It’s been said time and again that if you can’t buy it in Hong Kong (and very often Mongkok specifically) then it doesn’t exist. But ask anyone that’s tried to get a specific couch or a certain type of desk — never mind electrical appliances like fridges and stoves — and you get a very different story. When it comes time to redesign a flat, very often we’re compelled to take what we can get. So why is it so hard to get a good selection/variety of interior items/finishes/furniture here if Hong Kong is such a wildly free market?
“There are several factors affecting the availability of an extensive range of interiors products and finishes,” begins Darrel Best, creative director of Infrastructure. Infrastructure isn’t a design firm as such, but a design consultancy that analyses how products move within the interiors industry as a whole.
The first problem, and the one that informs all others, is demand. To Best’s eyes, limited choice is a direct result of insufficient demand for some design products. If no one wants silk-lined wallpaper, no one is going to stock it. “The size of the average residential and commercial space in Hong Kong is comparatively smaller than most cities. The resources required to maintain and/or renovate are a key factor of demand,” he notes. Certain woods are easy to find because most of us are fine with standard oak flooring. But stocking oak, teak, pine, cherry and recycled timbre for, say, five people, is not cost-effective for a small wood supplier. Home Depot works in places like North America because hundreds of people need thousands of square feet of flooring. Hong Kong is also relatively new to the idea of design for aesthetics as well as function, and it’s possible the city hasn’t had enough time yet to cultivate a taste for more choice.
The second factor influencing what we can get is, unsurprisingly, the price of property. With prices as inflated as they are and with so much speculation still in the market a large chunk of residential property is for investment and few landlords or investors feel the urge to overcapitalise on expensive renovations. Flats will sell no matter what condition they’re in and that disinclination to redesign lowers product demand.
Finally, most of the interiors product market is run by small, local business owners — like the wood supplier. Because they are driven by demand, “Consequently the ability to diversify product assortment is limited … It’s excellent to support independent local businesses but the financial constraints of companies of this size affect diversity of product.”
So what options do designers — who are trying to please clients and create unique spaces — and DIYers have when it comes to sourcing? Not everyone can afford customised interiors and many simply don’t have the time. Frustrating as it may be, the situation isn’t hopeless. “The design identity of Hong Kong is evolving. International furniture and lifestyle brands are opening locations in Hong Kong and regional businesses are upping their game. The building supply stores along Lockhart Road now stock a fantastic range of products to suit all budgets,” points out Best. He also mentions some of the lifestyle boutiques that have sprung up along Star Street and that Horizon Plaza, “Just keeps getting stronger.” Of course overseas shipping remains an option and Hong Kong is renowned for being, perhaps, the ultimate service economy. Out there, somewhere, is someone that will make just what you want. For a price.