In Hong Kong, where time’s winged chariot doesn’t so much hurry near as overtake on the inside lane, retro occupies a distinct niche in popular culture. Landmark buildings and whole stretches of harbour regularly fall prey to rampant development, so there’s a real affection for rejuvenating the feel of days gone by – be it via a much-loved childhood dish or a slightly eccentric design quirk.
This is not something that’s escaped the notice of Hong Kong’s more sensitive entrepreneurs. Katherine Lo, who owns the recently revamped Eaton HK hotel in Yau Ma Tei, is a case in point. She has given the 30-year-old property a new face as an arts and culture destination with a gallery, co-working space, radio station, screening room and music venue while incorporating mosaic tiles, neon signs, terrazzo floors and metal shutters that reference the classic Hong Kong atmosphere of shops and restaurants in the surrounding area. ‘It’s really this nostalgia for the past and this reverence for storytelling,’ says Lo.
AvroKO, the architecture firm responsible for the redesign, spent months researching the elements that make vintage Hong Kong spaces feel unique, using their findings to create a space that is at once retro and contemporary, with flourishes like a two-storey chandelier inspired by the city’s ubiquitous bamboo scaffolding.
The Eaton is hardly alone. All across Hong Kong, new spaces and products are finding inspiration in the past, drawing from what is often described as the golden era of Hong Kong culture: when Cantopop dominated East Asia’s music charts and films by John Woo and Wong Kar-wai captured the world’s imagination. But it’s not just nostalgia. It’s a quest for meaning in a city where the pace of change has always been relentless.
‘Hong Kong has been grappling with its identity, and people are getting better and more nuanced at identifying certain objects or aesthetics as being emblematic of [local] culture,’ says Billy Potts, a Hong Kong-born designer. ‘Things that weren’t previously thought of as a style are now being recognised as the Hong Kong vernacular.’
That’s true for Potts’ own design studio, Handsome Co, which has made products like bags and lamps based on Hong Kong’s ubiquitous red taxis. And it is also a factor in the work he does for many of his clients, like the city’s own Young Master Brewery, whose branding draws from a rich vein of local inspiration: including martial arts hero Bruce Lee, beloved comic series Old Master Q and the quintessential Hong Kong diners known as cha chaan teng.
Another of Potts’ clients is Camel, a brand of Hong Kong-made vacuum flasks that will celebrate its 80th anniversary next year. Unlike imported brands, these flasks have a glass interior to avoid adverse reactions with herbal tea, but it’s their distinctive enamelled exteriors that evoke fond memories in generations of Hongkongers.
Over the past few years, Camel boss Raymond Leung has been busy revamping the brand with a new graphic identity, new colours and crossovers with other brands like venerable Japanese teahouse Nakamura Tokichi. But the biggest part of the rejuvenation effort is the Camlux Hotel, which is housed in Camel’s original factory in Kowloon Bay.
‘We deliberately infused parts of the flask into the design,’ says Leung, who worked as an architect before taking over the family business from his father. When the factory’s operations moved to a new space in Hung Hom, Leung discovered boxes of vintage parts in the old space and incorporated them into light fixtures around the hotel. There’s also a gallery filled with decades of vintage Camel products and packaging – a miniature museum of classic Hong Kong design.
‘There’s authenticity in the whole thing. That’s what’s important,’ says Leung. ‘In recent years there’s been a resurgence of people in Hong Kong wanting to support local industry.’ Leung thinks it’s a reaction to globalisation – not just in Hong Kong, but in many other places as well. ‘In all cultures, on all levels, people want their uniqueness back. In Hong Kong, people tend to think of the golden era, the heyday. There are a lot of collective memories.’
Perhaps the first brand to truly recognise this was Goods of Desire, better known as G.O.D. – a play on words that sounds like ‘the good life’ in Cantonese – which stocks clothing, homeware and souvenir trinkets.
Founder Douglas Young says he has seen a change in how people perceive Hong Kong style over the past two decades. ‘Nowadays people are interested in how to evolve the traditions and have them merge with contemporary lifestyles.’
You can see that in G.O.D.’s own collections, which offer an updated take on traditional chinese clothing and homewares. And you can see it in the wave of small businesses that recreate vintage Hong Kong style. In Wan Chai, The Fleming is a boutique hotel that channels Hong Kong elements into something more sophisticated. ‘The colour palette has greens, reds and beige from the Star Ferry, and a lot of greens and reds you see in the street vendors, the chop makers, shoe repair stalls and so on,’ says its designer, Maxime Dautresme.
But the trend goes deeper than aesthetics. In Tsuen Wan, the old Nan Fung textile mill has been converted into an art and fashion centre called The Mills, which opened last December. Each of its projects draws from Hong Kong’s rich history of garment manufacturing, and former weavers and seamstresses now provide workshops to the public and collaborate with artists and designers on new projects.
Chin Chin Teoh, co-director of The Mills’ Centre for Heritage, Art and Textile, says she has been amazed to see how the complex has drawn a crowd that ranges from teenagers to their grandparents – a living bridge between the past and present. ‘We are keeping heritage intact,’ says Teoh. ‘But we also need to refresh it.’