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8 Abandoned Buildings In Malaysia Given A New Lease On Life & The Great Minds Behind It 

Malaysia is home to countless heritage buildings. Sadly, many of them had fallen into disrepair over the years and some had been torn down to make way for new projects. Fortunately, not every abandoned building has met such a fate. Many formerly neglected buildings were saved by the wrecking ball and turned into something new. These restored buildings may not be recognisable as what they once were, but they have been given a new purpose and lease on life, providing the public with much needed amenities.

Here are some buildings that have been given a new lease on life and the great minds behind their rescue and restoration.

#1: Arlene Terrace – How A Couple Came To The Rescue Of Neglected Shophouses

The Arlene Terrace which has been turned into the Funtasy House Trick Art 3D museum through adaptive reuse. (Source: The Star)

Taking a stroll along the verandas of Jalan Pasar (formerly known as Market Street) in Ipoh, Perak, Michael Chan, a chartered accountant and corporate advisor, and his wife, Arlene, had their attention piqued by an intriguing colonial shophouse situated on the opposite side of the street.

Out of curiosity to know what’s inside, we asked around and got to know that it was available for sale. We managed to arrange for a viewing the following week. – Michael Chan, 56, chartered accountant and corporate advisor[1]

Upon stepping inside the building and subsequently paying a few more visits, they developed a deep affection for the place. The allure of its courtyards, louvred windows, timber staircase, and intricate baluster captured their hearts, despite the building being in a state of disrepair at that time. 

Originally erected around the 1890s, this intermediate shophouse boasted a distinctive dual-frontage layout, complete with an open-air courtyard integrated into its central portion. Adding to its uniqueness, the shophouse had not one, but two postal addresses: 16, Market Street, and 4, Market Lane, allocated for its front and rear sections respectively – a relic of the British colonial era[1]

Although it was in dire need of refurbishment, Chan did not immediately make any offer to acquire the shophouse as they had just started conservation work on Arlene House, a.k.a. the Kapitan Chung Thye Phin Building across the street – another heritage building with a rich architectural history and past.

By chance, it was only after a year had passed, in 2013, while walking along the verandahs again during lunch, that we found out the shophouse was being boarded up in preparation to be torn down!

Having been charmed by its built heritage over a year ago, we made a quick acquisition offer to the owner to save it despite not having the chance to inspect it again.

We were successful after some counter-offer negotiations, thus saving it from being demolished and losing its rich historical heritage legacy. – Michael Chan, 56, chartered accountant and corporate advisor[1]

The couple would name the shophouse “Arlene Terrace” and would undergo the hard work of restoring the house to its former glory, a process that took over two years, from 2014 to 2015. After its restoration, Arlene Terrace would play host to the Funtasy House Trick Art 3D Museum, turning it into a popular tourist spot in the city[1].

#2: RexKL – Old Cinema Turned Into A Community Centre

The main foyer of REXKL at Jalan Sultan, Kuala Lumpur, which used to be the old Rex Cinema. (Source: The Star)

Those who remembered the once famous Rex Cinema in Kuala Lumpur may not even have noticed that they’d passed by it.

Located on Jalan Sultan, the original building was completed in 1947, designed by architect James Robert Vethavanam. In 1972, it was unfortunately set on fire during a botched burglary, causing it to burn down. It was then rebuilt in 1976 into a single-screen cinema operated by Shaw Brothers that could house over 1,000 people[2].

In 2002, the cinema ceased operations and the building it was housed in was converted into a backpacker’s hostel. Sadly, another fire in 2007 razed the building, and the lot was left vacant for many years. That changed when local architects Chang Soon Shin, 40, better known as Shin Chang, and Tseng Hsien Shin, 43, who goes by the name Shin Tseng, were given an opportunity to breathe new life into the neglected landmark.

We were presented with the opportunity back in September 2017 by the building’s landlord. He knew that we were already active in the area by way of our restaurants, so he suggested that we take over the operations of the building.

I’ve always been drawn to projects like this – which involves repurposing an old building – similar to what I did for my restaurant, Chocha Food Store on Petaling Street. Add to the fact that this iconic building had been abandoned for some years, it was time to bring it back to life. – Chang Soon Shin, architect[2]

We didn’t alter the structure in any way. The bulk of the work was really cleaning up and removing scraps and make-shift partitions. It was very important for us to keep the Rex Cinema identity alive, to an extent.

