Anyone who’s lived in Hong Kong for a while knows all about downsizing. It’s a simple equation: property prices rocket up, and suddenly you’re cramming your possessions into a living space half the size. But when that space is as bright and sensational as the apartment Helen Bronte Boyd has recently renovated in Sai Kung, making do with 650 square feet doesn’t seem like such a hardship.
The renovation took four months, and the move involved some serious editing. “I had to get rid of two-thirds of my stuff, and my husband told me to keep only what was functional and sentimental,” says Helen. Potentially tricky for a family-oriented and artistic soul like Helen (who’s kept every letter she’s received over the last thirty years), but she has somehow managed to shoehorn a huge treasure trove of precious family memories and mementos into a space that is contemporary, uncluttered and uniquely special.
Living room and kitchen
Perched right at the top of an old Sai Kung village house overlooking the harbour, the apartment has a decidedly nautical, breezy feel. The original Art Deco-style glass block walls and two boat lights from Vintage in Sai Kung add old-world charm to the colour scheme, which is a wonderful mix of indigo, cobalt blue, turquoise, emerald and lime green. Helen has set these jewel shades against a backdrop of white walls and pale wood-effect floors, and with the huge concertina windows the apartment is always awash with sunlight.
A large blue sofa at the end of the room is offset with a vibrant Mexican rug, and two retro-style armchairs have been recovered by local fabric store Caanan in brightly coloured fabric; Helen found the chairs in a Melbourne Salvation Army store fifteen years ago. She’s thrown her grandmother’s vivid patchwork quilt over the back of one of them, and they both sit comfortably in front of a striking antique Tibetan cabinet, hand-painted with swirls of green leaves and flowers.
There’s a wooden TV unit Helen found on Sai Kung Markeplace (she’s a big fan of recycling, upcycling and eco-friendly energy – her husband Wendell insisted every light in the apartment was LED), and a sea-green cabinet in the corner from TREE. It’s a hotchpotch of colours, and they shouldn’t all work together, but somehow they just do – and work brilliantly!
The piece that ties everything together in the living room is the stripy rug, which echoes every key colour. “The very last thing I bought was the rug,” explains Helen, “and I just couldn’t find one with the right colours. Eventually I found this one but I wasn’t sure – I kept going back and back, and in the end I bought it. It was only when I put it on the floor, it dawned on me that it’s the colour palette of the view from the house – the greens and blues of the harbour and the fishing boats, the taupes and greys of the buildings, and the warm tones of the furniture. Somehow it just all came together!”
The true head-turner in the room, though, is the stunning staircase that leads up to the rooftop. Helen has widened the original design and lined the risers with a mixture of gorgeous indigo and white tiles, some plain, some patterned. It would be easy to label it Mediterranean, but Helen prefers to think of the staircase as Portuguese-inspired. “Portuguese from Macau, so still a bit of Hong Kong-ese!” she laughs.
Across the hall from the staircase is a cobalt blue Smeg fridge, which sits in a bijou kitchen nook – designed entirely by Helen – with smart stainless-steel splashback and countertops, and a surprising amount of clever space-saving storage. There is more colour-popping going on here apart from the fridge: a charming blue-painted window frame is set into the splashback, with flowerpots clustering behind the glass.
But what makes this flat truly special is the artwork that lines every wall – including the tiny hall outside the striking turquoise front door – and the memories and stories that lie behind each piece. It’s hardly surprising there is such a glut of art, considering Helen works full-time as an artist, but the pieces on show are actually a mix of her own creations, those by her eldest son Lachlan, and a host of artist friends and contemporaries. “I always buy from friends’ exhibitions, and many of my pieces are art swaps – a great way of being able to collect work when you’re a student and have no money,” she says matter-of-factly.
Helen paints abstracts in wildly colourful, vibrant tones, but is equally comfortable in other mediums, producing delicate collages, atmospheric photography and dramatic charcoal nudes. In fact, she runs a Wednesday morning life-drawing group at the Visual Arts Centre in Central, where participants are drawn from every nationality and age, from beginners to experienced artists. “I see life drawing as an opportunity to improve my technical skills,” she explains. “I say to people, if you can draw the human figure well, you can draw anything!”
