When Movana Chen discovered a cache of documents in the old Nan Fung textile mills, she knew exactly what to do. She took the paper, shredded it and began knitting it into an ever-expanding scroll.
Chen has been doing these kinds of things since 2003, when she was an art student, and she has applied her approach to old newspapers, books, magazines and personal diaries. “There’s a secret story in there,” she told journalist Christy Choi in 2013. “People think I’m destroying history by shredding. But I don’t think so. I’m transforming it to another way of communicating – and I let people become closer through the project.”
Every week, Chen returns to the Nan Fung mills and continues knitting, often with the help of friends and strangers. Like the old documents, the mills have been cut up and reformed into something new and unexpected: a cultural and commercial centre that weaves together art, heritage and textiles, with a mix of cafés, shops and studios to add a bit of variety.
The Mills is an unusual project for Hong Kong. Not only does it preserve the kind of 1950s-era buildings that once filled the city’s industrial areas — and which have been mostly demolished and redeveloped without much notice — it is funded entirely by private investment, without any assistance from the government.
Lee Ho-yin, head of the University of Hong Kong’s architectural conservation programme, says that, compared to other culture and heritage projects like Tai Kwun and the PMQ, it is unlikely that the Nan Fung mills would have been considered worth saving if Nan Fung had not taken up the initiative itself. “The architecture of the old factory is really nothing special,” he says. “And the historical value is low, too. It was an unloved building.”
If Nan Fung had demolished its old mills, there probably wouldn’t have been any public outcry. Most people wouldn’t have even noticed. Their greatest value comes from their transformation. “Over time, there is a high chance that a lot of people will start to feel attached [to what they have become],” says Lee. “There is a thing we try to achieve in architectural conservation and that is historical continuity. And in the case of The Mills, it is not through the architecture itself, but through the people.”
The person that started it all is Chen Din-hwa, the “King of Cotton Yarn,” who was born in Ningbo in 1923. When he was 12 years old, he became an apprentice to a silk merchant, and within ten years, he had parlayed his experience into a chain of fabric businesses in Ningbo and Shanghai. That made Chen and his family targets when the Communist Party won the Chinese Civil War in 1949, and like many other Shanghai entrepreneurs, they moved to Hong Kong.
In 1947, another Shanghainese businessman, CC Lee, had opened Hong Kong’s first textile spinning mill. Chen decided to follow suit, setting his sights on Tsuen Wan, an old port town that had been slated for industrial development by the Hong Kong government. Nan Fung Textiles was founded in 1954, opening its first mill two years later on Pak Tin Par Street, part of a newly reclaimed patch of land on the Tsuen Wan waterfront.
At first, there was nothing local about Hong Kong’s textile business. Most of the factory owners were from Shanghai, most of the workers were migrants from the nearby Guangdong province and most of the raw materials were imported, including cotton flowers from the United States. In those early days, yarn spun by Nan Fung and other Hong Kong mills was exported to the United Kingdom and Southeast Asia, and the city’s main international competitor was Pakistan. But Hong Kong soon came to dominate the global textile trade, despite the city’s small size. In 1970, nearly 500,000 of Hong Kong’s 3.9 million people worked in the garment trade.
The industry reached its peak in 1978, when there were 33 cotton mills in Hong Kong. But there were already signs of decline: a few years earlier, one large mill had relocated its operations to Indonesia. And when Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping unleashed market reforms on the mainland, Hong Kong’s manufacturing industry began an exodus to much cheaper pastures across the border. Nan Fung reduced the scale of its operations in Tsuen Wan, redeveloping three of its mills in the 1980s. The remaining three shut for good in 1994.
By then, Nan Fung had diversified into real estate, becoming one of Hong Kong’s most powerful property developers. It could have easily knocked down its birthplace to make a few extra dollars in commercial property. But Nan Fung’s founder also had a charitable streak, and his DH Chen Foundation has made important contributions to education, welfare and medicine in Hong Kong. Perhaps it was that legacy that led Chen’s granddaughter, Vanessa Cheung — now the managing director of Nan Fung — to choose an alternative path for the Pak Tin Par Street mills.
Work on transforming the mills began in 2014. They were no architectural treasure, with low ceilings and only the most utilitarian of aesthetics. Nan Fung head of design Ray Zee decided to keep reminders of the old industrial spaces — grimy concrete pillars worn down through the years — while opening them up as much as possible through new atria and floor-to-ceiling windows.
From Pak Tin Par Street, visitors now turn into a small lane that runs between the three former mills. Three-storey Mill 4 has become a retail arcade centred around a public seating area. Mill 5, which rises seven storeys, is home to Fabrica, a technology and fashion incubator. Mill 6 is home to more retail as well as the exhibition spaces and workshops of CHAT, the Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile, which flank a three-storey atrium that floods the former factory floors with natural light. It can be hard to imagine the noise and dust of the old spinning machines that once occupied these spaces, but that’s the point: this is a place that looks forward more than it looks back.
That’s not to say there isn’t a strong focus on the mills’ history. VR machines give visitors an immersive experience of the old mills. And the first space many visitors explore is the DH Chen Gallery, which explains the history of Hong Kong’s textile industry through lively installations and old machinery.
This isn’t so much an historical exhibition as it is a showcase of living heritage. The heyday of Hong Kong’s textile industry wasn’t that long ago, and part of CHAT’s mission is to bring former garment workers back into the fold. Chin Chin Teoh, who is the co-director of CHAT alongside curator Takahashi Mizuki, says she often sees former garment workers exploring the gallery. “It’s really heartening to see them bring their children or grandchildren and become very excited,” she says. “They almost become like a docent, explaining that this is what they did in the past.”
Next door to the gallery is a workshop where former garment workers teach spinning, weaving and embroidery classes to the public. Among them is Auntie Yee, who was hired as a toilet cleaner at The Mills when she revealed that she had worked in garment factories in her youth –and was able to operate one of the old spinning machines in CHAT’s collection. Teoh says most of the people who attend workshops like these are under the age of 40 – a new generation learning from the old.
CHAT takes a similar approach to its contemporary art programme. Most of the works are created in-situ, with help from the general public. Its opening exhibition, Unfolding: Fabric of Our Lives, brings together works by 17 artists and collectives from 12 countries, each exploring textiles from a different social, cultural or political angle, including labour rights, gender identity and migration.
It’s just the first step in a new journey. The Nan Fung mills were pioneers in Hong Kong’s textile industry; now they have provided the foundation for another unprecedented institution. “We are keeping heritage intact,” says Teoh. “But we also need to refresh it.”
The Mills is located at 45 Pak Tin Par Street. Click here for more information.