For years, Kenneth Ko designed interiors and showflats for Hong Kong’s big property developers. But when the Asian financial crisis hit in 1997, the local real estate market was wiped out. Six years later, just as things were starting to recover, SARS dealt the economy another blow. It became clear to Ko that he needed to find opportunities elsewhere. So he turned north.
He opened a studio in Shenzhen in 2003 and soon had more work than he could have ever imagined. His projects took him to more than 90 cities around China. “It was by sheer chance and opportunity,” he says. “I didn’t know my company would expand so fast. We needed a bigger space and started looking around.”
That’s when he found an old two-storey factory block in Overseas Chinese Town, better known as OCT. It was an industrial area that had been developed in the mid-1980s, not long after Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping had made Shenzhen a Special Economic Zone, a free-market experiment in a country that was only just emerging from orthodox communism.
It didn’t take long for Shenzhen to become an industrial boomtown that manufactured everything from garments to electronics. It was like Manchester or Chicago or any number of cities before it – except on light speed. Within 20 years, parts of Shenzhen had already begun to evolve away from manufacturing, and many of OCT’s factories had moved away.
OCT Properties, which owned the district, began to look for ways to reshape it. In 2004, the company hired a local architecture firm called Urbanus to transform a tin-roofed shed into a 300-square-metre exhibition hall, which it called the Contemporary Art Terminal – OCAT for short. “It was hardly a building,” recalls Urbanus co-founder Liu Xiaodu. “It had a tin roof and there wasn’t even any insulation. So we were very free to do anything.”
Kenneth Ko moved his studio next door to OCAT in 2006. “We rented 1,500 square metres,” he says. He chose a long, rectangular block that had eight-metre-high ceilings and a garden around the back. OCT is not what you would expect from an industrial area. When it was first developed, factories and housing for workers were hidden behind lush groves of banyan and jackfruit trees. The whole neighbourhood feels like a park. Ko built a reflecting pool and added potted plants to make his studio even more lush.
But he felt something was missing. Ko loves European café culture and he felt OCT should have something similar, so he opened My Coffee in a corner of his block. It was soon followed by a pan-Chinese noodle shop called My Noodles. Within a few years, dozens of other businesses followed. “I’m very proud to say I started the trend,” says Ko.
Liu Xiaodu says it was all part of the plan. “We didn’t want it to look like it was done by just one architect, so we let the tenants come in and make modifications on their own,” he says. “When people came, they were surprised it was so raw,” says Liu. “But this was the very first industrial park in Shenzhen, so it has a lot of meaning for the city. It’s worth maintaining that industrial taste, like a memory that gradually fades.
“Old cities are attractive because things were built by different people at different times – it was very vibrant, and there’s a kind of richness. That’s what we wanted to achieve, but in a short period of time. Artists love it because they can do anything they want – the buildings are just shells.”
Today, the area is known as OCT Loft, and it is home to nearly 200 design studios, and dozens of shops, cafés, restaurants and bars. There’s Idutang, a live music venue; Old Heaven, a treasure trove of books and vinyl records; and a new craft beer taproom run by Beijing brewery N Beer. The southern part of the area has low-slung buildings and pedestrian walkways paved in rough red brick. Urbanus renovated the northern part in 2010 with sleek granite walkways and a wood plaza that slopes up and over a retail kiosk. In recent years, new retail and residential developments have sprung up along the fringes of OCT Loft.
Ko bought an apartment in one of the new buildings. On a sunny afternoon, he is sitting onurban the terrace of My Coffee, dressed in a purple sweater, with close-cropped silver hair, sipping tea from a mug printed with a photo of himself standing on a yacht. “My staff made this for me after we took a trip to Dali, in Yunnan,” he explains.
Ko’s assistant, a genial young man named Woody Jin, offers a tour of the studio. From the outside, it looks like another café: low lights, wood furniture, eclectic objects collected by Ko on his travels around the world. There’s a staff gym on the ground floor decorated with old weightlifting magazines. “Mr. Ko used to lift weights,” says Jin. Outside, next to the pool, there is a mosaic portrait of Ko, half-nude and very buff, looking very much like a movie star. Another cheesecake portrait of Ko sits in a corner of the studio.
Back on the café terrace, Ko looks out at the people strolling past, most of them young and fashionably dressed. “It’s like a square, a plaza in a European city,” he says. “In the winter, in the morning, it’s very sunny and warm. It’s beautiful.” He sits back. “Hong Kong is too expensive to have a place like this. But a city needs something like this.” A place to think and relax.