Brown Cof­fee co-founder and ar­chi­tect Hok Kang on his move into high-end real es­tate de­vel­op­ment

Southeast Asia Globe - - Contents - IN­TER­VIEW BY JANELLE RETKA PHO­TOS BY SAM JAM

When 35-year-old Hok Kang launched his ca­reer a decade ago, he wanted to change Cam­bo­di­ans’ per­cep­tion of ar­chi­tec­ture and how it dif­fers from en­gi­neer­ing. Since then, he has helped cre­ate Brown Cof­fee's look, trained up young ar­chi­tects at his own

firm and ven­tured into high-end real-es­tate de­vel­op­ment by found­ing Ur­banLand

IT was the late 90s when Hok Kang first touched down in Sin­ga­pore while tag­ging along on a busi­ness trip with his dad. The city-state’s beau­ti­ful parks, well-charted streets and mod­ern ar­chi­tec­ture over­whelmed him. This was the first time the teenager had stepped in­side build­ings that had a holis­tic de­sign – a de­sign that felt wel­com­ing. Land­ing back down in Phnom Penh, Hok re­turned to his dingy bed­room in a shop house. When he speaks about typ­i­cal Cam­bo­dian shop houses' cookie-cut­ter blue­prints, his tone changes, as if de­scrib­ing them is a chore: “It’s 4 me­ters by 20 me­ters. There’s no light in the mid­dle. It’s one whole line to get max­i­mum ef­fi­ciency. You go in­side. Af­ter 5 me­ters, it’s dark, in the back, blocked. So there’s no light, there’s no ven­ti­la­tion, and you do busi­ness on the ground floor and you live up­stairs.”

In the air con­di­tion-less 90s, a fan would whirl the same sticky, re­cy­cled air through his bed­room in the cen­tre of the house, where the only light came sec­ond­hand through his win­dow that looked out onto the liv­ing room. Down­stairs, the front end of the house served as his dad’s shop dur­ing the day, an eat­ing area at din­ner­time and a park­ing spot for the fam­ily’s mo­tor­bikes at night.

Hok is ex­plain­ing this from his own of­fice in Cam­bo­dia’s first “bou­tique of­fice space”, Rain­tree. The scene he de­scribes couldn’t be much more dif­fer­ent from where he sits now. Fresh sun­light pours through an ex­pan­sive plant-lined win­dow while a glass wall on the other side of the room sep­a­rates him from an open floor plan of desks out­side. He’s the co-found­ing ar­chi­tect be­hind Rain­tree, cre­ated by Ur­banLand, the award-win­ning real es­tate de­vel­op­ment com­pany Hok founded in 2013. But Hok’s CV runs longer. He’s also a found­ing part­ner in Cam­bo­dia’s revered Brown Cof­fee, which has 18 lo­ca­tions, all of which Hok de­signed and de­vel­oped through his first en­trepreneurial ven­ture as founder of Hok Kang Ar­chi­tects (HKA).

He traces these suc­cesses back to that child­hood trip to Sin­ga­pore, when he de­cided he would learn how to bring beau­ti­ful ar­chi­tec­ture to his own coun­try. Af­ter fin­ish­ing high school, Hok re­turned to Sin­ga­pore for four years to do gen­eral stud­ies as a mem­ber of the first batch of Asean schol­ars to the coun­try. His English was poor, but Hok was de­ter­mined to learn so he could study ar­chi­tec­ture in the US. In his free time, he would pore over books, check­ing the dic­tio­nary for the mean­ing of the roughly 15 words per page that he didn’t un­der­stand. From there, he went to Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity in the US, dou­ble-ma­jor­ing in ar­chi­tec­ture and en­trepreneur­ship.

Hok pulls out a cam­pus mag­a­zine that in­ter­viewed him be­fore his 2009 grad­u­a­tion from Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity and reads the quote it pub­lished from him: “I plan to start an ar­chi­tec­ture firm in Phnom Penh whose prac­tic­ing phi­los­o­phy takes care­ful con­sid­er­a­tion of the lo­cal con­text, cul­ture, tra­di­tion and rich an­cient her­itage.”

“It’s al­most my vi­sion come to life, ac­tu­ally,” he says of Ur­banLand.

Be­fore Hok moved back to Phnom Penh, he and five cousins de­cided to cre­ate a cof­fee store so Cam­bo­di­ans would have a place to come to­gether – some­thing he said the city was lack­ing pre­vi­ously. “I stud­ied ar­chi­tec­ture, so I said, ‘Guys, don’t worry about de­sign, I am gonna be fresh out of col­lege soon.’” From there, he found a prop­erty and be­gan mak­ing renovation plans that would trans­form the build­ing into the first Brown Cof­fee lo­ca­tion. This was also the start of HKA, which claimed the build­ing’s at­tic as its head­quar­ters, host to Hok and found­ing part­ner Chan­rit­thy San.E

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