PMQ: The ex police dorms turned creative hub in the middle of Hong Kong

Published:  December 10, 2015

On the fringes of the cluster of mega malls in a Hong Kong neighbourhood nicknamed Soho sits PMQ – a unique site offering subsidised rent of workshop and retail spaces to the next generation of local designers.

“In Hong Kong, the biggest obstacle [for a new design business] is rent,” says William To, PMQ’s creative and programme director. “Young designers and design entrepreneurs can’t possibly afford a retail space in our city, and so they have nowhere to showcase their products.”

An installation at PMQ during the DeTour festival 2015. Image by Desktop.

An installation at PMQ during the DeTour festival 2015.

Workshops and retails spaces at PMQ.

Workshops and retail spaces at PMQ.

The two adjacent buildings set around a large central courtyard that comprise PMQ (or, “Police Married Quarters”) were built in 1951 by the British government in a bid to attract more locals to join the police force, by providing residence to the families of recruits. “At the time, Hong Kong was very poor, so having these buildings was considered a luxury,” says To.

The last family moved out in 2000, and the site was left empty and unused for almost a decade. Despite being in one of the most expensive property areas of Hong Kong, the government, who didn’t know what to do with the run-down site, held onto the property because of its history.

Come 2009 the site was listed in the city’s ‘Conserving Central’ program and with the help of the not-for-profit, non-governmental Hong Kong Design Centre and a large sum of seed money, it was revitalised and turned into a hub for young designers to launch their careers. Completely not-for-profit, whatever money is collected from rent goes straight back into operation and maintenance.

Tranquility in the city at PMQ. Image by Desktop.

Tranquility in the city at PMQ.

Overlooking the courtyard at PMQ. Image by Desktop.

Overlooking the courtyard at PMQ.

The permanence and stability of the site makes it different to space and culture activation programs closer to home like Renew Newcastle, which focus on short and mid-term rent-outs of disused spaces. “This kind of business model means we know how much we’re collecting for operation and support funds, so we don’t have to rely on donations. It’s quite sustainable,” says To.

Tenants are selected by a panel of cross-disciplinary industry leaders and taken on for a two-year period before reapplication. The majority of tenants are producing products from furniture to apparel to tech, and include fashion designers Vivienne Tam and Harrison Wong, while the top levels are filled with libraries, co-working spaces, internet startups and design service businesses including luxury interiors studio Li & Co, who are more established than the majority of tenants, but remain for PMQ’s sense of community. “It’s more than just a place to work,” says founder Johnny Li.

The PMQ HQ of local designer Harrison Wong.

The PMQ HQ of local designer Harrison Wong.

Inside Vivienne Tam at PMQ.

Inside Vivienne Tam at PMQ.

In a region where industry is key, PMQ exists to connect capabilities with customers, and to help tenants transition from running personal craft-based projects to sustainable businesses that can co-exist with the giants of industry.

“It doesn’t mean that everybody who comes in becomes a successful entrepreneur,” says To. “But it does give them the chance to work out if their business model is going to work.”

This focus on business and industry propels the efforts being made by the Hong Kong Design Centre (HKDC) as well as government body Create Hong Kong, whose mission is to promote the wider and strategic use of design, and to spearhead the development of the creative economy in Hong Kong.

Edmund Lee, executive director of HKDC, reflects that, “The business of design is increasingly more relevant to where we are now as a society going forward with a new economy. How can we use design to create wellbeing and value? We have to look not just from the creative side, but the business side.”

After opening its doors to the public just over a year and a half ago, PMQ has already exposed its residents and their work to millions of visitors, though it’s too early to see if the 100+ businesses currently calling PMQ home have enough agility to go it alone, or whether they remain dependant on the subsidies of the program to survive.

But if transformation and success is brought about by a deep commitment, it seems that across its different organisational initiatives, Hong Kong is dedicated to creating a strong ecosystem that will usher in a change of culture, capitalising on its creativity.

Celebrating creativity and innovation at PMQ during the DeTour festival, 2015. Image by Desktop.

Celebrating creativity and innovation at PMQ during the DeTour festival, 2015.


desktop visited PMQ during deTour, a 10-day event celebrating innovation and creativity, conceived in 2004 as a concurrent event of the Business of Design Week – the flagship event organised by Hong Kong Design Centre since 2002. Each year, BODW brings to Hong Kong some of the world’s most outstanding design masters and influential business figures to inspire the regional audience on creative thinking and design management. Today, BODW enjoys the reputation as Asia’s leading annual event on design, innovation and brands.

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