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