Tse Chi-kin is pacing meditatively through The Mills, a former textiles factory in Tsuen Wan and Hong Kong’s latest heritage revitalisation project, opening in December 2018.
‘There used to be scores of spinning machines on each floor, running day and night. You couldn’t hear yourself think,’ says the 83-year-old retired technician, who worked for Nan Fung Textiles in the 1970s when it was producing up to 32 million pounds of yarn a year.
‘Tsuen Wan was all thundering, clattering factories then, no fancy malls or apartments or MTR. I got the job at Nan Fung through a friend, starting on HK$3,000 a month and working eight-hour shifts, six days a week. No lunch hour, mind you: you ate on the job,’ says Tse.
Today’s occupants of The Mills also eat on the job. Only now it’s likely to be a soy latte and vegan wrap taken al desko. The spaces once known as Mills 4, 5 and 6 have been recast into a very 2018 triumvirate: heritage centre, business space and shopping precinct – the latest in a succession of revamped Hong Kong heritage victories after both PMQ and Tai Kwun in Central dodged the wrecking ball.
Nan Fung is a classic Hong Kong success story, first making its name as a yarn manufacturer before diversifying into property and shipping. In 2013, managing director Vanessa Cheung, granddaughter of founder Chen Din-hwa, decided that the company’s defunct mills deserved a future.
Five years and HK$700 million later, new bridges have linked two of the original buildings, there are public parks (with thriving herb and vegetable beds) covering the roofs, and glass has taken the place of an entire concrete wall. But Tse’s stroll down memory lane is still signposted by pieces of history: the old factory gates have been incorporated as decoration, battered fire buckets act as signage, and concrete columns have been deliberately left as stark and unadorned as they were in the days when the city was a manufacturing powerhouse.
The Mills is starting to hum with activity once again, with plenty of nods to its industrial past. One of the new tenants is Fabrica, an incubator for start-ups cross-pollinating fashion, textiles and technology. Even before The Mills fully opens this month, Hong Kong’s first consumer-orientated upcycling operation – named Alt – has been turning out new garments woven from old clothes. The process – cleaning, disassembling and rejuvenating – can take as little as four hours: an object lesson to a throwaway society.
Chat, or the Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile, will run programmes and exhibitions, as well as hosting a fully operational yarn-spinning machine. An early project saw Chat staff demonstrating weaving techniques in Tsuen Wan’s public housing estates.
Cafes and restaurants also spread from street level to the top floor, where they look onto the larger of two gardens. There are shops selling home accessories and alternative fashion items. There’s even a 24-hour vet and something the younger Tse would have had real difficulty picturing – a pet hotel.
But as much as anything else, The Mills is testament to a formative period of the city’s history. In 1966, the garment industry employed 246,470 people of the registered 3.7 million population – the largest number of any sector, before rising costs saw manufacturing shift to other parts of Asia, and the city itself moved towards other industries. The building that ex-technician Tse recalls so vividly helped form the bedrock of Hong Kong’s prosperity today, and is now set to play a role in its future. As he says: ‘I’m old now, but it’s heartening to see my workplace take on a new lease of life. There’s something for everyone here, especially the next generation.’