In terms of our tenant fit-outs, we work closely with our tenants to come up with the best design for their brand and operations. – Tseng Hsien Shin, architect[2]

Among the refurbishments, the ground floor car park was transformed into a marketplace that hosts a number of F&B kiosks as well as retail spaces, while the Main Hall on the first floor, where the cinema used to be, had its flooring upgraded and kept as an open space to host events. The high ceiling, brick wall backdrop, and highlights of the space were also left as it was.

It’s always exciting to repurpose a building, more so one as iconic as Rex. With so many new buildings and developments in the Klang Valley, do we really need more? As much as there are challenges faced in this project, it was important to focus on the big picture, which was to revive this beautiful space and make it useful again. – Chang Soon Shin, architect[2]

On January 18th 2019, the RexKL finally opened its doors to the public with pop-up stores, food stalls, bars, a farmer’s market, live acts, and workshops. The REXKL Flower Market 2019 attracted a diverse group of visitors as people were excited to see the 60,000-square foot cinema brought back to life [3]. More than just a simple renovation, Shin Chang and Shin Tseng also wanted the new venue to connect with the community.

Rex (cinema) was progressive and well ahead of its time. It was a standalone cinema that had a capacity of 1,200 seats! We want to emulate the same mindset of the old Rex to keep the message going, to create a space that is as progressive in the current time, to regenerate the building to serve the community. – Tseng Hsien Shin, architect[2]

When we say that we are a space for people to create, we want to emphasise on the full spectrum of what is involved in the creative process. This means finding the means and resources in order to achieve the execution of one’s creation. And that’s the REXKL community. Bringing people together to create. – Chang Soon Shin, architect[2]

#3: KLPac – How An Unfortunate Flooding Created A Centre For The Performing Arts

Source: The Edge

In 1995, Faridah Merican and Joe Hasham made history by building the first privately owned and operated theatre in Malaysia below Dataran Merdeka. The Actors Studio@Plaza Putra was once the preeminent centre for performing arts in the country – that is until it was destroyed by a flash flood in 2003.

Hasham and Faridah were devastated. But they did not let this misfortune be the end of it. The Actors Studio (TAS) together with YTL Corp Bhd and Yayasan Budi Penyayang, found a new place to build a new performing arts centre in Sentul. The building was originally constructed to house a wood-crafting workshop and sawmill before it later became part of Sentul Works, one of the region’s most important railway depots and workshops, which served the needs of the Federal Malay State Railway from 1906[4].

The structure was damaged by allied bombing in World War II and later rebuilt in the mid-1940s. It was converted into a makeshift golf clubhouse in the late 1960s after years of abandonment. In the early 1990s, it was left unused again until the construction of the new performing arts centre in the early 2000s[4].

Now known as the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre or KLPac, the building today has 7,614 sq m of facilities, including a 504-seater proscenium theatre, a 200-seater experimental black box theatre, an academy with nine studios, a 100-seat flexible space for independent film screening and smaller shows, a set construction workshop as well as a café and a bar[4].

#4: Zhongshan Building – An Unassuming 4-Storey With A Close Knit Community

Source: The Edge

Located in the historic township of Kampung Attap, on the periphery of Petaling Street, this unassuming 4-storey was once the headquarters of the Selangor Zhongshan Association as well as housing various small merchants.

The Zhongshan Building was originally built in the 1950s. In 1962, Rob Tan’s grandparents rented a unit there to stay and opened a butchery called “Lee Frozen” on the ground floor. The family eventually bought up all the units in the building and began to lease them to families, many of whom would move away after a while. Over time, the businesses left the building, and it was converted into a hostel. When Tan inherited the building from his grandmother, it was still being used as a hostel[4].

Due to his sentimental attachment to the old building, Tan decided to renovate the Zhongshan Building and give it more purpose. After going through a few ideas, which included turning the building into a boutique hotel, Tan — along with his wife, Liza Ho and friend, Snow Ng — settled on creating an arts and creative space. Armed with a Think City grant and Tan’s family’s own investment, they got down to work with a team of architects, engineers and contractors[4].

The renovation will be completed by the end of 2016, the Zhongshan Building is now a creative hub attracting people from all over the Klang Valley[4]. From time to time, certain spaces in the building will open their doors to host public events featuring major figures in their respective fields. These include art exhibitions, listening rooms, live music gigs, workshops, lectures, and discussions.

