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Kuala Lumpur’s neglected historical buildings find new life as creative spaces

A generation of risk-takers is finding new uses for decaying spaces in the Malaysian capital, reviving forgotten corners of the city and creating new communities

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 August, 2018, 8:46am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 August, 2018, 5:47pm

Restaurants, cafes and small businesses have made a former printing factory, renamed APW Bangsar, a trendy spot on the fringes of Kuala Lumpur’s affluent Bangsar neighbourhood. 

Similarly, 2 Hang Kasturi, on a busy road junction, is garnering attention – and not just for its outstanding art deco facade that is juxtaposed with the modern glass-and-steel high-rises of downtown Kuala Lumpur.

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Another creative hub, the Zhongshan Building in Kampung Attap, is less conspicuous, tucked away on a small pocket of land beside a major highway. Although only a stone’s throw from Chinatown, it’s unlikely most long-term residents of the Malaysian capital know where it is.

All these projects are helping regenerate some of the oldest parts of the city, and make them safer and more attractive for tourists and residents. The projects are unlocking the potential of the spaces they occupy, reviving the local economy and building a vibrant community.

Designed by renowned architect Arthur Oakley Coltman in 1938 to house the Overseas-Chinese Banking Corporation headquarters, 2 Hang Kasturi fell into disrepair over the decades. Last year it was revitalised, reopeningas the hub of creative arts festival Urbanscapes. It also hosted the ninth World Urban Forum earlier this year.

It now serves as the Kuala Lumpur office of urban regeneration body Think City, tasked with reviving the oldest part of Kuala Lumpur. The location of 2 Hang Kasturi at the busy intersection of Jalan Hang Kasturi and Lebuh Pasar is fitting, since it was here, at the confluence of the Gombak and Klang rivers, that the city was founded in 1857.

“There is desire to rejuvenate this area and demonstrate it’s nice to be among the mix of historical assets here such as Central Market and Masjid Jamek, one of the oldest mosques in the city,” says Hamdan Abdul Majeed, managing director of Think City.

A wholly owned subsidiary of Khazanah Nasional, the Malaysian government’s strategic investment fund, Think City was established in 2009 to manage Penang state’s George Town Grants Programme. Its community-based, collaborative approach successfully revitalised the core of George Town after its recognition as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

From physical refurbishment to cultural programmes such as the Penang Story Project, the work not only enhanced local heritage but also enticed former residents to return.

In the Malaysian capital, there’s a similar approach.

“People are generally sceptical of change. It needs willingness to take risks and own transformation,” Hamdan says. Only then can the real work of unlocking the potential of a space begin. In the case of 2 Hang Kasturi, the building now stands as inspiration for others in the area.

“Regeneration is not just about conserving; that’s one tool. It’s also about adapting for the future. A city constantly evolves, and it’s about finding how that contributes to a broad set of people, not just a select group, so everyone can feel a sense of ownership.”

The second floor of 2 Hang Kasturi exemplifies this. Branded Ruang (ruang meaning “room” in Malay), it hosts workshops, pop-up markets, exhibitions and performing arts. “It’s a space for creating possibilities,” Hamdan says.

Across the road from 2 Hang Kasturi is another early 20th century building that once housed a business selling horse carriages. Working with the building’s owner, Think City is helping give the pre-war facade a much-needed facelift.

It’s nice to celebrate our heritage, especially when we see living history instead of just memories.
Ken Ho

While the work is primarily cosmetic, it’s helped conserve the history of the area. “Humans are made of memories; the same can be said of cities. Their memories are partly reflected in the built environment. A city without these feels bland and sanitised.”

Then there is the economic argument: “Heritage gives cities a certain character and identity that translates into competitive advantage,” he says, noting that a vibrant city needs creatives, “who choose to live in places that offer them a certain lifestyle”.

“That doesn’t mean you don’t add new things – we need innovation too. But for the ecosystem to flourish, one must understand the space and add value to it.”

Before APW Bangsar became a creative campus, it was one of the city’s busiest commercial printing factories. Business, however, has suffered in the digital age, rendering the massive 70,000 sq ft facility woefully underutilised.