Now she has opened a collaborative hub for artists in the middle of Sai Kung town, Studio SKink. She is convinced the best way to learn and develop one’s skills as an artist is to work with other creatives; Helen is passionate about fostering a sense of art community in Hong Kong. “It’s just getting going and it’s really exciting,” she glows. “Every second Saturday of the month we’re going to have talks by guest artists in the shared room, and then we aim to have a meeting for local Sai Kung artists, to encourage a sense of community. Being an artist can be solitary and isolating, so it’s great to work in a shared space.”
She is also planning to host shows in her new hub for emerging artists: “At my previous studio in Soho, we often organised shows for artists ranging from students to retirees, who were painting for a hobby, ” explains Helen. “Nothing compares to the experience of showing your work at an exhibition, and a random stranger coming off the street, loving it and wanting to buy it. It’s not about money; it’s about the experience. I want to give people that”.
Helen says her work reflects herself, her family influences and her history, reaching back into the past. The Bronte Boyds are clearly a close-knit family, and Helen has devoted an entire wall in the living room to framed family photos. There are beautiful 1920s photographs of her grandmother, who played an influential role in Helen’s development. “She loved cooking and fashion, and I remember she used to wear these stunning Chinese-style silk blouses. She’d take me on the bus to visit Chinatown in Sydney, and we’d order jasmine tea. A few visits ago I found a little tea tin in Brisbane, which is the exact copy of the one she used to use!”
Bedroom and bathroom
The tin is one of Helen’s treasured sentimental objects, along with the paintings, sculptures, gifts and knick-knacks her adored three boys have given her over the years. They mostly adorn the shelves in the study nook in the bedroom, where Helen has also managed to shoehorn a sleeping place and a walk-in closet – complete with hand-painted doors. There’s a fair bit of space but Helen had to downsize her wardrobe too. “I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of two-thirds of my clothes, so I went for a third,” she grins. “But I did throw away a lot of shoes and handbags. And now I practice the ‘one-in, one-out’ rule as far as clothes go!”
The other standout room in the apartment is the bathroom, which is an ergonomic miracle of space. Once again, it’s the little details that elevate the room: a fabulous bathroom cabinet turns out to be an antique mirror: “I scoured Hong Kong for mirrors but couldn’t find what I wanted,” Helen admits. “In the end I bought this one, and my contractor made the shelves behind it”.
Instead of installing the dehumidifier and ventilation unit above the window as usual, Helen took the decision to lower the ceiling and place it overhead. “When we dropped the ceiling, we actually had to measure my husband to see if he fitted!” she laughs.
As in the kitchen, clever storage is hidden behind retractable doors and walls, and Helen has made the bathroom light and airy by using aquamarine glass mosaic tiles. She hated the standard door and cupboard handles the contractor showed her, so substituted them for mismatched knobs from Shambala (for the vanity unit), and elegant, circular brass handles (for the sliding bathroom door) from Cat Street. “The dealer in Cat Street told me they wouldn’t work, and that I wasn’t allowed to buy them,” she laughs. “Then when I brought them home, the contractor’s men had a fit, and said it would be impossible to fit them properly on the door!”
Helen prevailed throughout, with a mixture of her trademark charm and the unruffled leadership of contractor Albert from Pacific Alliance Engineering, who she says was an amazing support. “I’d say, ‘I want it like this,’ and he would laugh uproariously and roll his eyes and say, ‘Ah, so creative’! But he always did it the way I wanted it, and sometimes better,” she says.
Helen found him through her husband – Pacific Alliance Engineering had previously completed work for his company – and she worked closely with him throughout. “Albert told me that usually he comes up with the design, the client says OK, and then they wait for the keys! I, however, was there every day in 30-plus-degrees heat, surrounded by eight shirtless workers, and fighting with the tiler in pidgin Cantonese. But I think they all enjoyed it in the end, and – despite the many sleepless nights – so did I!”
This story first appeared in Expat Living Hong Kong’s April-May 2015 issue.