Creative Confluence
Jennifer Choo 
The restored shophouses of The Zhongshan Building at Kampung Attap
There was a time when the only respectable professions were that of doctor, lawyer, accountant and engineer. Dedicating yourself to climbing the corporate ladder was something to aspire to. There was also a time when suiting up and working in an office from 9-to-5 was the only sensible career path in life.

But the times, they are a-changing. Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a professional or donning business attire; they are all noble jobs essential to oiling the wheels of civilisation.

However, if the prevalence of start-ups and co-working spaces along with the decline in purveyors of office wear is anything to go by, today’s career goals and job landscape are much more diverse and less rigid. It would be accurate to say that the recently opened Zhongshan Building, in the unlikely neighbourhood of Kampung Attap, is a microcosm of the sheer variety of creative and intellectual endeavours in Kuala Lumpur. This creative commune and arts and research hub is an inspiring concentration of artists, graphic designers, fashion designers, academics, as well as music, film and book enthusiasts, to name but a few.

Housed in a row of 1950s interconnected shophouses, the block used to be home to the Selangor Zhongshan Association where settlers from Zhongshan, China used to meet and provide support to one another. In 1962, Lee’s Frozen Food, a frozen meat distributor, opened its doors in the premises along with other businesses; many business owners also made the shophouses their home.

Subsequently, the shophouses were inherited by the company’s second generation. Sometime in 2014, Lee’s Frozen Food vacated the building and Liza Ho, director of OUR ArtProjects and her husband, Rob Tan, who is one of the Lee’s Frozen Food family’s third generation, were handed over the management of the building.

Ng (left) and Ho, the duo behind The Zhongshan Building, are also the founders of OUR ArtProjects

“When the business moved out, my mother-in-law said she was getting too old to manage the building and left it to Rob and myself. Rob had a sentimental attachment to the place as he had lived in it when the family was still doing business downstairs and we didn’t want to rent to foreign workers like it was right after Lee’s Frozen Food vacated. We were approached by many other businesses like KTVs, boutique hotels and co-working spaces but none of them resonated with us,” explains Ho.

Snow Ng, Ho’s business partner and fellow director in OUR ArtProjects, adds: “When Liza brought me here in mid-2014, an opportunity was presented to us though one that was quite daunting yet challenging and exciting. We were brainstorming for a long time what to do with the building, and finally it was decided that OUR ArtProjects would spearhead a project bringing different people from the arts community together – a multi/cross-disciplinary community who are equally passionate and knowledgeable in their respective fields.”

Ho reminisces: “We’ve always wanted to have our own gallery but we also wanted to know who our neighbours are so we started talking to our friends, asking if anyone wanted a space. One by one, they came and started filling up. After opening in January this year, an article introducing The Zhongshan Building in The Star newspaper was published, which brought in more enquiries and it just grew from there. Now looking back when we thought we did not have the resources to start something like this, I guess we always did all along and we’re pleased at how it’s grown quite organically.”

Renovations were minor and took less than a year, largely because no significant changes were made except the opening up of a courtyard between two blocks.

“Most of what we did involved just getting this building back to basics. We added piping and electrical wiring but this being an old building, we’re still fixing it up today. The biggest alteration we did was for the courtyard which now has a retractable roof. It was back to basics and trying to put it back to its original state because the creatives are the ones coming in to put their own stamp on their spaces. It’s fine as long the changes are not structural,” explains Ho.

With OUR ArtProjects as the anchor tenant, their role was also in “curating” the tenant mix. “Our decision as to whether a tenant is suitable is usually reached by consensus and discussion. We look at their content and whether they share the same core values,” says Ng.

And how does the community work as a whole? “There’s a lack of a space for the arts community to congregate. There’s plenty of space for discussion online but no physical space to meet and talk, and maybe collaborate. Here we have art, music, fashion, design, all sorts. We actually do discuss among the community and the lines of communication are always open. There are no building meetings per se but we always meet at someone’s events,” notes Ng.

The residents of The Zhongshan Building are an eclectic bunch. Apart from OUR ArtProjects taking one of the ground floor lots with its own gallery space, Naiise, a design retailer from Singapore, is set to open its first bricks-and-mortar store in Malaysia. Upstairs, one can find various art and design studios, ranging from wayfinding specialist, Miracle Watts, to graphic design and branding agency, Fictionist. Renowned artist, Yee I-Lann’s Kerbau Studios and Kelabit artist, Alena Murang, also have work spaces here.

Niche crafts like risograph printing (A Good Reason), book binding (Rumah Amok), and not one, but two, silk-screening studios (Bogus Merchandise and Alvadey) can be found. Music, fashion and film are also in the mix by way of bespoke tailor, Atelier Fitton, DJ Collective FONO by Public School, indie Tandang Record Store, Document Studio by multi-disciplinary storyteller Rahman Roslan, and non-profit screening space, Cinephilia.

One of The Zhongshan Building’s objectives is to be a centre for learning and discussion, an agora of ideas if you will, and residents like Pondok Perancis Institute dedicated to social sciences and humanities in Malaysia, Malaysian Design Archive, Rumah Attap Library & Collective, and Ricecooker Archives that research, document and share Southeast Asia’s rock ‘n roll history, will no doubt provide ample fodder.

The whimsically named Piu Piu Piu café is completely serious about its coffee; the tattooed barista Unagi also makes his own soda and preserved lemons for the café’s Lemon Sour Plus.

There is also the independent bookstore, Tintabudi, an offshoot of the highly regarded Ipoh-based bookstore of the same name, which will offer books ranging from modernist poetry and literary criticism to eclectic, challenging fiction.

Amid this wide-ranging spectrum of creative and intellectual pursuits, there is also a law firm, Muhendran & Sri, thrown in for good measure. Ho reveals that the husband-and-wife legal team are avid art collectors and represent some of the artists which OUR ArtProjects has shown.

The airwell with a retractable roof, and entrances into The Zhongshan Building

When asked how life is like in The Zhongshan Building so far, Joanne Chew of Fictionist opines: “I moved in at the beginning of May and so far, it has been heartwarmingly splendid as I’ve already made lots of friends and met people from different disciplines with potential creative collaborations in the works.

“Apart from it being strategically located, I really like that The Zhongshan Building has a strong undertone of a Renaissance-like creative energy — a new confluence of ideas, conversations, and initiatives. A lot of talks and screenings have already happened with many more to come. To be right in the middle of it all is very stimulating and engaging as a creative practitioner and arts lover,” she gushes.

“Recently, a stray cat was stuck in the underbelly of my car — we rescued it and wanted to find a good home for it. We asked around the building and now it’s happily nestled at FONO upstairs at unit 80C. I just love the community spirit of Zhongshan and how everyone is like part of a big, creative family.”

We couldn’t have said it better.

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 245.