When CEO Ee Soon-wei took over the family business in 2013, he knew it was failing, so he set out to reimagine the space. “If I wasn’t motivated, how could I build a young team? So I started visualising a place for young people, like a campus,” says Ee, who has been called “the cool mayor of Bangsar”.

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To find inspiration, Ee travelled to such creative hot spots as The Jam Factory in Bangkok, Beijing’s 798 Art Zone, and Huashan 1914 Creative Park in Taipei. All are old manufacturing facilities restyled as contemporary spaces for creatives.

Tearing down and rebuilding APW was never an option, with the building holding great sentimental value for Ee’s family. (In fact, the printing business still operates out of obligation to existing staff.) As a result, Ee had to think outside the box.

He leased the binding workshop at the front of the building to artisanal coffee purveyor Pulp – APW Bangsar’s first tenant. He turned the main printing factory into an industrial-chic events space, and the upper level was redesigned as a co-working space for enterprising millennials.

Finally, restaurants and even a barbershop were added to the external space in a way that reflects the original industrial spirit. Ee also received funding from Think City to build a pocket park on the premises. “A variable space brings in more traffic, generating income for our tenants,” he says.

While Ee’s endeavour was driven by economics, Zhongshan’s development was a little more organic. Made up of three shophouses built in the 1950s for the Selangor Zhongshan Association, it is now home to art galleries, speciality bookshops, workshops, libraries, cafes and even a law firm.

According to Liza Ho, a creative hub was the last thing on her mind when she and husband Rob Tan were entrusted with the management of the building by Tan’s family in 2014.

“Rob originally wanted to turn it into a hotel, before someone approached us to make it a co-working space,” recalls Ho, who runs art consultancy platform OUR ArtProjects. “When that didn’t happen, we took it upon ourselves and started calling everyone we knew to see if anyone was interested in taking up a space here.”

The response was better than expected. Tandang Record Store, Malaysia Design Archive, Rumah Attap Library & Collective, and the venerable Ricecooker Archives, who document the history of rock ‘n’ roll in Southeast Asia, were among the first to show interest.

Ho and her OUR ArtProjects partner, Snow Ng, opened their first art gallery on the ground floor, later joined by designer boutique Naiise and TLB Bakery Café, artisanal baker Tommy Lee’s latest venture. “We thought [attracting tenants] would be a challenge at first because we didn’t want to tear down any of the 12 units. But most of them only needed a space big enough for two or three people.”

The “hidden” location turned out to be a blessing, too. “Tenants say their clients prefer it this way, as they don’t have to go into the city,” says Ho.

Thanks to the artisanal coffee movement, old neighbourhoods like Chinatown are hot again. The one-kilometre stretch from Jalan Sultan to Jalan Petaling easily boasts 10 Instagram-worthy cafes where wholesalers once dominated.

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One of the newest is Jao Tim (pinyin for “hotel”) on Jalan Sultan. “If you think about the history of Kuala Lumpur, this area is a big part of it,” says Jon Teo, when asked why he and business partner Jian Tan decided to establish their first food and beverage venture here.

As the name suggests, the cafe boasts elements of an old-time inn, from the art deco entrance to the concierge booth at the top of the staircase. Teo, also an interior designer, explains the building started as a hotel in 1910. “We tried to keep as much of the original elements as possible, including the wooden flooring. It gives it character; we want people to come soak up its history, and hopefully be inspired by it.”

Merchant’s Lane, along Jalan Petaling, was one of the first hip cafes to open in Chinatown. The space, which once housed a pre-war brothel, has an unvarnished edge. Founder Ken Ho wanted to preserve the building’s original features as much as possible, including a tree growing through the walls.

Ho, who grew up in Chinatown, says: “I’ve always liked the idea of introducing modern culture into old spaces. It’s nice to celebrate our heritage, especially when we see living history instead of just memories.”

The rapid gentrification of Chinatown is exciting for residents old and new. “Whenever my dad sees young people walking by, he exclaims they must be going to one of the new cafes. It’s a strange sight for him, but it’s undeniable that they have brought vibrancy back to the area,” Ho says.