Nuance & Nostalgia
How historical motifs are driving Hong Kong’s unique design identity
Using nostalgic Hong Kong tropes in interior design and architecture is certainly not a new idea, but it seems like the trend has reached fever pitch of late. You can’t turn a corner without coming upon a project that uses buzzwords like ‘heritage’ or ‘revitalisation’ in its marketing speak, while employing nomenclature that relies on puns derived from transliteration. (Not to mention the rampant application of neon signage, a feature once so in danger of extinction that is now verging on ubiquitous.)
But it doesn’t all rest on gimmickry. When local restaurant group Black Sheep Restaurants debuted its grungy, hipster take on Chinese dining Ho Lee Fook five years ago, the city was just waking up to the idea that there was anything worth co-opting from its own history. ‘We wanted it to be almost the exact opposite experience of a typical Chinese banquet hall,’ says group co-founder Syed Asim Hussain. ‘We were tired of big brands and chefs coming here and trying to replicate the successes they had in New York of London. Why are we so dazzled by imports from other cities when we have so much going on in our backyard? Our goal was to build the kind of culinary institution that other cities would want to import.’ It took a so-called outsider to pull in the right influences – American and part-time Hongkonger Sean Dix brought in the wall of waving cats, which utilises the good luck charm often found in local restaurants, a divider wall inspired by local artist King of Kowloon and chairs that were originally commissioned for a project he was doing for Mao Zedong’s granddaughter. Five years on, Ho Lee Fook is living up to its founding objective, with an opening in Europe coming soon.
In that same half a decade, countless copycats have sprouted, but also several projects that take quintessential Hong Kong motifs and update them for contemporary times. ‘It’s important not to take the elements for their face value only,’ explains Vince Lim of Lim + Lu, the husband-and-wife duo responsible for the look of healthy Chinese eatery Kasa, whose baby pink and blue interiors wouldn’t have existed in bygone Hong Kong but whose design harks back to traditional local cha chaan teng diners, thanks to the use of pendant lights often found in wet markets and the old-style steel window at the mezzanine level. ‘The elements should act as a reference point to an earlier time period, while not losing its identity in today’s design. In Kasa, we deliberately used old Hong Kong-style mosaic tiles common in cha chaan tengs, but contrasted the nostalgic material with more contemporary marble and brass.’
As the movement continues to gain momentum, Hong Kong is proving a rich tapestry from which to leverage – while the local cha chaan tengs and bing sutts are common fodder, there are other devices just as iconic. For Katherine Lo, founder and president of Eaton Workshop, it was exactly that: ‘I tasked AvroKO with interpreting my vision and briefed them with my early inspirations: the cha chaan tengs that my father took us to and the 1990s films of Wong Kar-wai which were shot in the beautifully raw, gritty neighbourhood of Jordan,’ which is where the progressive hotel-cum-co-working-cum-wellness space is situated. Working with an international agency, it was important for Lo to immerse the design team in her references. ‘Many of the streetscapes in the neighbourhood that Eaton shares are living museums of old 50s and 60s Hong Kong, with decades-old neon signs, shopfronts and textures. The original Eaton building itself is a vestige from that time as well, so it was fitting to build off of the local vernacular,’ explains AvroKO founding partner William Harris. ‘We took inspiration from Wong Kar-wai’s films to drive the quality of lighting, colouring and dreamy nature of the processional journeys,’ he adds, proving that inspiration can be interpreted much less literally, spawning both tangible and intangible manifestations. ‘The furniture is tailored and even feels futuristic at times, while the density and maze-like feel of Kowloon has been reinterpreted in the lobbies and dining floors.’
Maxime Dautresme of A Work of Substance, which designed The Fleming hotel, agrees with this more cerebral approach to design. His thought process went beyond lifting from a dictionary of references. ‘Hong Kong has a culture of efficiency. We borrowed that in order to bring the hotel’s design forward. We generally don’t look into trends as we believe there is no sustainability in them – for us, site relevancy and usability are both key in design.’
‘Having connected people across the harbour for over a century, the Star Ferry is a piece of Hong Kong’s collective memory and identity,’ he explains. ‘This unique and elegant icon of Hong Kong’s past and present became the foundation for every design detail. Nostalgia is further evoked by colours and scents – hues seen on the hull of Hong Kong’s ferries, fishing boats, delivery trucks and temples, and apothecary-inspired toiletries and custom aromas of sandalwood and amber notes.’
Simple it may be, but therein lies the difference between a cut-and-paste job and something that is both a tribute to the past and an icon for the future: thought. ‘In today's social-media-driven society, gimmicks are commonly employed in design to create an Instagrammable moment. For us, that fine line is the context and surroundings. If we are truly paying homage to the city's history, there needs to be multiple ideas and points that contribute to that concept,’ says Lim.
Text / Christina Ko