This article first appeared in Enterprise, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on April 9, 2018 - April 15, 2018
When Rob Tan was a child, he lived in the Zhongshan Building in Kampung Attap, Kuala Lumpur, with his parents and maternal grandparents. His grandparents had moved there in 1962. They started a butchery — Lee Frozen — downstairs and lived upstairs where they were renting a unit.
As time went on, the family gradually bought all the units in the three adjacent shophouses that make up the Zhongshan Building. “They basically leased the units to families. For many of them, it was their first home in KL,” says Tan.
At the time, Kampung Attap was a place of transit. Families from overseas or more rural areas arrived there to seek their fortune. They stayed in the units for a while before moving on. Many set up small businesses and there was a sense of community among the occupants.
Over the years, the businesses slowly moved out. “It was symbolic of what was happening with the whole area. It became a place that KL’s progress had left behind,” says Tan.
The buildings became hostels for foreign workers. “So, you have a guy who comes and rents the whole shophouse, the whole building, and leases it out to foreign workers. That was the state of things when I came back from Australia,” he says.
When Tan inherited the building from his grandmother, it was still full of foreign workers and he had to decide what to do with it. All he knew for sure was that he did not want to sell it.
Unfortunately, selling the building seemed the obvious solution. He received offers from people who wanted to buy it for its location, demolish the building and build something new on the site. Or from people who wanted to turn it into a KTV (read: brothel). “It makes sense as it is in a secluded part of KL,” says Tan.
One of his partners, Snow Ng, who runs the art gallery downstairs with Tan’s wife, Liza Ho, says: “Every room had a toilet. It was very convenient for production people who want a room with its own toilet so they never have to go out … or for a KTV.”
But Tan had a sentimental attachment to the building. He had grown up there and Kampung Attap was literally his kampung. He toyed with the idea of turning it into a boutique hotel because this would help maintain the building as it is. But some preliminary research showed that there were already too many boutique hotels in KL and few were doing well.
He got in touch with venture capitalist Khailee Ng, who came up with the idea of turning it into a co-working space. But this did not work out. However, dealing with Khailee brought him into contact with Think City, which led him to think more deeply about how he could revitalise the space.
After a lot of conversations, Tan, Ho and Ng realised that what the city needed was an arts and creative space. “There always seems to be a demand for such spaces from young designers, artists, records stores and what have you,” says Tan.
As Ho and Ng ran an art gallery, they knew that many of these people were looking for a reasonably priced space in the city. And that was how they filled the building — with people they knew or people who knew the people they knew, thus keeping it in the family, so to speak.
House of Horrors
By the time they took over the management of the building, it was in very poor repair. So, Tan and his team — which included structural engineers, architects and contractors — got to work. They had a mammoth task before them. The original, pre-Merdeka lines of the building were overlaid with ill-conceived renovations and add-ons, not to mention the wear and tear of decades.
Tan admits that they made plenty of mistakes in trying to figure out the original shape of the building and what was added on later. “Because we couldn’t see anything. It was literally a jungle down there. In fact, the contractors found a 10ft python in one of the shophouses,” he says.
Tan believes that the building was constructed in the early 1950s. So, a great deal of its core infrastructure was falling apart. “A lot of our money went into plumbing, wiring and structural work. We broke through years of tiles because people just kept building and extending over the original structure,” he says.
Although they got a Think City grant and Tan’s family put up a significant amount of money, there was not a lot to play with.
How did they decide what to do? “Pinterest, Google — that was the entire process,” says Ng. “We were pooling whatever we knew. We would all read up on different things, argue, debate and come up with some sort of deadline.”
Ng and Ho used to work at Valentine Willie Fine Art gallery in Bangsar. When it closed, they started doing pop-up exhibitions. They did so for two years until one day, Ho “dragged” Ng (in her words) to Kampung Attap to take a look at the space.
“And I am like, ‘Oh my God! Where are we? It looks like I am near Petaling Street, but I have no idea where I am. I asked for one space, not 12 units in a scary-looking horror house!’ It looked gorgeous for film shoots, but I knew that if she was dragging me here, it meant that she wanted to do something with it. But I am like, no, not 12 units,” says Ng.
Ho says, “Rob wanted to bring people back to Kampung Attap. And what we wanted was not to have a car workshop or fishball noodle stall next to us. Our gallery would only take up one unit. What we needed were good neighbours to work alongside us.”
They decided to ask their friends. “We realised that many of them actually needed a small space they could share. Here, the rent was affordable and it is still in KL,” says Ho.
And that was how they curated the tenant mix. “People ask us how we choose our artists and we say, whomever we like,” she says.
Ng says, “I suppose doing it yourself means you can say yes to the ones you want to work with. We only do business with people we like.”
Tan adds, “Because you are talking about 12 units, and in some of them, there are two or three tenants, so the people we clicked with, sure, come on in, join us. And everyone gets along, which is great. I mean, I expected far more tension between the tenants.”
The renovation work was completed by the end of 2016 and the gallery (known as the OUR ArtProjects) opened in January the following year. When the gallery opened, four tenants were in the process of moving in.
Although it was all very low key, the presence of a creative hub in Kampung Attap elicited some attention in the local press and inquiries started to pour in. But in the end, everyone in the building was either a friend or a friend of a friend.
The first few tenants were people like artist Yee I-Lann, the Ricecooker Archives (run by Joe Kidd), the Malaysian Design Archives and Tandang Record Store. Now, there is a law firm, Muhendaran Sri, graphic designers such as the Fictionist Studio, Bogus Merchandise (which does silkscreen printed clothing) and bespoke tailor Atelier Fitton (coincidentally where an old-fashioned tailor used to have his shop back in the day). There are two cafes — Piu Piu Piu, which serves coffee, hot chocolate and cheesecake, and TLB, which serves, among other things, sourdough bread.
