month we start with [artist] Big Soil, so we hope to have a lot of creative power in our unit.” Liu explains that the refurbishing process has been, perhaps, a little trying at times. “Because it’s a heritage building there are so many restrictions! Lots of approvals to wait for and so on. But we are very excited to see when everyone will open [in April],” she says. “Lots of people have been coming in already and are curious what is inside. They want to see what is going on!”
So, what is the outlook for this unprecedented, non-profit creative hub in the middle of Hong Kong? “This is the first time any of us have done anything like this,” says To. “Every day is a challenge! Of course, we hope it will be very successful so that we can encourage the government to keep doing things like this.”
With the retail outlets set to open in mid-April, and the restaurants aiming for late-April, the long-slumbering PMQ is gearing up for its baptism of fire. The PMQ Night Market opens for Fridays and weekends between April 18 and June 15 [see p16]. There’s also a retrospective of the esteemed French designer Andrée Putman, running from May 24 to June 8, as part of Le French May.
Whether you’re into food, heritage, design, shopping or all of the above, we certainly recommend taking a look around PMQ this month.
PMQ 35 Aberdeen St, Central. Opening mid-April, 2014. For more information, see pmq.org.hk.