By: Brooke Chenoweth
Tai Long Wan, a remote village in the southwestern country park on Lantau Island, is not the first place you’d think of building a family home. The village was built as compensation for locals whose homes were submerged during the construction of the Shek Pik Reservoir in the 1960s. Today it’s home to a number of families looking for a little piece of island paradise. Bradly and Åsa Wilkins have made island life look very appealing with their beachside hideaway; on a rare day off, Bradly gave us a tour of their renovation project.
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Who lives here?
Åsa and I share the house with our two sons Liam and Nathan, aged seven and six, and, occasionally visiting from Kowloon, my 21-year-old daughter Savannah, as well as my 23-year-old daughter Shalyn, who is currently at university in London. There’s also our German Shepherd Mamba, two French Bulldogs Mally and Sonja, two cats Frosty and Lake (the third cat River recently taken by our resident python nicknamed Burmy), and a handful of fish.
What was it about this house that appealed to you?
We moved here two and a half years ago, after spotting its unique location. The house is 2,100 square feet and a typical, three-storey, Hong Kong column-and-beam village house built in the late 1990s, extensively renovated when we took ownership in 2014, and now with a 2,500-square-foot garden. The quiet and peacefulness of the remote village really appealed, along with the sound of the waves breaking and the beautiful sea and mountain views. I’ve lived in Hong Kong 15 years, and Åsa has been here for 14. I’ve lived in Lantau since first arriving, and I’ve witnessed the incredible speed that South Lantau is developing at.
This house gave us a feeling of what Lantau used to be like – a remote and exclusive place that most people wouldn’t bother making the trek out to visit. The fact that the house came with a big garden, which we subsequently increased in size by adding another plot of land to it, was a huge bonus over the other houses available in the village at the time. I love gardening, and the pottering about and fixing things up relaxes me! The land was originally rice paddies, and the flooding in the rainy season would trash the garden. It’s been a huge project to first drain the land and then install an irrigation system to keep the lawn lush.
You’ve owned and renovated a few houses in your time in HK; what is it about doing a renovation that appeals?
It adds a personal touch and turns a house into a home. Hong Kong is our home, not merely a temporary stopover as it is for many expats, and so it’s important for us that we feel at home in our house.
Tell us about the renovation process.
A living nightmare! Unfortunate circumstances dictated that we had to live in the house as we fully renovated it – only one room in the house remains more or less as we bought it. We lived on one floor as the others were worked on and moved around as each floor was completed. Shortly after completion of the middle floor, a serious electrical fire had us re-decorating that floor – an unfortunate event that turned out to be a blessing in disguise as new details greatly improved the design of the living area.
Needless to say, smoke detectors and fire extinguishers are now fitted in all rooms and every floor. Also, contrary to popular belief, concrete houses (or rather the contents of them) burn perfectly well, and faster than you’d think! In the end, after six months, we had turned a two-bedroom house into a family home of four bedrooms, a study and two living areas.
Did you know what you wanted to achieve when you started the renovation, or has it been a work in progress?
From the first viewing of the house, we had an idea of the potential. I spent many hours designing and re-designing in SketchUp (a 3D modelling program) until we were ready to begin the building process. As always happens when turning a plan from the sketch board into reality, things don’t always turn out as expected. It becomes a work in progress with a master plan behind it. One example is our 2,000-litre marine fish tank in our top-floor living area. It had the builders scratching their heads to ensure that the house structure could support the weight of the tank (which had to be custom-built on site), with each pane of glass hoisted up over the balcony. It was definitely a challenge, but the hours of pure enjoyment we get out of witnessing the fully developed ecosystem was worth every headache and setback, and every “Cannot!” from the builders.
How do you find the process of a renovation in Hong Kong?
If you don’t enjoy a challenge, then renovating is not for you. The cultural differences in how we see our home and what the builders think is possible are miles apart. We built our previous home from scratch, and the design proposal that the builder gave us for that house was rather boring. Upon completion, the builders asked to use our house for showcasing their new skills, and we see parts of the design repeated in village houses across the island.
It’s tough when you’re away a lot for work. You have to be on top of the workers all the time – this wasn’t really a problem this time around, as we were living in the house during renovations (which we have sworn we will never do again!). However, while we were building our previous home, with both of us working full time, we nearly ended up with a staircase going up the wrong way around, which would have completely ruined our design. Fortunately, we happened to pop in on our way to work the morning they built the wood structure ahead of pouring the concrete, and we noticed the flaw; it then had to be re-done with lots of shouting going on between the manager and the workers.
Any advice for anyone wanting to do a renovation?
Have a firm plan, stay on top of things and don’t accept “cannot”. Also, add about 30 percent to your budget!
What’s the most important room in the house to you?
All rooms are enjoyable in their own way. The top-floor living area, which has the most unobstructed sea views of the entire house, is certainly the one where we spend most of our time as a family. With the open-plan kitchen – dining room, living room and the centrepiece marine tank, which is visible from all angles of the floor – this is where the family comes together.
What’s your favourite feature of the house after the renovation?
Once again, we come back to the marine tank – it’s the one aspect of the house that blows everyone away when they first see it. We also really enjoy our outdoor area and garden, and the fact that we have an extremely private beach on our doorstep. The boys use the village as their playground and roam around like we used to growing up. Very far from the way most kids grow up in Hong Kong today.
Did you plan the space around the furniture you already owned or was the plan to buy new stuff that suited the space better?
We constantly change furniture as and when we see interesting pieces that we think will fit well in our house. Over the past 10 years, we’ve changed everything several times – the only constant is my brother’s leather couch that was shipped out from South Africa before we even met.
How would you describe your design style?
It can’t really be labelled; we go with what we like and, having grown up in very different parts of the world, we’ve had very different influences. But everything seems to come together – if we may say so ourselves!
What do the kids think of the house?
They love the outdoor space, the beach and the trails in our backyard. We recently moved them to a new school on Hong Kong Island, which means a commute of 90 minutes each way, and Nathan asked if we could please move closer to the school so we wouldn’t have to drive so far. When we explained to him what kind of lifestyle we would have there in comparison to what the cheaper cost of living in Lantau allows you, he decided the drive was fine!
Do they get involved when it comes to planning their rooms?
They don’t seem to take much interest yet, but they do love their chalkboard wall. When their big sister Savannah moved to Sham Shui Po to be closer to her university, we asked the boys if they wanted separate bedrooms. They decided to stay together for now; but that’s about as far as their involvement goes at the moment. When they get older, they’ll have more influence on their rooms, if they want.
What do you love most about life on South Lantau?
The laid-back lifestyle. Life in Lantau is changing as more and more people move here to take advantage of the cheaper housing. That was one of the reasons for the move to Tai Long Wan, where life is still slow. You can still send your kids across to the neighbour for a cup of sugar.
What are your plans now? Will you stay in this house for a while?
As renovations came to an end, Åsa exclaimed that this is her last move within Hong Kong! So, if I’m to move again it’s to leave the country, which I can’t see happening anytime soon. We have made our lives in Hong Kong. We met each other here, had our kids here. Åsa has her business here (Phoenix Wills), and we just feel at home.
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This article first appeared in the Aug/Sep edition of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.