The Neighbourhood: The Challenge For Downtown KL

Photo by Brian Kwan

We last spoke to Shin Tseng, one of the co-founders of the iconic retail, arts and community hub, REXKL, late last year (November 2020). He outlined some of the challenges that this placemaking icon and its tenants had faced over the first year of the pandemic, and detailed some of the creative pivots, like an inner city farmer’s market, that the building had undergone to try to better serve the downtown community.

Shin also told us about his plans to crowdfund for REXKL, to help them realise some of their more ambitious plans for the building. As Think City prepares to launch the Downtown Grants component of its KL Creative and Cultural District masterplan, we caught up with Shin to find out how the crowdfunding went, and to talk about the importance of external funding to the creation of sustainable and thriving neighbourhoods within the city’s heritage core. 

And as someone who not only works but actually lives in downtown KL, we also took the time to find out what it’s like to live in the area during lockdown. 

Photo by Brian Kwan

The last time we spoke to you, REXKL was about to launch a round of crowdfunding. How did it go

Shin Tseng: I would like to think that it went really well given the context and situation. We launched the campaign right in the middle of a pandemic, between lockdowns. We still managed to hit our initial target for the crowdfunding and got a new batch of funders on board with us. We’re honoured that people still believe in us, especially as REXKL is a placemaking project that focuses on physical interaction with the architecture itself. 

What have those funds been earmarked for? 

Shin Tseng: The campaign is called REXKL 2.0, which is focused on creative entrepreneurs incubation in the food and beverage and retail components of REXKL. We rebranded the ground floor with a new management, called The Background.

We believe that being a Malaysian project, food is always the main connector to other components in the hub. So, we managed to upgrade both intangible and tangible infrastructure to support this initiative. Mainly, the existing infrastructure in the building itself, like electrical loading provision, exhausts, new food court configuration, to the backend management system, new HR, new website.

We are also trying to transform the whole place into a cashless hub. We’re building towards a cashless integration system with data collection to help our tenants or vendors to further improve their businesses. Those are some of the ways we are deploying the funds to increase our capacity to cater for all these needs.

We’re in the most restrictive lockdown so far. Downtown KL is something that many of us haven’t seen for several weeks, possibly even longer. What’s it’s like to live and work downtown at the moment?

Shin Tseng: I made a drastic decision last year to move away from my beloved Bangsar area and move right into the city centre, not far from REXKL. In fact, I can look at REX from the window of my place. I decided to give it a try and move to downtown KL to flesh out what we have been talking about, which is to improve the liveability of the city. And it has changed my perspective towards how I look at downtown KL.

It’s no longer a place of commerce only; it’s now the place that I work, live, play and raise my kid. It is quite amazing how liveable the city is. Despite a lot of common perceptions by people who don’t live here [about] how horrible it is. The situation has improved over the past 10 years or so, with the MRT and I think the whole downtown has improved in terms of the walkability and the public spaces it offers.

Especially during this lockdown, it is more liveable because of the reduction of pollution, but I wonder how it will be when we get back to normal life. I’m in this bittersweet sort of situation. I really like how KL is now. The air is fresher. Everything looks a bit more friendly. But the potential is that it is a liveable city, and I’d like to be part of it and perhaps improve it from here. 

Think City is launching a wide-ranging renewal program in this part of KL, and one component is that aspect of liveability. What steps do you think need to be taken to reverse the hollowing-out, to create a self-sustaining neighbourhood and encourage people to live in the area?

Shin Tseng: To become a sustainable city, we first need to work on being a liveable city. To have a liveable city, we need to have a walkable city. It changes the sense of place when you walk on the street from place to place. I believe that will further create a sense of belonging for people living in the city.

I think that more and more creative people are coming back since the launch of the creative and cultural district master plan. People are, looking forward to, creating this missing piece of it: making a better city. And due to the pandemic, we can see a shift in terms of business models. In the past the downtown area used to cater mainly to tourists and business commerce. We have witnessed businesses closing down, which is very sad, for those who depend solely on the tourist economy. 

I think, moving forward, people are realizing that we need to create a more sustainable community by having a more diverse kind of business plan or even strategy to cater for both. Over the pandemic, some businesses whose focus is the local community are thriving. Some are becoming brands and household names. 

I think that is the future for downtown that we really need to look into. Cater for the needs of the local community before we address the short-term [gains] of tourism. I think that shift of mindset is now transforming the businesses around it as well. Namely Pasar Seni, which used to cater 80% of their businesses to tourism. I believe they are revamping and maybe shifting the pyramid upside down, by looking at 80% of their business targeting locals instead of just foreign tourists. That to me is a very positive change. And it’s just one of the examples that we’ve witnessed during this MCO.

We talked about the crowdfunding at the start and your plans for the money. But, looking at the potential of the downtown area, looking at the kind of recovery bounce that we’ve seen in the UK and the US in the entertainment and retail sectors, what do you see as the future for REXKL once the lockdown is eased?

Shin Tseng: REXKL has always been what we call a 10-year project, because we don’t look at it just as a place that we create to generate business. It is a hub for people. So, in order to [serve the community], we need to create an infrastructure with offerings that are for everyone. I mentioned briefly the food components in REX, and we were very active in events and programming when we started.

The next thing moving forward is to look into how we then provide a learning experience…to the community. The idea then evolves into some kind of hybrid between a library, bookstore and workshops at the upper floor.

The vision is to provide a hub where you can come in and join a music show, then have a place for food and drinks. [Coupled] with a place that you can learn, via bookstore, via workshops or other programs that we have. 

And we’re looking for it to have this spill over effect into our neighbouring streets by creating more collaboration with the Petaling Street neighbourhood, by creating more partnerships with other organizations, and by creating this platform for them to be part of this initiative.

We’ll be announcing our Downtown Grants programme over coming days. Stay updated by joining the Downtown KL community on Facebook and take part in the movement. https://www.facebook.com/DowntownKualaLumpur

You can also apply for the Merdeka 118 Community Grants Programme at https://www.merdeka118.com/grants2021