The Mahjong School Philanthropists: A Father to Son Legacy

Design Of PMM Media Office

The Mahjong School project encapsulates the captivating story of one of Groundwork Architects’ clients, Jeffrey Kwok, and his father, esteemed philanthropists hailing from Hong Kong. Jeffrey’s father, an entrepreneur in the Mahjong industry, operated a successful chain of “Mahjong Schools” (also known as Mahjong parlors) across the city. Among these establishments, their flagship outlet resides on the ground floor of the Alhambra Building (平安大樓) in Yau Ma Tei, Kowloon, near the vibrant Temple Street known for its buzzing nightlife. The Kwok family also possesses additional units within the same historic building.

The PMM Media Office located in the historic Alhambra Building (平安大樓) in Yau Ma Tei, blending modern functionality with heritage charm.

Running a Mahjong school is undoubtedly a challenging endeavor, given its association with bookmaking activities. However, Jeffrey Kwok, a prominent figure in the advertising industry and founder of the local advertising company PMM Media, was no stranger to the difficulties faced by businesses. PMM Media has always been uplifting social enterprises, and in 2016, Jeffrey became aware of the predicament faced by The Gingko 銀杏館, a highly respected local social enterprise known for operating restaurants that provide employment opportunities for retired elderly individuals.

The Gingko faced a significant setback when they lost the lease for their main restaurant. Desperate to find a new space, they encountered the formidable challenge of finding a new location in Hong Kong, renowned as one of the most expensive cities in the world with soaring real estate prices.

Recognizing the dire situation, Jeffrey embarked on a mission to help The Gingko. He convinced his father to lease out one of their units within the Alhambra Building, boasting a net floor area of 300 square meters. Astonishingly, Mr. Kwok senior not only agreed to the proposition but also offered to set the rent at a mere one-eighth of the market rate. His intention was to support The Gingko’s mission and facilitate their social causes by providing them with affordable rental space, so he sought our help.

The collaboration between The Gingko and Groundwork Architects is a truly harmonious union. Our team believes in profound philosophy and a humanistic approach to architecture. This resonates deeply with The Gingko, as we share a common set of values and aspirations.

Due to an extensive government funding validation process that required meticulous monitoring and justifications for spending, the project faced unexpected delays, extending its duration spanning two years, which is far beyond the typical timeframe of three to five months.

During this waiting period for the funding body’s approval, Jeffrey engaged our services for another project. He requested the design of a new office space for PMM Media, selecting a 78-square-meter unit owned by his family within the Alhambra Building, conveniently located next door to The Gingko’s site. The unit had remained vacant for several years and was originally used as Mr. Kwok Senior’s office. Jeffrey envisioned this space as a shared office, accommodating both his semi-retired father and PMM Media. The concept intrigued our team, as it resonated with the humble beginnings of Groundwork Architects, which started seven years ago with a desk in my father’s music practice room.

Entrance to PMM Media: Initially planned to accommodate both Jeffrey’s semi-retired father and the PMM Media team.

Responding to this unique brief, we initially divided the space into two halves: one for Jeffrey and the other for Mr. Kwok Senior. To accentuate the contrast between the two areas, we opted for a striking design approach. One half was elegantly adorned in black, while the other exuded a pristine white aesthetic.

One month into the design phase, the project faced a tragic turn when Mr. Kwok senior, Jeffrey’s father, passed away from acute liver failure. It was a devastating blow for our team to learn that he had been battling liver cancer for years, unbeknownst to us. The sudden departure of Mr. Kwok left us in profound grief and sadness.

As the eldest son, Jeffrey led his family through this difficult time of mourning. During the process of sorting through his father’s belongings, Jeffrey came across two magnificent classical-styled shelves that had been wedding gifts to Mr. Kwok Senior from Jeffrey’s grandfather. Recognizing the significance of these cherished heirlooms, Jeffrey approached us with a heartfelt request to incorporate the shelves into the design of the small office, as they would represent his father’s spirit.

Classic-styled shelves passed by Mr. Kwok senior’s grandfather, now cherished in Jeffrey’s office to honor his spirit.

With this profound change in direction, we decided to completely overhaul the original design. Firstly, we needed to reconfigure the space to accommodate the two large antique bookshelves. Their presence posed a challenge as they were made of wood and carried a classical aesthetic that might not seamlessly harmonize with the original monolithic tonality of the office. Thus, an update to the material palette was necessary.

In the design process, we intended to pay tribute to the Kwok family with our limited talents and extend our services. We carefully positioned one of the shelves within a portal, allowing it to be showcased and reflected infinitely by strategically placed mirrors in the porch area. Conceptually, these two pieces of furniture became integral components of the memory narrative, resting upon a foundation of paradoxes. They represented cherished antiques housed within a contemporary-designed space, which in turn was nestled within an old building situated in an aging district. The space itself brought together two individuals from vastly different trades: a mahjong parlor bookmaker and an advertiser. The passing down of these two bookshelves from generation to generation became an unspoken storyteller within the architecture. 

This project not only provided us with the opportunity to work with form, space, order, concrete, and steel but also with the intangible elements of memory and love. Perhaps Jeffrey’s altruism and compassion, manifested in his dedication to this project, were the most profound gifts he could offer his late father.