The Urban Hub: REXKL’s Tumultuous 2020

Photo by Prakash Daniel / REXKL

How does a community-based urban hub survive and retain its when it’s cut off from its community? It’s just one of a series of curve balls that REXKL has faced in 2020. 

The REX building on Kuala Lumpur’s Jalan Sultan has weathered more than its share of storms. The iconic landmark was originally a Shaw Brothers cinema, before a fire forced it to close. Refitted, it reopened as part of the GSC cinema chain in 1976. A fire in 2002 closed it as a cinema for good, after which it entered an ignominious period where it served as a backpacker hostel and housing for migrant workers before falling into disrepair after yet another fire in 2007.

Yet its iconic status endured, probably buoyed by its connections to defining childhood moments of many movie-obsessed KL residents: a place inextricably linked to the memory and experience of the blockbuster movies of the 1980s and 19990s as defining cultural moments. 

In 2017, architects, Shin Tseng and Shin Chang were approached by the building’s owner to readapt the space and bring it back to cultural life.  They brought in partners including Ng Sek San to help reimagine and redevelop the site, which reopened to the public in 2019 as REXKL, a community-based cultural hub bringing together food, retail, micro-entrepreneurship, performance spaces, lecture and workshop facilities.

It quickly cemented itself in the neighbourhood with regular events like its Backyard Cinema screenings connecting it to its past and one-off nights like its collaboration with Ibiza club music legend Circoloco pointing very much towards the future. The REX was thriving again. 

Then came 2020. The coronavirus. Business shutdowns and Movement Control Orders. Downtown KL was disconnected from many of the city’s suburban inhabitants by roadblocks and a new set of community imperatives. Following the relaxation of the original Movement Control Order (MCO), the space was starting to draw back visitors. But at the time The Citymaker spoke to REXKL co-founder Shin Tseng in October 2020, a new round of CMCO restrictions had come into effect — including compulsory work-from-home (WFH) orders — throwing the space’s recovery plans into chaos. 

Do you want to tell us a little bit about the background of REXKL and how you became involved in the project?

Shin Tseng: REX cinema was an iconic building and a cultural landmark on Jalan Sultan and it was very famous at the time, because it was operated by Shaw Brothers. Many of us have memories in the cinema, watching films or perhaps dating. It was turned into a hostel after a fire in 2002. So this big cinema just fell into disuse. A hostel operator took over and it eventually turned into a slum and I can imagine that a lot of dodgy things happened. When we found out that it was up for lease, Shin and I, we came to check out the place. And of course, we had the shock of our lives [when we saw what state it was in]. But we also realized that there was a lot of potential for this building. So we decided to partner up with another group from Ipoh, represented by Ng Sek San and Kamil Merican. We took out a long lease to develop it into a cultural and lifestyle hub.

How long did it take you to develop and readapt the space?

Shin Tseng: When we decided to lease the building, we also had to deal with the existing tenants and try to work out how to humanely take over the building without causing too much disruption to their livelihoods. It took us about nine months to a year to vacate the building and right after that, we went into renovation. We started with a flower market. We put on the market at Chinese New Year as a placemaking effort, before we kickstarted our major renovation on the ground and first floor.s Then, it took almost another nine months until we opened the door as a hub.

What was your vision for the space: how did you imagine it as a community hub?

Shin Tseng: We realized that there’s a vacuum in terms of creative components or cultural components in the downtown area. It has always been a commercially-driven area; since the beginning of Kuala Lumpur. We thought that by inserting these cultural programmes and by bringing in different groups of artists or different groups of creative people that we could soften this part of town. And we can light up downtown Kuala Lumpur in a different way. We try to focus on the cultural, creative, lifestyle community, and include those young entrepreneurs and younger age groups.

Presumably, you had plans for REXKL to carry on increasing its momentum in 2020. How has the reality of this year affected you?

Shin Tseng: It feels like we’ve been through the five stages of grief. When we realised that we had to go into a lockdown, call off all the events, we went from denial to anger, to bargaining, and then during the end of the MCO we got into a depression [laughs]. We accepted the fact that fine there wouldn’t be any events for a year, perhaps even two, so we decided to re-pivot and look into new opportunities. So it’s been a rollercoaster ride.

Can you tell us a little bit about some of those pivots?

Shin Tseng: Besides the architecture and design that were put in to revive the building, REXKL’s programming was heavily built around art, culture, creative education, entertainment and music. We had to look for the segments that could support a community. Things like food.  How we look at it is that we still believe that art and culture is essential. We converted some of our shows into online content — that’s one way we can support artists and keep them busy; we set up an online donation system through our platform where the donations go to the artists.

But we also started looking into the food supply. Food security was one of the biggest issues of the lockdown. We already had a network of small farm-holders as we had been operating a farmer’s market for a few months before the lockdown. We brought them together and we launched a farmer’s market called The One Kind Market. The objective was to bring fresh produce and supplies to urban folks, which we found out was really hard to get during the lockdown. We started with those new programmes and we also revamped our food court. We partnered up with some of them and helped them to do marketing.

Of course, we’re heavily reliant on long supply chains to bring food to our markets and stores. Did it shock you that that availability of fresh foods was so easily disrupted by the lockdown?

Shin Tseng: It [came about] mainly through observation, you know, from our daily grocery run to social media posts where we found out there are communities in this city that had little access to fresh food during the lockdown. Yet there was all this food waste in Selangor, where the small farmers had to throw away the food, because they didn’t have the logistics to supply the food to urban folks. There’s this disconnect when it comes to food logistics and food security. We started questioning it and thought: is there something we can do about it? 

