Mahjong School Philanthropists: A Father to son legacy. Dance in Yau Ma Tei

Hong Kong
Entrance to PMMMedia Office
Architects
Groundwork
Year
2017
Client
PMM Media, Kwok's Family

Dear friends,

I wish to share with you a story of one of our clients, Jeffrey Kwok and his father, who are both philanthropists from Hong Kong.

Jeffrey's father ran a chain of "Mahjong Schools"(a.k.a. Mahjong parlors) in Hong Kong and his flagship outlet is situated on the ground floor of a sixty years old building called the Alhambra Building (平安大樓) in Kowloon, Yau Ma Tei, near Temple Street. The Kwok’s family also owns other units within the same building.

For those of you who are not familiar with Hong Kong, Temple Street was, and still is, one of the cities red-light districts mainly visited by aged local men and currently, Temple Street is now dazzling with tourism.

Running Mahjong school is a tough and hardening business, because they are essential bookmakers.

Jeffrey is in the advertising industry and he was the founder of a local advertising company, PMM Media, which promotes social enterprises. Perhaps it was through his media network that Jeffrey had learned the difficulties that The Gingko(銀杏館) was facing. The Gingko is an esteemed local social enterprise which operates restaurants that provide employments for retired elderly. In 2016, The Gingko lost their lease of their main restaurant and they were desperate to find a new space. Hong Kong is rated as one of the most expensive city to live in the world and it has the highest real-estate prices, opening a new restaurant in Hong Kong is difficult.

Jeffrey persuaded his father to lease out one of their units within the Alhambra Building for The Gingko, which has a net floor area of 300 square meters. Not only that Mr. Kwok senior agreed, he had only asked for one-eight of the market rate as the rent, hoping that the low rent would aid The Gingko’s business and facilitate their social causes.

The Gingko had chosen us for the work not only because of our past successful restaurant design cases, but perhaps for our philosophy and humanistic approach towards architecture.

The project unexpectedly took much longer than normal projects because of lengthy government funding validation process. The Gingko is a non-government organization and their spending were monitored and needed justifications. In Hong Kong, restaurants with such size would take three to five months to complete, The Gingko took two years.

While we awaited from the funding body’s bureaucrats, Jeffrey had asked us to design the new office for PMM Media. He had selected a seventy-eight square meters unit that his family owns within the Alhambra building, which is next door to The Gingko’s site. The unit was the original office space for Mr. Kwok senior but it was vacant for years. Jeffrey felt that this space may be a shared office between his father, who entered semi-retirement, and PMM Media. The brief intrigued me, as it resonated with my experience when I set up Groundwork humbly seven years ago, on a desk at my father’s music practice room.

Initially, we have respond to this unique brief by splitting the spaces into two: half for Jeffrey and half for Mr. Kwok senior. We have accentuated the contrast by canvasing one half in black and the other in white.

One month into the design phase, Mr. Kwok senior passed away from acute liver failure. It was until then we have learned that he had been battling liver cancer for years. We were obviously devastated Mr. Kwok’s sudden departure.

As the elder son, Jeffrey led his family out of grieve. While he was searching through Mr. Kwok’s properties, he found two large classical-styled shelves that were wedding gifts to Mr. Kwok senior from Jeffrey’s grandfather. Jeffrey have asked us to place these two shelves within this small office, as they would represent Mr. Kwok’s spirit.

We have decided to change the design - completely. First, we need to rearrange the space because these two book shelves are very large; they are antique, they are wood, they may not harmonize with the original monolithic tonality. Thus, we need to update the material palette.

We just wish to pay tributes to the Kwok’s family, with our limited talents, by extending our service.

We have placed one of these shelves into a portal, so that it would array and radiate infinitely by self-reflecting mirrors in the porch. Conceptually, these two pieces of furniture formed part of the memory narrative that rested on volleys of paradoxes: they are antiques that are housed within a contemporary designed space. This contemporary space is housed within an old building - within an aging district. The space housed two individuals from very different trades: a mahjong parlor bookmaker and an advertiser.

These two book shelves were passed on from sons to sons. The architecture became a silent story teller.

This project had not only allowed us to be working with form, space and order; concrete and steel, but also memory, and love.

Perhaps Jeffrey’s altruism and compassion are the best gifts for his father.

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