Heart of the city pulses again

Thor Kah Hoong

Not just taking up space, Think City KL is here to preserve what’s good of the past, promote change in the city and generate economic opportunity – all from a minimalist office on the second floor of Ruang. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Kamal Ariffin, June 4, 2017.

RUANG, or space in English, is the office of Think City KL, on the second floor of the imposing, stone-fronted old OCBC building at the corner of Medan Pasar in the heart of the city.

On the ground floor, arts activists Urbanscapes have set up stall.

Think City KL is an initiative of Khazanah transplanted here in 2015 after a successful rooting in Penang.

Its mission is to help preserve what’s good of the past and promote change in the city while generating economic opportunity.

Empty space is literally what greets the visitor on the second floor. Tall exhibition boards on the side, a couple of functional tables and chairs in the middle – it looks like a recently abandoned or just moved in set-up.

The office is at the far end, containing a pair of tables, three laptops and PCs. This is a Khazanah office?

“It’s deliberate. We didn’t spend money doing up the place because we didn’t want it to be intimidating,” says Think City KL programme director Lee Jia Ping.

The space is in answer to art and theatre groups who approach Think City KL for grants, but have no space for their projects. UNHCR has used it for talks on refugees and the Women’s Aid Organisation to hold regular counselling sessions.

What is the focus of Think City KL? Is it people, heritage, a city centre with a human heart?

Lee says, “We are about increasing liveability. We are George Town based, so heritage is part of our DNA.

“In 2008 the prime minister created several ‘corridors’ such as the Khazanah Koridor Utara. The aim was to generate investment in industry.

“Unesco was going to list Penang and Malacca as heritage sites. There had to be intervention because a lot of the buildings were derelict. That was attracting foreign buyers.

“Khazanah assembled people – the World Bank, Charles Landry, the futurist, Badan Warisan Malaysia – to look at how we could regenerate the city, maintain the heritage, yet make it modern enough to attract new businesses.”

Think City was successful in wooing Malaysians to buy old houses and turn them into boutique hotels, and soon, coffee bars and cafes followed.

It was felt that hawkers should be in the streets and not housed within a complex, but confronted with the reality of hawker centres that had grown big and were owners of the lots they did business on, Think City gave the centres money to refurbish the façades and educated them in the regulations governing renovation.

“For the first three years, we said we would work on a crowd-sourcing model whereby we involve citizens to recreate or transform the place,” says Lee.

“We told the clans, the property owners, we will give you some money to do up the place, but we want co-investment from you. That
was a very successful mechanism.

“We also played the role of facilitator. There was a traditional medicine shop, Ren I Tang. It was closing, and the owners wanted to lease it out for three years. There was interest from a boutique hotel operator who wanted to convert it into an inn, but he said, for his investment, a three-year lease was inadequate. We facilitated a dialogue and they settled on a 20-year lease.

“We looked at parks, like the Armenian Street Park, which was a beautiful park before the thieves’ market, pasar karat, set up camp and made it look run-down. All there is for sale is junk, used goods, so it doesn’t add substantial value to the place, although it is always busy.

“We created a new park, added grass. We monitored traffic when it was opened last year.”

More families visit now. It has also been used as a venue for the George Town Festival. There is less traffic, but it’s now safer for families.

Lee laughingly adds that the traders were moved to near the police-station, in the hope the proximity of the police will scare away the dubious traders.

The chief minister approached Think City for cooperation leading to a joint venture called George Town Conservation Development Corporation with the Chief Minister’s Office.

Besides the waterfront project, there is work on Fort Cornwallis, and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture is contributing experts for the preservation of and archaeological digging round the fort. A museum is being considered.

Think City was supposed to close down after three years. Its remit ended with the spending of the RM20 million given by the federal government in aid of the rejuvenation of George Town.

But when they did an impact study, they found that for every RM1 investment, there was RM6 co-investment.

Think City was asked to replicate the model in Butterworth and Kuala Lumpur. 

Are the problems in KL the same as or different from those in George Town?

“George Town is an old city, with families there for a long time,” says Lee.

“Here, there are largely single male immigrants and what follows – women, illegal trades. Those are the things that are worrying. We don’t want this to be a slum controlled by a few gangs.”

One of Think City KL’s first projects entailed Lee taking an LRT ride with her boss, Hamdan Abdul Majeed. Asked for her response, she said there were too many ads and no soul. In the tube in other cities, there are ads for shows or an exhibition, something with soul or culture.

That spawned Arts On the Move. They approached the powers that be, pointed out space in LRT stations that were not utilised because they were interrupted by doors and information panels, following which people saw works from David Lok and Ilham Gallery.

On Tuesday and Thursday evenings, a wide spectrum of music is performed on a pop-up stage at the Masjid Jamek Station and the steps to the side of the stage are packed with people pausing for a musical interlude before catching the train.

People said nobody will go to events in Medan Pasar, don’t bother, people are scared to go to that part of town. Think City KL worked with Nani Kahar and organised four events there. The first, a retail fair, attracted 20,000 on the weekend. Wayang night drew about 800.

There was the ‘Buy Nothing’ day where people brought things to barter.

They proved that it’s not that people were scared to go there, there was nothing to go there for. So they started working on a year’s programme, with a farmers market in the pipeline.

There is a programme, KL By Me, funded by Citibank, where kids are taught how to create a story, shoot, and edit.

“Two or three of the works of these 14, 15 year olds were amazing. Next round will be refugee kids with the help of Debra Henry,” says Lee.

Art Printing Works was given RM190,000 to plant trees. Birds and butterflies have returned.

Money was given to residents in Kota Damansara for garden seeds, and now the women are going to get a bakery – economic empowerment while encouraging communal bonding.

Project for Public Space, based in New York, has been recruited. Its founders were students of anthropologist Margaret Mead, and they were set up to look at ways of designing public space to attract people. They have been coming to train the people of City Hall and architects in space making.

With Think City KL’s help, there is hope the city centre will have a heart beating with vital life again, instead of being a shady dark hulk across the street from blaring, glaring Petaling Street. – June 4, 2017.

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