PMQ, a former police accommodation block, is now a successful creative hub in Hong Kong. Yet only ten years ago, it was slated for demolishment. We find out how it was saved and why its story impacts a new generation of creative minds in the city.

Hong Kong has a habit of surprising you. 156 years of British rule preceded its climactic handover to China in 1997 and this cultural concoction is the reason a typical Hong Kong café can serve you a fried egg sandwich with milk tea or beef noodles washed down with boiled Cola.

This rich history is also the reason that, wandering among vertiginous high rises and busy shopping centers, you might turn a corner and be surprised by an architectural gem from decades past.

New towers are often favored over historical low-rise buildings

From century-old, colonnade classics to the functional tong lau tenements of the mid 1900s, however, historic low-rise buildings often face demolition in favor of new towers. Essentially, this is because a population of seven million people live on fewer than 25 percent of the city’s already limited area.

Soho, a popular dining and shopping district in Central Hong Kong, is frequently faced with development pressure. Follow the outdoor escalator that winds up its hills and you will end up at PMQ – an adjacent pair of functional, seven-story buildings.

Formerly the Police Married Quarters, this complex, constructed in 1951 to accommodate married police officers and their families, was also the childhood home of the city’s current Chief Executive, CY Leung.

The buildings were vacated in 2000, yet remained empty for years due to protracted governmental indecision over what to do with them. The plot was finally put up for auction in 2005 at an estimated value of HK$30 billion (3.4 billion euros).

PMQ was saved by a rare government U-turn

Katty Law has lived in the area around PMQ her entire life. “Developers wanted to demolish the [PMQ] compound and build two towers, each about 40 stories high,” she says. In 2005, Law and other like-minded individuals convened the Central and Western Concern advocacy group to keep the site open to the public.

“We knew it was likely old buildings were underneath,” recalls Law. The group therefore arranged for an architect to look at the site and, sure enough, he discovered the remains of the Central School underneath – the city’s first government school, attended by Dr. Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Republic of China.

Faced with mounting public pressure and the increased historical significance of the site, the government did a rare U-turn and withdrew the plot from auction. It was a surprise, but PMQ was saved.

Two years later, the grounds were listed as a site of archaeological interest. “Twenty years ago, people would have wondered what role they could play in the community,” says Law. “Now they have a more democratic view of how the city can be planned.”

PMQ Hong Kong smart magazine
PMQ Hong Kong smart magazine
PMQ Hong Kong smart magazine
PMQ Hong Kong smart magazine

What to do with a 60-year-old building in the center of town?

In 2009 – nine years after the plot was vacated – the government earmarked the site for renovation along with seven other nearby buildings as part of the ‘Conserving Central’ project. But what to do with 138 small units in a 60-year-old building located in the center of Hong Kong?

The government invited pitches from four local NGOs and the successful bid came from an anonymous trio known as the ‘Musketeers Foundation.’ The three Musketeers raised HK$110m (12.6 m euros) to renovate the facility in time for its opening in April 2014. They are charged a nominal rent of HK$1 (0.1 euros) per year to run the non-profit social enterprise.

William To is creative director of PMQ as well as senior consultant at the Hong Kong Design Centre and a veteran of the local advertising industry. “PMQ is a unique business model,” he explains. “The government owns the land and we raise the money.”

PMQ charges full rent to eight commercial ventures on the ground floor, including shops and restaurants. The studio spaces in the floors above are rented out to entrepreneurs and creatives at a discount.

PMQ Hong Kong smart magazine
PMQ Hong Kong smart magazine
PMQ Hong Kong smart magazine
PMQ Hong Kong smart magazine

3 million visitors, 500 “create-trepreneurs” on the waiting list

Pinky Wong is the founder of jewelry brand The Little Finger, which has been a tenant of PMQ for a year. “PMQ allows us to expand our customer base without spending too much time on marketing,” she says. “Here, we can reach tourists from around the world,” agrees Ricky Lai, founder of Open Quote design store, also currently based at PMQ.

Boosted by the remarkably popular ‘1,600 Panda World Tour’ installation held shortly after PMQ’s opening in April 2014, 3 million visitors have passed through the facility in its first year and there are already 500 ‘create-trepreneurs’ on the waiting list for studios. For William To, the only way is up. “We have plans to launch an experimental kitchen for young chefs, a co-working space, as well as a series of summer classes for students,” he says.

The fact that PMQ occupies such a valuable heritage space is undoubtedly one of the key aspects of its success. “When our visitors walk in, they are walking into a place that has already had an impact on the city. Now, it’s a third generation and we are producing a new crop of creative minds,” muses William To.

“Many governments view these kind of buildings as a burden. But they don’t have to be. We are self-sustaining. We have people come from all over the world to ask us what we do. It’s a unique business model, which I would love to see more people try.”

For more information, check out the PMQ website.

All the images, incl. the header image: Julia von der Heide