Penangites of a certain age still have fond memories of the Blue Bus that ran up and down the island until the 1980s. The company’s garage, built in 1947, sported a sleek Art Deco façade, still visible today. But years of neglect took their toll and even the purchase of the property by a group of local families didn’t change the fortunes of the area that was originally known as Brick Kiln Road. At least not right away.
Then, more through happenstance than design, Lithuanian street artist Ernest Zacharevic, whose murals and street art have become perhaps the most recognisable symbols of Penang, held his first solo show here in January 2014. Entitled Art Is Rubbish Is Art, it was an instant hit. “Three thousand people for an art opening is crazy here,” marveled current gallery manager Wanida Razali. The owners decided that there was potential for an arts space in Penang. Cafés, galleries, a vegan restaurant, a yoga studio and an urban farm are among the businesses that have since moved in. Movie screenings, collaborations with festivals and creative workshops are regularly on the program.
On a recent rainy Sunday afternoon, with the weekly Pop-Up Market in full swing (“It’s Mr Tan’s baby, he’s very proud of it,” commented Razali), Vincent Vichit-Vadakan sat down with Tan Shih Thoe, who represents the families who own the property, and Razali, for a chat.
ArtsEquator: The original project wasn’t this at all.
Tan Shih Thoe: My background is totally not related to art or performance. My family business sells industrial materials. On the side we invest in property around Penang. It so happened that Hin Bus was one of the properties we acquired about seven or eight years ago. At that time, we didn’t know what to do, but we knew that the building looked unique. We have plenty of Straits heritage type of architecture here, but not so much Art Deco. We were attracted by it and the potential investment because it is in George Town. Although at that time, nobody was looking [in this part of town]. This was considered a slum.
AE: Then you met Ernest Zacharevic.
TST: Ernest was scouting for a place for his first personal exhibition. We brought Ernest around and I never thought that this would be the place for him. We brought him around to other areas, and he said “No, no, no, no, no!” So I remember we were coming along, approaching, and parked here. He came out and said “This is it. This is where I am going to have my solo exhibition.” And I said, “Are you crazy?” We walked inside and it was trash. It had been abandoned for close to twenty years.
AE: So what did you have to do?
TST: He said, “Don’t do much. My art exhibition is rubbish. Art is rubbish.” And I said no. For my sake, for my family’s sake, I am not going to let people see all that. But we tried not to do too much to the place. In Penang, especially in George Town, we have a lot of over-restoration, over-refurbishment. Someone acquires it, and then they totally do up the whole space, and I think it loses that connection to the past.
So he came and did his personal exhibition. We intended it to be short term so we said, “OK, you do one month, and after that I’m going to wreck [it]”, like a typical investor. But his personal exhibition was very, very popular. And that’s when we thought we could do this longer. We felt that Penang was missing a contemporary art space, so we said we’d give it a try.
The most important for me was to have people who know about this, about running art shows. I only know about buildings. If the roof leaks I can fix it. So I was fortunate enough to meet Wanida to get this going. We have been doing this for three years and almost every month, we have exhibitions. This is all their effort.
AE: Has the vision changed or was it clear from the beginning?
Wanida Razali: At the beginning, I don’t think we really had a clear direction, what we wanted to do or where we wanted to go. But as time goes by, we are getting a better picture. We are more into building an alternative space that is also a creative hub, and also have our own sustainable eco-system here. It’s all to give it back to the community. There is no point in doing it just within this group of people. That’s why we are trying to get different types of people to come in.
AE: The way the place has grown: in terms of tenants, there is the yoga studio, the gallery, the café…
WR: Exactly. We don’t intend to only do art: like what Mr Tan is doing with the pop-up market, helping small entrepreneurs, who are also artists for him.
TST: In a way, it as fortunate that this place was acquired by Penang families. We’re in it for the long term. We live here, we stay here, we have children here. Of course we want to invest and get a return on our investment, but at the same time, how can we help the Penang community?
AE: Was it hard to convince the other members of the family?
TST: The owners are very understanding. And they knew when they bought this place it was not in a very prime area. But they knew that something had to be done differently to revive this area. When we started this, the hotel [the Wembley St. Giles across the street] was a 40-year old hotel. Then a new buyer acquired it and invested so much money. Look at the space now. Then we started seeing people moving in here and starting to acquire properties. You can see a change.
Hin managed to help change that. We do not wish to make it so rapid that it’s uncomfortable for the local community. We also own properties around Hin, about ten of them. Again we don’t do too much to the properties, we try not to over-refurbish and we select our tenants carefully, those who are really in it for the long term, who want to contribute something. Our rental is below market, so that’s how we try to avoid being over-commercialised like on the other side.
AE: You keep saying modestly that you’re not an arts guy.
TST: I’m not.
WR: You’re an art collector!
AE: What have you learned? Have you grown personally?
TST: Definitely. I have a totally different perspective on the arts community now. I think that the arts community is the most open community, especially in Malaysia. If you talk about different races, different religions… once you get into the arts community, it’s all the same. We have a very close-knit community in Penang.
AE: Are you focusing on local artists or open to artists from around the region, around the world?
TST: We’re looking at local and international. I do want to mix. Why would we want to limit ourselves to only here?
WR: Right now we don’t have any in-house curators. So we meet artists, curators, we go through proposals and if we find something really cool, we’ll bring it here. Our aim is to have that balance between the international scene and the local scene and more collaborations with international organisations.
AE: What does the future hold?
WR: We don’t know if it is going to stop growing, but it’s still growing for now!
Hin Bus Depot is a creative space located at 31A Jalan Gurdwara in Georgetown, Penang. It is open from 12 – 8 pm on weekdays and 10am – 8pm on weekends. All images featured in this article are by courtesy of Hin Bus Depot.
Guest Contributor Vincent Vichit-Vadakan gave up a long career in Paris publishing to learn Italian and travel the world. Now a journalist based in Bangkok, he writes about heritage, culture, food and tourism for a variety of international publications. Chances are that he is planning his next trip, and his next meal.