Once a supermarket, a 1930s art deco row house in Happy Valley has been rescued by shutterbug Douglas So and reborn as the privately run F11 Foto Museum for photography buffs
For most of its history, Happy Valley has been an affluent neighbourhood. Aside from Wednesday race nights, when Hongkongers throng to its famous racecourse to place their bets, the area is quiet and village-like. Its wealth is reflected in a scattering of architectural gems, including a low-rise 1930s art deco building on Yuk Sau Street. Designed by British architect James Smith Gibson, it is the last remnant of a row house, the rest of which has been long since demolished to make way for a high-rise development.
F11 Foto Museum, named after both its street number and the camera aperture setting, opened in 2014 and is a textbook case of how private entrepreneurs can share the city's history with the public
Over the years, lawyer Douglas So – who grew up in the neighbourhood – kept his eye on the three-storey building, watching a succession of tenants that included Cantonese restaurant Sun Tung Lok, supermarket Wellcome and household shop Man Fung. When it finally went on the market, So snapped it up. His plan was to turn the Grade III historic structure into a privately run showcase for cameras, photographs and photography books for like-minded collectors and lovers of film. F11 Foto Museum, named after both its street number and the camera aperture setting, opened in 2014 and is a textbook case of how private entrepreneurs can share the city's history with the public.With the help of architects Humphrey Wong and Steven Chu from Meta4 Design Forum, and Henry Lo and May Ho from the Chinese University of Hong Kong's Centre for Architectural Heritage Research, the structure was lovingly restored to its former glory.
"Since this was a private enterprise, we did not have much interference from the government," So says. "The challenge was finding our own solution: what is a photo museum? How do we make one? There was no text book to follow – we couldn't copy Stockholm's photo museum. In the end, we had to find a balance between practicality and design. We conducted testing to ensure the building was still healthy, such as whether the beams were sound. I was happy to discover that it is in better health than I am."And so he set about returning it to its original splendour, with a few artistic licences such as painting the exterior mustardy orange. F11 is one of the few remaining typologies where the architecture of the front portion differs significantly from the rear servants' quarters. The front rooms have 15-foot ceilings and a staircase accessible from the street; rooms at the back, originally used for services such as cooking and laundry, had typical eight-foot ceilings and were accessed by a narrow external passageway, known as mui tsai stairs, once used by maids to discreetly take out the night soil to a back alley. "Though this staircase is unsafe by today's standards (due to high risers and narrow treads), we decided to clean and restore it as an example of that period of architecture where servants had separate quarters," So says.
The internal staircases were reinforced and painted a dark shade of brown, with vintage lamps and equipment on the landings. French doors to the balconies were given hinges that allow them to open 180 degrees, and a second layer of double-glazed windows keep rooms cool in summer and less draughty in winter. Today, the former back-of-house areas are used as staff offices, storage and a pantry, with an intimate reading room on the ground f loor. The lofty front rooms on the first and second floors have been outfitted as gallery spaces for temporary photo-related exhibitions such as Black Paint Leica, which is currently showcasing decades-old cameras and related paraphernalia, and the photo exhibition Museum Leica. So also hosts occasional evening outdoor screenings for film buffs on the rooftop.To meet the 18-month construction schedule, So initiated weekly team site meetings. "Everyone had a job to do and everyone had to hand in their homework every Thursday," So explains, with a smile. If F11 had been a publicly funded enterprise, it would have had to be fitted out for universal access, with lifts, ramps and other upgrades for barrier-free usage. However, as a private building, So could restore it to reflect the period of its origin, when accessibility was not a requirement. In addition, though F11 was originally a residential building , over time it has been re-zoned for commercial usage. "Not every building will allow a different usage. That is why revitalisation projects such as Tai Kwun and the Blue House in Wan Chai are significant," So says.
As a private building, So could restore it to reflect the period of its origin, when accessibility was not a requirement
So was previously on the management board of the Hong Kong Jockey Club and was its executive director for charities, overseeing the development of the Tai Kwun project from 2010-2014. He believes the Hong Kong Jockey Club was crucial in providing the means and expertise to transform the former Central Police Station and Victoria Prison. "It is a big space for culture and it is an open public space. Many art groups have been arguing for years that they have no place to show or perform in Central. Now they do, so what are they waiting for?" he says."I was previously on a few committees that focused on heritage conservation. The public's awareness of historic structures is high, and there would be protests if we demolished this building [F11]. But people are mostly unaware that taking on the conservation of a heritage structure is a lifelong commitment. It involves substantial time and money, because something is always going wrong or needs to be maintained. It's like taking care of elderly relatives; you have to accompany them to doctors' appointments or fix this or that part of their ageing body. That is why not every owner of a heritage building will choose to revitalise."
Private owners have zero incentive to restore, since it is so much more lucrative to build a high rise on the same plot of land. A lot of buildings cannot be saved. I am sad about this
So feels the government should provide clearer guidelines about what should be preserved. "For private owners of heritage buildings, the government should help through funding for renovation or by providing a network of conservation professionals," he says. "There should be a platform for those interested in conservation, and for young people to learn more about it. Otherwise, private owners have zero incentive to restore, since it is so much more lucrative to build a high rise on the same plot of land. A lot of buildings cannot be saved. I am sad about this."