Hong Kong’s design talent and manufacturing history come to the fore in an ambitious industrial conversion project.
When the late industrialist Chen Din-hwa founded Nan Fung Textiles in 1954—setting up a mill in the Tsuen Wan manufacturing district on what was then the outskirts of Hong Kong—he could not have imagined that his small company would become the territory’s biggest producer of cotton yarn, much less evolve into a real estate giant. Nor could he have foreseen how his successors would eventually transform the old factory buildings into an impressive creative hub dubbed The Mills a decade after its closure.
The US$89 million overhaul was the brainchild of Vanessa Cheung, a Harvard-trained landscape architect, head of Nan Fung’s Hong Kong property division, and granddaughter to Chen. She tasked chief designer Ray Zee, who was once an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Hong Kong, to update the three remaining cotton mills and bring in natural light while preserving a wealth of original details: stenciled “no smoking” signs, sand buckets used for firefighting, old window frames. The former front gate forms a backdrop for the concierge counter, and benches flanking the newly added central atrium reuse timber panels from the factory doors.
Zee has also turned two vacant concrete rooftops into inviting public spaces, the smaller of which holds vegetable plots brimming with kohlrabi, daikon, coriander, and tomato used in some of the eateries downstairs. On street level, a new pedestrian walkway is festooned with locally commissioned murals; one corner of the complex sports an enormous portrait by Portuguese artist Alexandre Farto, better known as Vhils.
Inside, The Mills plays host to Fabrica, a fashion and technology incubator, along with the Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile, where the galleries examine the legacy of Hong Kong’s textile industry. But the most exciting section is Shopfloor, a retail zone that spotlights local designers and small brands such as bespoke mechanical watchmaker Eoniq; independent publisher Book B; and Wood Polar, whose natural skin and haircare products include bars of mocha exfoliating soap and honey beer shampoo. Then there are pop-up stores like Shabibi Sheep Workshop (open through August), which challenges the notion of concrete as a cold and unrefined material through its handmade wall-mounted clocks, trays, and candle holders. The Mills marks a bold departure from the predictable offerings of most Hong Kong malls, and combined with the architectural restraint on show, it’s well worth a Tsuen Wan detour.
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This article originally appeared in the February/March 2019 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Concrete Thinking”).