We started the experiment by calling a few farmers and gathered them in REXKL to have a farmer’s market and we blasted through our social media so our community would come and support them. We also have chefs coming in because they’d be looking to source [more unusual] produce, things from Orang Asli producers or natural and organic farms, things that are really hard to get at any time, not just during the lockdown. We have Orang Asli farmers that bring in produce from the jungle: they harvest or forage it from the forest and sell it at REXKL. 

Through word of mouth, people started coming in to look for this special produce, things that you can never find in a mainstream market. So it’s not just about fresh food, it’s also a lot of the indigenous amazing produce that we have in this country,

We also heard that you were working on another project – Project PeBBL – to link up different area of the city. Can you tell us a little about it and how it’s progressing?

Shin Tseng: Oh, that’s still a work-in-progress and it’s a working title. It’s a short form for Petaling Street–Bukit Bintang link. After the MCO, we reconnected with some folks from Bukit Bintang. We realized that if you want to look into reboosting the local economy, especially in terms of domestic tourism, as there are no more tourists from overseas, we might want to look into the bigger territory. The area that is accessible to pedestrians and visitors to downtown Kuala Lumpur, as the well as the people who live there. We started exploring the idea: what if it could connect Petaling Street with Bukit Bintang and merge the communities and residents? What would that look like? How can we realise that? It’s only one to two kilometres walking distance. Petaling Street and Bukit Bintang are really close. We have this perception that it’s really far away, because we have to go through traffic lights and U-turns and all these logistics when we drive. 

So we started looking at it as a master plan. What if we can connect them by foot or with bike lanes? Does it mean that we can now have a bigger downtown area or have a spill over from each district? Right? It’s not even districts, it’s just areas. And we also realized that there are a lot of stories to be told within these two kilometres. We can look into the potential of digital placemaking: telling the history through your mobile phone. It’s all still at the idea stage, but we are taking it quite seriously. We hope that we can sort of have a grassroots movement to get it realised in say a year or two.

To that point about it being separated by one or two kilometres, most of us see the city from the perspective of a car, not from the perspective of walking. But does that mean that these two districts evolved very different characters, despite the fact that geographically they’re very close to each other?

Shin Tseng: It’s funny, right? If you are coming from Bukit Bintang, which is our high street shopping district, towards Jalan Alor, which used to be more of a backpackers enclave, and towards Pudu, you see this distinctive change of landscape or cityscape, and even community. That’s basically because of the segregation of these areas with no proper connection, so people don’t really move around within these areas. That also explains why these areas are so different in terms of their development. By not having these connections, you’re actually creating more and more division and segregation within a five kilometre radius. Which is quite bizarre to me; because five kilometres is a walkable distance.

What would you like to see in terms of community unification coming out of this project?   

Shin Tseng: Each of these areas are very unique, right? Apparently Petaling Street area started with the river, with mining; then Bukit Bintang used to have these massive bungalows, very good schools, and it has been home to a very sort of elitist kind of community. So I think by having this connection, we can see this collaboration in a more positive way instead of labelling themselves as ‘Bukit Bintang folks’ or ‘Petaling Street folks’. I mean, we can perhaps look at the whole downtown as a multicultural melting pot; I believe it will give birth to a series of new ideas and new cultural events.

Coming back to REXKL, what are some of the additional steps you’re taking to cope with the challenges of 2020?

Shin Tseng: We realize that the old business model is not going to work for at least a few months. So we are looking at a different financial model. One of the ideas that we came up with, because of the support we got during this time, is that we can actually start looking at crowdfunding. Many people said that if we kickstart a campaign, they would like to be part of it. They believe in this project and they would like to see it go on. With their support we are going to launch a crowdfunding campaign and we want this to be a truly community-owned project eventually. By [embracing] crowdfunding, we can convert our supporters, the people who believe in us, and make them a part of REXKL.

We hope to have it running by December, so we have a month to close the campaign. Hopefully we’ll manage to raise the funds we need to keep REXKL going for another year until we can figure out the situation. We should be launching the campaign via pitchIN. We’ll make the announcement soon through our social media. 

Beyond the crowdfunding, what would you say to the the people who may have come to your events, who may have come and used the outlets at REXKL in the past, but can no longer make it there? How can they continue to support REXKL, even if they can’t make it to the physical location?

Shin Tseng: During the lockdown we consolidated most of our vendors as a group. We called it ‘The Background’ because the food hall is located at the back on the ground floor of  REXKL. We created an initiative to bundle all their products together. So by ordering online or for delivery, you can select from different vendors within REXKL to support them and in a way to support us. We are developing a new local brand called Lauk Pauk, which is a modern take on Malaysian street food. This is also a way to support local farmers because we are sourcing most of our produce from local farmers and we really want to use this opportunity to create something. And I think food is something that can bring people together.

Finally, what has 2020 taught you?

Shin Tseng: That we can only plan so much! We realised that we’ve always got to be vigilant and be agile when it comes to business or anything we do, really. It’s a wake-up call that we can’t always depend on what we know, what we are comfortable with. It’s really forced us to look into the essentials. Especially for me, that realisation that we have been so comfortable with what we were used to. That we forgot to reinvent or forgot to look into the real needs of society or even four own needs. It’s a heavy takeaway, but I think it’s an awakening. 

You can listen to The Citymaker podcast featuring Shin Tseng here.

We’ll update this article with details of REXKL’s crowdfunding campaign when it launches. You can follow REXKL on Instagram @hellorexkl and on Facebook at REXKL