Companies build factories to mass-produce goods. They utilize them until they reach their maximum capacity, and then they build newer and bigger facilities to keep up with increasing demand. Or they cut down on the production capacity if they can’t stay ahead of their competitors. In either case the old structures are usually turned into warehouses, left abandoned, or sold altogether – the latter usually results in their demolition to make way for new development, and the cycle continues.
Sometimes unused factories, or any old buildings for that matter, are given a second chance and brought back to life by those who see their potential to attract people who would otherwise stay clear from derelict premises. However, when this transformation is done with commercial purposes in mind, i.e. reaping huge profits, what usually follows is the opening of crowd-pleasing and often tacky venues – trick eye ‘museums’ and brightly-colored spots are the norm now, thanks to the drive Instagram has created.
Once in a while, however, there are a few revitalization projects carried out in a sensible way that they not only breathe life back into the decrepit places, but they also enrich the communities to which they belong through cultural offerings, becoming a space for the locals to express their artistic calling, and housing independent retailers aimed at boosting the local economy. In other words, they put the community’s interest above anything else. In Tsuen Wan, a district in the western side of Hong Kong’s New Territories, a fine example of one such project has recently opened its doors to the public.
In 1954, Chinese businessman Chen Di-hwa, who fled to Hong Kong after the Communist Party came to power in the mainland, established Nan Fung Cotton Mills at a time when the textile industry was the largest employer in Hong Kong, accounting for around 30% of the total workforce. In the following years Nan Fung constructed more mills to keep up with the growing demand, and by 1970 (the year when 43% of the manufacturing workforce was employed in the textile industry) it had six mills in operation.
Then came the 1980s, when Hong Kong’s economy diversified and grew rapidly to become one of Asia’s Four Tigers. This contributed to the demise of the cotton industry in the former British colony, and subsequently the demolition of Nan Fung’s Mills 1, 2 and 3. The company also gradually shifted its core business from textile manufacturing to property development, and today Nan Fung Group is Hong Kong’s largest privately-held developer. Its textile factories shut down completely in 2008 and the remaining mills (Mill 4, 5 and 6) were turned into warehouses.
Vanessa Cheung, the granddaughter of Chen, and a landscape architect by training, joined the family business in 2013. Two years later Mill6 Foundation was established as a non-profit arts and cultural organization whose primary mission is to manage and operate Centre for Heritage Arts & Textile (CHAT), the first of its kind in Hong Kong. Later Cheung came up with the idea of utilizing the company’s old warehouses as a permanent venue for affairs organized by the foundation, including exhibitions and community events.
Work began in 2016 at Mills 4 to 6 with a sight many Hong Kongers are familiar with: construction mesh and scaffolding. However, it wasn’t done to demolish the structures. Instead, a major transformation was underway to turn the three old warehouses into a hub for creativity and inspiration. For two years construction workers carefully restored much of the original structure, reinforced some columns with steel, built glass bridges to connect the separate mills, and hollowed out a three-story space to create a large top-lit atrium which would become a centerpiece of the entire compound, which would soon be named The Mills.
Toward the end of 2018 The Mills was finally unveiled to the public and I happened to be in town just weeks after its official opening. From the outside, the entire compound looked anything but old. It wasn’t overwhelmingly imposing – unlike many other modern buildings that tower over their immediate surroundings – but it was visually inviting enough for people to go inside. Entering The Hall, dubbed the heart of The Mills with a beautifully-made Christmas “tree” hanging from the large skylight above, I marveled at the warm ambiance which is not usually associated with industrial buildings. It could have been because of the lights from the independent shops at the ground and first floors, each filled with unique as well as thought-provoking items, or the afternoon light of the unseasonably hot (and humid) winter’s day that entered this open space.
The entire compound of The Mills comprises three main sections: CHAT which occupies the second floor of Mill 6 and the first floor of Mill 4; Fabrica, a business incubator and springboard for startups located at the fourth, fifth and sixth floors of Mill 5; and Shopfloor, a space for brands with special stories and local significance. Speaking of the latter, not only is this retail space filled with beautiful small shops – an antithesis to the monotonous selection most Hong Kong malls offer – but it’s also home to some interesting businesses that employ unusual production methods.
On the ground floor, alt: introduces the concept of Garment-to-Garment (G2G) recycling, an alternative to incineration and disposal which might hold the key to a more sustainable clothing industry in the future. One only needs to bring his/her old garments to the store. The staff will then estimate how much of a discount the person will get to buy recycled clothes at the shop which have been processed from old garments other customers have brought in before.
Meanwhile, Shabibi Sheep Workshop on the first floor challenges people’s perceptions of concrete as an unappealing and rough material by making art pieces, homeware products, and even jewelry from it. No additives or other substances were added during the process, allowing people to touch and feel concrete like they’ve never seen before. The idea is clearly “out of the box”, and the shop hopes to inspire people to think in new ways.
The Deck, the smaller of two open-air rooftop terraces at The Mills, is where organic vegetables are grown as a part of the increasingly popular farm-to-table concept which emphasizes the importance of sustainability and local produce. On the other hand, The Park on top of Mill 6 provides visitors with a relaxing place to talk with their friends and families, to people-watch, or just to read. At the far end of it a 24.3-m long art installation called Wavy Weaving Wall consisting of small panels made from materials that mimic the movement of fabric, evoking the history of Hong Kong’s textile industry.
All over The Mills pieces of the past are purposefully retained in their original condition as a time machine to enhance the visitor experience. From the original staircase of Mill 4, sand buckets to put out a fire, metal gates that have been turned into the backdrops for information counters within the compound, and timber doors which have been repurposed as benches and signage, preservation has clearly been conducted here in a sensible and tasteful manner.
Just before heading back into the city center, we walked down Pak Tin Par Lane, a passageway between Mill 5 and 6 that is now adorned with colorful murals that pay homage to Nan Fung’s past as a textile manufacturer. As I caught a glimpse of The Hall from the outside, I couldn’t help but think of the message this place tries to convey: reinvention and a change of lifestyles, both of which are keys to creating and sustaining a thriving society. What began as a visit to a relatively unknown (and slightly out of the way) part of Hong Kong ended up as one of the most satisfying and inspiring urban explorations I’ve ever done to date.