Entrepreneur

This M’sian Revamped His 70-Year-Old Family Home Into A Hub For Creatives

Not long ago, I found a hidden gem in Kampung Attap with my friends.

It’s a 4-storey building called Zhongshan that’s filled with cafés, bookstores, artisanal stores and more. 

But the interesting thing is that all these stores have an artsy touch to them, like a concept almost. 

It’s as though all the artists just came together in one space and you can tour them like a museum. 

Contrary to its older design, there was an overwhelmingly youthful crowd in the space, so it’s evidently a trendy, hipster hangout spot.

I later found out that Zhongshan is actually a creative hub, and the managers only take in like-minded creatives to join their space.

Curious about that process and the history behind the building, I reached out to Liza Ho, half of the husband and wife duo behind Zhongshan’s leadership.

Unwilling To Let Go Of His First Home

Zhongshan was built in the 1950’s, making it around 70 years old now. 

Zhongshan in 2016, before it became a creative hub / Image Credits: Zhongshan

The family of Rob Tan, Liza’s husband, actually used to live in Zhongshan themselves.

His grandparents later bought over the other units in the building and leased them to families. 

Editor’s Note: Information in the above paragraphs have been edited to reflect greater accuracy.

It was a first home for many of them, but they’d move on after a while.

Small businesses were also set up in the building but they’d move out too. 

When Rob returned from Australia, Zhongshan became a hostel for foreign workers, which was not what he had in mind for the building.

He received offers from people who wanted to buy Zhongshan, demolish and build something else, and even turn it into a KTV cum brothel. 

However, unwilling to give up his first home that easily, Rob and Liza decided to restore the building and come up with a concept for it. 

They received a grant from Think City which was worth RM200K, which covered a fifth of their restoration costs.

Liza used to work in the Valentine Willie Fine Art gallery in Bangsar, but when it closed she started doing pop-up exhibitions. 

One day, she realised she could use the space in Zhongshan to set up her gallery, and realised other artists like her were looking for a small space they could share together.

Hence, the idea of turning the 70-year-old building into a creative hub was born.

Birds Of The Same Feather Flock Together

As word of the building and its prices spread, more businesses and curators took up the spaces.

Currently, they have 25 small businesses and organisations that share the Zhongshan building. 

While they stress on taking in only like-minded people to share this space with them, they don’t have a specific criteria to select them.

Since Liza and Rob feel strongly about creating a tight-knit community who can contribute to the vibrancy of Zhongshan, these are the people they are most likely looking for. 

Liza added, “We will do whatever we can to keep rental affordable for the community. We know how tough it is to be in the arts.”  

She herself runs The Back Room at Zhongshan, which is a space for art exhibitions, projects, talks and workshops. 

The Back Room / Image Credits: Chow Sook Mei

Not too long ago, I inquired about the new extension they built, which was a courtyard and individual studio spaces. 

The last two times I’d been there, which was in July and September, there’s always been a crowd and heavy traffic in their stores. 

I was curious if they were planning to start hiking up their rental costs since they’re becoming more and more popular.

But Liza believes the building is more than capital gain for them.

“Our revenue is from rental from the tenants and it is enough for us. We have always approached this as profit-making and not profit-maximising.”

Inside Zhongshan

Touring around Zhongshan can feel almost like a maze. 

There are shops behind shops behind shops, so if you have a whole day to do nothing, it’s definitely the place for you to explore. 

So far, I’ve been into Tommy Le Baker, ana tomy, Naiise, PiuPiuPiu and The Back Room—a bakery, a stationery shop, a souvenir shop, a coffee stand, and Liza’s art exhibition.

Tommy Le Baker and PiuPiuPiu / Image Credits: Lee Jo-Dee

They may seem like regular KL cafes and hipster stores elsewhere.

But when they’re all conglomerated in Zhongshan, I felt their cheerleader effect on me.

Prior to MCO, the building was frequently holding events and pop-ups every month. 

Some of these events include film screenings, reading clubs, talks, live music, art exhibitions and more. 

They’ve also hosted flash tattoo pop-ups as well as social enterprises like Penan Bags, The Lost Towel Project and Eloma Shoes

Though MCO has stopped these events and pop-ups for a while, they still continued them virtually like hosting talks and reading clubs via Instagram live.

For many, Zhongshan may just be another building, but Liza and Rob’s intentions can clearly be seen and felt by those who venture there.

Beyond the building itself, Liza has more creative dreams and hopes that Kampung Attap will become an arts district one day.

  • You can learn more about Zhongshan here.

Featured Image Credit: Liza Ho, co-founder of Zhongshan Building

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