#5: The Whiteaways Arcade – 12 Heritage Shophouses Turned Into A Boutique Mall

Source: myPenang

Built in 1903, the Whiteaways Arcade originally held the Laidlaw & Co.’s Penang departmental store — a famous Calcutta department store chain for household needs and the first of its kind in Penang. Besides the store, Whiteaways also held the office of the Pinang Gazette newspaper, Eastern Extension Telegraph Co, Nederlands-Indian Discount Bank, import-export house Alfred Stuhlman & Co, engineers Riley, Hargreaves & Co along with Denny & Co, an auctioneers and forwarders firm[5].

Clarence Tan, a senior project manager for landlord PPB Hartabina Sdn Bhd, said that after World War II, a second wave of tenants would move into the building.

The upstairs floor held accountants and lawyers while downstairs, there were food and beverage places, convenient stores, newspaper venders and money changers.

These tenants did their own renovations to the building’s lots, and a lot of the original traits were hidden in the process. – Clarence Tan, senior project manager for landlord PPB Hartabina Sdn Bhd[5]

After these tenants were vacated out of the building by the repealing of the Rent Control Act in 2000, the landowners would embark on a RM10mil restoration project with help from conservation architect, Laurence Loh of Arkitek LLA Sdn Bhd.

When we started to pull down the renovations and partitions, we discovered many things.

There were Scottish cast iron columns, staircases made of solid granite blocks and without the mezzanine floors, the ceilings were found to be 15ft (4.6m) from the ground. – Clarence Tan, senior project manager for landlord PPB Hartabina Sdn Bhd[5]

The renovations and restoration were completed in 2011, and the building was renamed to the Whiteaways Arcade. Today, it houses a variety of businesses, from cafes and restaurants to retail and offices. Additionally, its inner courtyard once used as a backyard by tenants and workers, is now a space for various events and gatherings[5].

We sacrificed one of the ground floor lots to build a pathway to the back.

In keeping with the style of the building, floor tiles were salvaged from other parts of the building to adorn the walkway. – Clarence Tan, senior project manager for landlord PPB Hartabina Sdn Bhd[5]

#6: Hin Bus Depot – Art Deco Bus Stop Turned Into A Creative Hub

Source: The Edge

Penang is home to many heritage buildings, and one of these is the Hin Bus Depot on Jalan Gurdwara in George Town, whose Art-Deco architectural style made it stand out amongst the George Town’s Victorian and Georgian-style structures. The depot was built in 1947 by bus company Hin Company Ltd to house and maintain its buses. The company’s famous blue buses pied the Northwest route from Prangin to Tanjung Bunga, along the western seaboard to a terminus in Teluk Bahang[4].

In its heyday during the 1970s, the depot was the most stylish bus depot in Penang. But it was not to last as the depot would shut its doors in 1999, and the blue buses ceased operations in the early 2000s, amid the proposed restructuring of Penang’s struggling public transportation system[4].

After being left to decay, the former depot would be given a new lease on life in 2014 when Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic, who is now known as the man who introduced murals to Penang, used the building as an exhibition space. His exhibition, “Art Is Rubbish Is Art” opened its doors to the public on 17 January 2014, and the bus depot could not be a better place to host this exhibition. The exhibition featured works of art made from preloved junk, discarded treasures and overlooked street items. The venue itself became an integral part of the theme, with the original structure retained, and only necessary repairs and additions were made for operational purposes[4].

After devoting so much love, time and effort to the project, the team of local artists who helped with the exhibition could not bear to let the space go.

With only minimal renovations made to preserve its old-world charm, the original inner structure now serves as canvases for art. The restored building is now owned by a small passionate creative collective that works with the community to sustain the depot as a space that supports and showcases progressive and upcoming artists, events and art forms of all kinds.

​Hin Bus Depot currently sprawls over 60,000 square feet, including eight shophouses on Jalan Gurdwara and three others facing Jalan Kampung Jawa Lama. An old coffee shop continues to operate whilst other vacant lots have been restored and converted into new spaces for local small businesses and artist studios.

#7: Else Kuala Lumpur, formerly known as The Lee Rubber Building – Former Vacation Home Turned Into A Boutique Hotel

Source: The Star

Once the tallest building in Kuala Lumpur, the former Lee Rubber Building today is dwarfed by the many skyscrapers around it that have sprung up over the decades. The 4-storey Art Deco-styled, the grey-facade building was designed by British architect, Arthur Oakley Coltman of the architecture firm, Booty Edwards & Partners (now known as BEP Akitek) and completed construction in 1930[6].

