When it comes to museums and heritage, the Hong Kong government has a near monopoly: nearly all museums are run by the government, which also leads the vast majority of heritage conservation projects. The F11 Foto Museum is a rare exception, but if it weren’t for the efforts of a single dedicated photography enthusiast, it may never have come into existence.
That photography lover is Douglas So, who grew up in Happy Valley, where he often passed by a three-storey, 1930s-era townhouse on Yuk Sau Street. “I noticed that building for many years,” he says. He took pleasure in its gently curved balconies and jaunty Art Deco motifs. “Heritage buildings are really some of the jewels of our community. They’re all unique. 80, 90 or a hundred years ago, they weren’t as keen on standardising buildings.”
Many years passed. So became a successful corporate lawyer and the executive director of the Jockey Club Charities Trust, one of the world’s largest philanthropic organisation. In 2012, he noticed the old house on Yuk Sau Street was for sale. Given Hong Kong’s paltry protections for historic buildings, it would almost certainly be knocked down for redevelopment, although it has a Grade III heritage designation, which requires building owners to document historical features, but doesn’t prevent them from demolishing them. The two identical buildings that once flanked the house suffered that fate in the 1970s. Luckily, So had the means to buy the house. “The building itself is an art piece,” he says. “From day one, I didn’t want to demolish it, so the question became what to do with it.”
Like many of Hong Kong’s prewar buildings, the house has high ceilings — 15 feet on the ground floor and 11 feet on the upper floors — which made So think it would be an ideal place to host exhibitions. So credits his love for photography to his father, who was an amateur photographer. He became interested in cameras when his wife gave him a Leica camera for his birthday in 1997. He now owns 60 vintage Leicas, the oldest of which dates to 1925. Not only could the Happy Valley house play host to So’s camera collection, it could serve as dedicated venue for Hongkongers to explore the art of photography – the first institution of its kind in the city. He named it F11 both as a nod to the long-exposure aperture and the building’s street address: 11 Yuk Sau Street.
But first, So had to restore the house, which had been subdivided into apartments and commercial spaces over the years. By the time So bought it, it was home to a Russian art gallery upstairs and a Wellcome supermarket on the ground floor. “The building was in pretty poor shape,” he says. “Because of commercial use, many of the original architectural features had been removed.”
So hired local architects Meta4 Design Forum to oversee the renovation. They decided to restore what they could, including the interior staircase, whose wood floor had been removed but whose original wood balustrade and handrail remain. In the back end of the building, a servants’ quarters and service staircase were also fixed up, though the staircase does not meet current building codes, so it is off limits to the public.
The building codes presented a number of other limitations. In order to open the building up to the public, So would have had to make a number of intrusive changes, such as installing a lift, sprinklers and wider handrails on the staircase. “It would really destroy the original features of the building,” says So. Instead, he decided to open the museum by appointment only – a compromise adopted by many of Hong Kong’s other private museums, such as the Liang Yi Museum of antique Chinese furniture.
Because the building had been altered through the years, the museum required some new design interventions, chief among them a huge ground-floor window based on a cutaway of the Leica M6 camera. “The design had to blend well with the architecture of the building, but fortunately, because it’s Art Deco, it was a good match.”
Since it opened in 2015, F11 has hosted a number of well received photography exhibitions, including a recent show of Swiss photojournalist Werner Bischof’s images of 1950s Hong Kong. But it has also distinguished itself as one of the few heritage conservation projects in Hong Kong undertaken by a private individual. In most cases, historic buildings are purchased by the government and restored in partnership with non-profit organisations, an arrangement that has helped save the PMQ, Central Police Station and other landmarks.
But So thinks there should be more support for individuals to save old buildings without transferring ownership to the government. “Awareness of heritage is much higher in Hong Kong than it was before – there is a growing sentiment that these historic buildings are a community asset, and young people are very interested in heritage conservation,” he says. But not many people have So’s ample means: it cost him HK$90 million to purchase the Art Deco house and another HK$15 million to restore it.
There’s also the question of what to do with an old building once you save it. “Preserving the building is one thing, but revitalising it is another,” says So. That bring up another problem: the lack of support for private museums. Hong Kong has no museums law, so F11 is technically a business. Chloe Suen, owner of the private Sun Museum, has called for a museum council that can offer grants to help cover the costs of exhibitions.
So has been lucky: everything has gone smoothly for him. “We worked with what he had,” he says. Now Hong Kong saved one more historic building – and it has one more museum to enjoy.
Current exhibition Return to Beauty – Jacques-Henri Lartigue runs until July 31. Visit by appointment. Click here for more information.