As Ng points out, it had to be a collection of like-minded people. “That was the curation of the building. Not just that everyone had to be creative. Anything is or can be creative, but like-minded people are very hard to find,” she says.
“And everybody is struggling. We have the same struggles — always going against the grain, not really trying to be different, but somehow, seeing things differently.”
When Tan offered the duo the building, Ng was a little circumspect. “I asked Liza, are you sure Rob wants to do this? Because he is a businessman and a businessman needs to make money. Generally, most people would have converted this building into a KTV or a co-working space,” she says.
But for Tan, the goal of making money came second to the goal of reviving Kampung Attap. His grandparents had been very social people, throwing parties all the time. He wanted see those days renewed.
Getting creative people under one roof presents another kind of problem. “All the tenants are pretty intense creatively in their own fields. So, it can be a clash of the titans. Either you work very well together or you hate each other,” Ng points out.
So far, it has been a blast. Just a few days before the interview, the tenants had their Chinese New Year revels at TLB “We had an idea to have a Chinese New Year open house and Tommy Lee said, ‘Use my space.’ The punk rockers and Bogus Merchandise provided the speakers and it all came together very easily. Everyone was keen to do something together, which is great,” says Ng.
A walk to remember
On a walkabout through the building, we stop at one of the two bookstores there, Tintabudi. Ho says the bookstore has a very rare collection of books. “You don’t find these in MPH.”
The smiling owner, Abdullah Nazir Harith Fadzilah, says, “Basically, we sell books on philosophy, arts and literature. Currently, 70% of the books are second-hand, but we are also trying to bring in local authors and publishers. We do a reading group every fortnight and there is also a poetry reading group. Once a month, we have a talk or discussion in the studio.”
The studio is adjacent to the bookstore and is occupied by another tenant. But this is in the spirit of sharing spaces and feeding off each other’s creativity. Ho says, “Sometimes, when he wants to have a talk, he uses the other space. The tenants handle it themselves. They talk to each other and if they need a bigger space, a screen or a projector, they figure it out.”
We move to another space, a studio this time, Fono. Uzair Sawal, one of the owners, says he and his partners moved in because they needed a space to share their music and conduct events. “We do a lot of non-mainstream music selection — stuff from Africa and the Middle East, psychedelic stuff. The nucleus of the whole thing is music, but we do other things as well such as film screenings, workshops, whatever we can think of doing in this small space.”
Next we move on to Pondok Peranchis, which a few social scientists from different universities in France use as their hub when they come to do research in Southeast Asia. “Pondok Peranchis is partially funded by the French embassy as well as a few universities. This space is quite small, but when it opened, the ambassador wanted to do a ribbon-cutting ceremony,” Tan chuckles.
We move on to Tandang record store. The space it occupies used to be Tan’s grandmother’s living room. One of the store’s founders, Wan Hazril, explains the philosophy behind the store. “We choose our records from overseas. We sell almost everything — reggae, punk, jazz, some pop music — but we are really here for the new bands.”
Tandang releases and promotes local bands. “People hear about us through word of mouth. Our circle is all the music fans in KL. Then we help them produce CDs because if they sell the CDs, the band has money to continue their projects. It is kind of an organic thing to ensure the music scene remains alive,” says Wan.
Ng adds, “They are proper party people. They can throw a party anytime. And they are famous for their barbecue.”
“I think we are going to stay here forever,” Wan laughs.
Ng says the tenants find ways of working together. “There are a lot of things here,” she adds, indicating the T-shirts hanging in Tandang’s store. “They are actually made by Bogus Merchandise, who are silkscreen artists. So, anything you see that is silkscreen is by them.”
Joe Kidd of Ricecooker Archives is one of the Zhongshan Building stalwarts. He used to be located at the Annexe in Central Market during the 2006 to 2009 period when the area was a wellspring of creativity. “It was amazing. If anybody turned up, we could get a project going immediately. We could just call up friends and do a talk. Or if we had to do a show, we could just call up Suaram and borrow its projector,” he says.
But it only lasted three years. “The management was more concerned about making money than about supporting the arts. The started to want to get the venues in the building to start their own businesses because they saw a lot of people coming to the venues. But people came to the place because of us. So, when they started kicking us out, people stopped going there and their project died. So now, it is empty, with nothing but cheesy and touristy art.”
So, Ricecooker Archives moved its operation to the Zhongshan Building, which Kidd says is recreating that vibe. He collates the rock and roll archives of Southeast Asia. “If you want to get certain information about recordings, you have to meet a lot of people. So I thought, ‘Why don’t I just centralise everything?’
“I have my own collections and I collate stuff from other people. If they don’t want to donate it, I can just take pictures of it and take the data off. If it is a record or cassette, I can just digitise it.”
Kidd is part of the underground music scene in KL that does not advertise its events on social media or through any of the usual channels. “It is mostly happening under the radar. Because when you really love something, you go out and look for it.”
An authentic vibe
Tan, Ho and Ng are wary of referring to the Zhongshan Building as the new hipster hangout. They don’t think the building is hipster (even if hipsters find their way there and take selfies on the dumpster, which they put on Instagram and Facebook with the hashtag #Zhongshan or @Zhongshan).
“It is supposed to be self-sustainable. That is why we don’t know how to make this hip. Because hip doesn’t really last. It is fashion and when it is done, it is over. These are really old, simple, creative businesses,” Ng points out.
Tan agrees. “We are not that trendy, nor are we cool. But it is rare to find a building in KL with this kind of mix — of people, archives, record stores. None of these people here are what you would call trendsetters. Everyone here is very relaxed. The vibe is contagious and real,” he says.
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