Located in Central, Hong Kong’s SoHo district is commonly known for its bustling nightlife. The abundance of bars, restaurants and nightclubs is a big hit with locals and expats alike. Yet, along the hilly and narrow roads, one can spot a distinct structure that houses the city’s design and creative enterprises.
The PMQ – an acronym of the former Police Married Quarters – was first built in 1889 as the campus of Central School (later renamed to Queen’s College). Following the Second World War, which saw drastic damage to the building, it was rebuilt as a residential block for married rank and file police officers in the city until 2000.
The structure was graded as a Grade 3 historical building by the Hong Kong Antiques and Monuments Office, which recognised its historical importance. The structure was later revitalised as a hub for creative industries and commenced its new operations in 2014.
Cultural and art exhibitions
The 7-storey structure currently houses around 100 local design studios offering a wide range of products, such as fashion, accessories and artworks. It is also the venue for numerous cultural and art exhibitions in the city.
Organisers said 14,000 people joined Berlin Fest 2016 @ PMQ. Video: Eric Cheung.
In early October, the PMQ hosted the Berlin Fest 2016 – an annual event featuring everything German from liquor, music to films. The festival was first held in 2014 commemorating the 25th anniversary of the fall of Berlin Wall.
Karsten Tietz, a deputy at the German consulate general Hong Kong, said that the PMQ provided them with an ideal opportunity to showcase authentic German food and drinks. He added that over 14,000 people visited the festival, which was aimed at promoting German culture and businesses.
Besides Berlin Fest, the PMQ has also hosted numerous programmes such as art exhibitions, movie screenings and pop-up sales events.
A 360-degree video showing the various attractions at Berlin Fest 2016 @ PMQ. Video: Eric Cheung.
A hub for local designers
Dodo Leung is a local fashion designer who created high-end designer label Mondovi lingerie couture in 2012. A tenant at the PMQ since December 2014, she says Hong Kong is an ideal place for developing her brand as it is a popular tourist destination.
“The PMQ is the first creative hub for local designers in Hong Kong,” she says. “The rent here is very attractive, and the management has been working hard to promote the venue.”
Anthony Fung, a designer who founded Open Jaw Designs a few months ago, echoes that the PMQ is a very good platform to kickstart his business.
“The PMQ have been very good to explain the whole process, like setting up the store and receiving payment, ” he says. “The venue itself is just so good for the type of brand that I’m trying to do.”
For many years, art critics and average citizens alike have ridiculed Hong Kong as a “cultural desert”. Analysts have pointed to Hong Kong’s diminishing influence over Asian culture and the government’s lack of support towards creative industries as proof that the city does not have a vibrant arts scene.
In an interview with the Hong Kong Economic Times, Victor Tsang, Executive Director of the PMQ, said that the creative hub aimed to fill the gap by fostering a dynamic environment for creative businesses. “Over five million people have visited the compound since its opening in 2014, and currently our letting rate is close to 100 percent,” he added.
Criticisms: PMQ loses its meaning by letting to big and foreign brands
However, the PMQ has faced criticisms for leasing floor space to bigger and foreign brands. Katty Law, a heritage conservation activist from the Central and Western Concern Group, questions why famous designer brands such as Vivienne Tam and spin-offs such as Found MUJI were given prime floor space in the compound.
“I believe that art studios should be reserved for local independent designers, who face immense financial difficulties to kickstart their business,” she says.
Vivienne Tam, the international fashion designer brand, is currently located on the ground floor next to the courtyard. Found MUJI, a spin-off of Japanese retail company MUJI, also operates a branch on the first floor.
Suki Tsui, a Hong Kong designer who owns a store at the creative hub, told HKFP in July that PMQ’s management should be more consistent in promoting the hub as a unique location for small local brands.
“People who come to PMQ are looking for unique things. They won’t buy stuff here that they’ve seen elsewhere,” she said. “Because [the PMQ is] supposed to be an arts place that has indie brands who can’t afford higher rents elsewhere.”
According to the Development Bureau, the PMQ is aimed to “nurture emerging creative entrepreneurs from Hong Kong for brand building” and connect them with international design and business communities.
— Eric Cheung (@EricCheungwc) October 9, 2016
In an email, a spokesperson from the PMQ says that around 25 percent of its space is allocated for commercial use, which is the main source of revenue for the self-sustaining creative hub. However, the vast majority of space is leased to various creative tenants in the city as art studios. It adds that revenue collected by commercial units makes it possible for the complex to provide subsidies to small tenants.
Besides doubts over the PMQ’s identity, it is also uncertain if the creative hub is able to be self-sustaining in the long run.
In July 2015, Ming Pao reported that the PMQ has lost HK$16 million in the year preceding the hub’s opening. However, it was estimated that the PMQ would only be able to generate around HK$10 million each year, and it was unclear if the amount was sufficient to subsidise its everyday operations.
The newspaper also quoted some tenants as saying that the PMQ has not been able to generate a promising number of visitors to their shops. The hub has not disclosed its finance since its opening.
To boost the number of visitors, the PMQ has recently launched a “tourist privilege programme” targeting overseas travellers. Free coupon books are handed out to those with overseas travel documents in a bid to boost tourist spending in the hub.
Michelle Gocoldas is a Briton who has visited the PMQ multiple times. She says that the PMQ is attractive to her because of the abundance of small businesses.
“It is nice to see different things. We have been used to all the big chains, so it’s nice to see the smaller craftsman work and what they have to offer,” she says.
Victor Schieber, co-founder of a swimsuit brand called Blumei, recently conducted its launch event at the PMQ during a pop-up market. He also believes that the PMQ is in a good position to attract travellers to the city.
“The PMQ has a good location and is easily accessible,” he says. “People like chilling out here, and at the same time they like to do a bit of shopping and meet the designers as well.”
Other than attracting tourists, the PMQ also has plans to diversify its business by introducing a library for various cultural culinary events, such as book launches and tasting sessions. It is also organising new events to foster communication between creative entrepreneurs and their overseas counterparts.
At the same time, the Hong Kong government is also constructing the West Kowloon Cultural District to further promote art and culture in the city. It remains to be seen as to whether new hardware will be able to transform the territory into a vibrant cultural centre.