The lights are back on in three abandoned cotton mills in Tsuen Wan, now reimagined as a cultural complex, creative co-working space and start-up hub that pay homage to Hong Kong's golden era in the textile industry. The Mills officially opens this December
For the past five years, Hong Kong property developer Nan Fung Group has been restoring and repurposing a compound of three textile factories in Tsuen Wan into a cultural hub. Known as The Mills, it is a multi-facility destination including an arts and cultural complex, a haven for innovative and start-up enterprises, and a retail space. The HK$700 million project is one of this year's most anticipated heritage projects, second only to the much-hyped Tai Kwun, in Central.
The 2,400sqm (260,000sqf), L-shaped site is a time capsule of the glory days of Hong Kong's garment-making industry, a history intertwined with the early years of Nan Fung Group, which was originally a textile business. The organisation's late founder, Chen Din-hwa, established the Nan Fung Textiles factory in 1954 and built a series of factories, including Mills 4, 5 and 6 in the 1960s and early ,70s (Mills 1, 2 and 3 were knocked down in the 1980s). The business grew in tandem with the booming textile industry, but as Hong Kong's economic base shifted from manufacturing to services, costs rose and the industry declined. The company moved into property development and the mills were abandoned in 2008. Then in 2014, Chen's granddaughter Vanessa Cheung came up with the idea for The Mills, pushing the Nan Fung Group to preserve its birthplace and give the buildings a new lease of life. "We are not trying to make a fashion hub but a homage to textiles and the future of textiles," explains Ray Zee, chief designer and general manager of the design department at Nan Fung Development.
The company teamed up with local architectural practice Thomas Chow Architects to thread the three sites together into a united complex. Mill 5 has been converted into The Mills Fabrica, three f loors of co-working space for young entrepreneurs and textile designers, and a public rooftop garden. The developer has also launched an incubator programme and venture capital fund to nurture and develop selected start-ups. The entrepreneurs at Fabrica can market and share their concepts through The Mill's retail space, Shopfloor. Previously Mill 4, it will have a craft-orientated focus with sellers including makers of craft vodka and craft burgers. "These are small vendors you won't find at IFC or Pacific Place, but they have a cult following," explains Zee.
We are not trying to make a fashion hub but a homage to textiles and the future of textiles
The largest space is the former Mill 6, soon to become home to the Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile (CHAT), a cultural and arts complex managed by the non-profit MILL6 Foundation. Linked to Fabrica by five glass bridges, CHAT's galleries will house seasonal and permanent exhibitions. At the D.H Chen Foundation Gallery, designed by Beau Architects, visitors can explore the area's industrial textile past through exhibits such as an old fabric-dyeing machine. Archival material from the Nan Fung Group will also be on display to highlight the history of the building and the neighbourhood. A planned textiles and arts programme will include artist residencies, workshops, talks and events, and a lab will support and encourage new talent and ideas.Zee says they tried to preserve the original bones of the building as far as possible. One exception is the Fabrica Atrium, at the heart of the complex. The original columns have been removed and parts of the roof replaced by skylights to create a long, three-storey-high, naturally lit space that Zee describes as a 'cathedral for textiles'. As well as welcoming visitors, the space could be used for events.
In the co-working spaces, what was once a dark, dingy factory and warehouse is now all brightness and transparency, thanks to skylights and vertical glass walls. "Now, with more people occupying those spaces, you want to look out and have natural light," Zee says.
What is exciting about this project is it really tries to take something old and reinvent it in a way, but at the same time old is old and new is new
But much remains of the factory buildings' humble past, right down to the tattered, spray-painted "No Smoking" signs on the walls. Retaining these echoes of the past sometimes required thoroughly modern solutions. One example is the signage at the front of the building, constructed of tiny red mosaic tiles that had deteriorated over the years. Zee's team recreated the signs from the original drawings, using modern technology and materials.
"What is exciting about this project is it really tries to take something old and reinvent it in a way, but at the same time old is old and new is new," he says. "When you go to this building, you'll see we made every effort to keep this oldness by keeping a lot of that existing skin." The Mill is slated to open officially on December 6.