If you’ve strolled down Tai Ping Shan Street, the little street that connects Bridges in the east and Po Yan in the west, then you’ll be familiar with its new black-and-white vibe. Not just that, but also the countless creative businesses that have emerged over the last decade or so to nestle up beside auto body shops. Once a marginalised “local” shortcut, Tai Ping Shan, like the rest of Sheung Wan, is hip. Unsurprisingly, it’s got hip homes too.
Boutique developer and designer Helen Lindman can be given credit for that. Lindman’s typically retrofitted and completely revitalised series of properties — on Staunton, Gough, Princess Terrace, Leung Fai Terrace and Shelley Street — were practice runs for her first full building redevelopment at 55 Tung Street. As a fan of the mid-century tong lau — shop houses — that dot the streets in the area, Lindman has become a passionate keeper of their heritage, believing the perfect blend of Chinese and European architecture is worth restoring, particularly given the increasing demand for flats with more character.
Lindman relocated to Hong Kong nine years ago when her husband’s job brought them to Asia, and it marked the perfect time to branch out career wise. Is she a designer by trade? “No, I’m a lawyer,” she says with a laugh. “I’ve always loved architecture and I’ve always designed houses just because it’s been a huge interest.”
Like most new arrivals, Lindman was looking for a home with a garden or some kind of outdoor space and a dose of character. And like most in her position, she learned to adjust. “You have to alter your expectations and I think everybody goes through that. But I wondered why nothing is being preserved.” And so her career as a boutique developer was born.
Lindman sees herself as part of a larger movement that is slowly gaining traction in the SAR. “I’m seeing this young generation growing, a noticeable one that actually cares about its heritage. It almost feels like a Hong Kong nation. They’re worried their history is slipping away,” she theorises. Combine that with a demand for better residential design, better uses of space and more individuality and you’ve got a recipe for a burgeoning niche market. “People are tired of these cookie-cutter, characterless properties. There is a demand for that neighbourhood feeling. I don’t see the demand for these tong lau decreasing. There are tons in other parts of Hong Kong and I’d love to do them all.”
Set for completion in early summer is Lindman’s next project at 11 Upper Station Street. The semi-serviced apartment (Lindman will customise units to occupant’s request) is even more ambitious than Tung Street: new plumbing and electrical infrastructure were included this time. The building is the newest addition to a quiet little street that has become a neighbourhood unto itself. When Lindman first started exploring the area for redesign projects in the mid-2000s, she was warned off it. “Even three years ago this area wasn’t what it is now,” she says of the district renewed by design studios, galleries, boutique retailers, independent coffee houses and eateries. “I try to find homes with a little ‘something’. I’ve always looked for that special bit. There are gems out there,” she states. The duplex units at 11 Upper Station will feature open concept kitchens, and vaguely retro-deco interiors, ample storage, balconies, and on the ground floor unit a terrace off the kitchen. Similar structures can be found in Mong Kok, Sham Shui Po and other pockets of the west end, and as the MTR expands, they’ll be easier to access. They may even earn a bit of respect if the change in attitude Lindman has seen from banks and their valuations on the old postwar buildings is any indication.
The risk for Lindman and her peers — like Blake’s, which met with screaming success for its redeveloped five-storey Hollywood Road property — is that the URA will sweep in and declare the equivalent of eminent domain on the blocks the buildings sit on. “I’ve been fighting with the URA for years,” Lindman comments with a sigh. “They are stubborn but they may be starting to feel the pressure from the public to preserve a little more.”
So would LIndman be pleased to see others pick up the baton and carry on her mission in, say, Mong Kok? “Absolutely. I think the more of us that do it the better. It’s better for Hong Kong and it’s better for the neighbourhood, the heritage,” she says. But these little developments won’t do much to address Hong Kong’s desperate housing shortfall. “That’s true. But if there’s anything Hong Kong has it’s land,” she admits, adding after a pause, “But now we’re talking politics.”
The landscape of Sheung Wan is ever changing. The old neighbourhood is always a place filled with warm and care for inhabitants there. To know more about how local business and residents adapt to these redevelopments, read their true stories at “Shing Wong Street – The Hidden Gem in the Heart of Central” article.