Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo's resort development in China.

China’s new architects

Hawaii firms are exporting their
expertise to China as demand grows
there for luxury and resort housing

Ask to check the Internet for the phrase "millionaires in China" and you'll see estimates that there are a million to maybe 10 million or more residents of the People's Republic who have assets worth at least $1 million U.S. dollars.

While these estimates are unreliable, there is no doubt that wealth is rising in China, at least for some. Hawaii architects are getting their share of the economic boom in the form of architectural contracts for the design of luxury homes and resorts.

Two firms in Hawaii, Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo and AM Partners, are active now in the design of luxury housing in China. Other Hawaii architectural firms have done projects there and there are some Hawaii-designed dormant projects that may be brought to life by the new, more-open economy that followed China's admission to the World Trade Organization in 2001.

The wealth growth hasn't made China easier on the eye, as cities and land owners try to outdo their neighbors by seeking a "glitzier and brighter" appearance, said Clint Nagata, as associate at WATG.

But Hawaii is finding opportunities among developers who want to run counter to that trend and are liking island-based, tropic-resort designs that appeal to a luxury market without being garish, Nagata said.

Architects Ken Kashimoto and Clint Nagata of Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo, show plans to publicist Suzan Kushiyama.

His "tropical modern" designs helped WATG win a design competition and the architectural contract for the East Coast Resort at Dameisha, a coastal resort at Shenzhen in Guangdong, east of Hong Kong.

The first phase of the project, 760 luxury housing units in the form of townhouses and villas, is nearing completion. Another two phases are planned, of 600 and 560 units.

The units have been selling out fast at prices equivalent to $400,000 to $660,000 in U.S. currency. There also are timeshare units.

The developer, a Chinese group called Vanke, has seen strong sales. Phase One is pretty much sold out for enough money to provide a clear go-ahead for the other two phases, Nagata said.

In 1979, Shenzhen became the first special economic zone in China, a designation that gave it increased economic freedom and growth opportunities. As the seashore resort area adjacent to the city's population of 4 million-plus, Dameisha has boomed. Photos of the city show modernist, stark-angled and colorful high-rise office and apartment buildings.

The 34-year-old Nagata said going "simple" in the face of that type of development was a revelation for the Chinese. The residences were designed to reflect the "peaceful and serene lifestyle of Hawaii," he said.

"As we were developing the design, subconsciously we have always looked to create a successful resort that will be a sanctuary from the chaos of the city," he said.

Among AM Partners' latest projects is a 60-unit rental villa development in Shanghai called Le Chateau, located on a former pig farm, where per-unit rents run from the U.S. equivalent of $12,000 to $15,000.

Some of the tropical image comes from the use of sun screens, roof overhangs and thick masonry walls that also work to protect the inhabitants from the elements. Landscaping around and among the low-rise units helps differentiate the project from others nearby.

Working in China, with visits about every month for the past year, has been an enriching experience, he said, adding the way Chinese get things done is amazing.

"You can meet with a model-maker one day and the next day he brings in a completed model," after obviously working most of the last 24 hours, Nagata said.

Running up about 100,000 miles in frequent-flyer miles so far, Nagata is getting more accustomed to China. He still runs into Chinese people who see that he is Oriental and expect him to speak Chinese, which he doesn't. Just getting a meal presents snags, because the Chinese food in China is different from what he knew in Hawaii and he couldn't read the menus, so has to have a local person with him to eat out.

But those are small prices to pay for the pleasure of working with far-sighted, energetic and productive people, he said.

WATG, which has about four of its people working in China at any time, has been involved in the design of some 30 projects in the country, including the Hong Kong Disneyland Resort, the Hyatt Regency Sanya Resort, the Huangdao Convention Resort and the Shanghai Harbor Villas.

AM Partners, younger than the 58-year-old WATG, but aggressive firm founded in 1985, has been designing for the Shanghai luxury market for more than a decade. The company said the shift to a more free-ranging economy has created a surge in demand for luxury housing.

AM Partners has done the design work for recent projects where the purchase prices started at more than $1 million. Its latest project is a 60-unit rental villa development in Shanghai called Le Chateau, located on a former pig farm, where per-unit rents run from the equivalent of $12,000 to $15,000.

There are no vacancies.

AM Partners also designed Chateau Hua Shan, a five-tower luxury high-rise apartment complex in Shanghai, for the same developer as Le Chateau, Shanghai Ye Feng Development Co. Construction recently got under way for that project, aimed at the wealthy of Shanghai.

Architects going into China become much more a part of the development process than they would be at home in Hawaii or the United States as a whole, said Charles Lau, chairman and chief executive officer of AM Partners.

"The Chinese developers are really two big sectors. One is government, that you would work with on a civic building. The other is the private developer which is really two other sectors."

One is really local and the second half of the private sector is mostly foreigners doing business in China, he said.

Unlike Hawaii and the United States, the Chinese don't have a long history of working on developments. There is a shortage of potential developers. "They have land and they have money and they want to built something and make money," but they're not so sure how to go about that, Lau said.

"They bring the architect into everything," using the design firm as a tool in figuring out ways to make money from what they are doing, Lau said.

The sheer scale of China's possibilities is amazing, Lau said. He visited one province that has 190 million people, nearly equal to the population of the entire United States.

He said it has been suggested that 10 percent of the people of China speak English and if that is true "you would have more people speak English in that country than in the whole United States."

A Hawaii background works well there, he said. Lau speaks Chinese but he said that is not nearly as important a factor as having some understanding of Chinese culture, something many people in Hawaii share.

Hawaii architecture firm Group 70 International Inc., said it has done work in China in the past, largely in housing projects, but has nothing active there at the moment.

One reason is that China has its own highly competent architects, said Francis Oda, chairman and chief executive officer. "They have a lot of very talented architects, particularly in Hong Kong," he said.

There are many business buildings, high-rise apartments and other projects to be done in China and Group 70 has some dormant projects that might be revived there, Oda said. Meanwhile the firm is looking elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific area and is redeveloping the waterfront in Papeete, Tahiti.


E-mail to Business Editor


Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]
© 2003 Honolulu Star-Bulletin --