Once said to be the former holiday residence of Kapitan Yap Kwan Seng in the 1930s, the building has since been tenanted by various parties, including a popular bookstore and a lifestyle company[6]. Between 1942 and 1945, the building was used by the Japanese government as the headquarters of the Japanese Secret Police during World War II. In the 1950s, an additional floor was added to the structure, making it a five-storey building[7].

But it was not until its recent conversion into a 49-room hotel – located between Central Market and Petaling Street on Jalan Tun H.S. Lee – did the building received much attention. Else Kuala Lumpur was officially launched on September 9th 2022, the result of a thoughtful adaptive reuse effort by local design firm Studio Bikin, who worked closely with the hotel’s Singapore-based founders, Javier Perez and Justin Chen[6].

Else has been a four-year project realised through the challenges of the global pandemic and inspired by the emerging new era of travellers. The result is an urban haven for the globally minded and curious.

Our design and construction team sensitively balanced a contrast of new and old, with a refined juxtaposition of a beautifully preserved pre-war building and innovative design that invites guests to explore the property on their own and discover intimate pockets to pause and reflect. – Justine Chen, co-founder of Studio Bikin[6]

The building’s facade, with the etched wording “Lee Rubber Building” still intact, was preserved with a fresh new coat of grey paint. Additionally, the old-style granite benches that were a part of the building from its early years, were left untouched to give guests a glimpse into the past.

With this being a building of historical significance – it was the tallest building in KL at that time – it was our intention to preserve it, at least on the outside, as much as we could, and also the inherent architectural features inside. – Farah Azizan, creative director of Studio Bikin[6]

#8: Slate, at the Row – A Row Of Shophouses Turned Into A Community Centre

Source: EdgeProp

Similar to the RexKL, you’ve probably visited the halls of Slate at the Row, as it is a prime location for events in KL. Once a row of 22 1940s shophouses along Jalan Doraisamy in Kuala Lumpur that had been converted into the Asian Heritage Row of nightspots in the early 2000s, these shophouses were once again readapted into a vibrant community centre that radiates a fresh look whilst still maintaining its rustic charm.

The Row covers 74,000 sq ft comprising retail shops, galleries, cafes, bars, restaurants and offices. Its regeneration was undertaken by first-time niche property developer, Urbanspace Sdn Bhd, in collaboration with Singapore-based creative development consultancy firm, Pocket Projects, and home-grown architecture firm, Studio Bikin. Pocket Projects director, Karen Tan, at the launch of the project’s first phase on June 16th 2015, said that the project’s plan was to transform the street “into a mixed-use neighbourhood for day and night, and away from late night bars and clubs.

When we spoke to the local people, many of them still have fond memories of this place and because of that, many are looking forward to its reinvention.

The Row was once vibrant and we hope to bring it back to life, recreating an icon in KL. – Karen Tan, Pocket Projects director[8]

Without completely discarding the old, The Row’s design philosophy is based on adaptive reuse.

[Our] architectural approach [focuses] on adaptive reuse instead of tearing everything down and building from scratch. To emphasise the old and new, we’ve kept the old windows, tiles and floors, and new tenants can introduce new furniture when they move in. – Karen Tan, Pocket Projects director[8]

As the shophouses have already undergone significant modification over the years, The Row had to make the best of what’s already there.

We have incorporated some of the old concepts into our new design, such as picture windows to bring in light and that allow you to see the greenery outside. We have also kept double-volume spaces and quirky details like round windows. – Karen Tan, Pocket Projects director[8]

To ensure that The Slate also doubles as a public space by day, much focus was given to communal spaces, as reflected in the landscaped front plaza, where the segregated front yards of the past are designed as a high street reminiscent of a five-foot way, encouraging visitors to explore and linger in the area.

We feel it is important to introduce new public spaces for people to enjoy and to facilitate interaction. [In] the front plaza, we introduced stretches the whole length of the street. We have also converted a little alleyway into a beer garden shaded by old trees. – Karen Tan, Pocket Projects director[8]

Explore our sources:

  1. W. Li Za. (2023). Malaysian couple saves and transforms 120-year-old heritage building in Ipoh. The Star. Link.
  2. W. Li Za. (2019). REXKL, an old iconic cinema reborn into a unique arts and culture hub. The Star. Link.
  3. T. Jayne. (2019). An Iconic Cinema In KL That Burned Down Is Being Turned Into A Creative Space For Events. Says. Link.
  4. E.J. Chan. (2021). Breathing new life into old structures. The Edge. Link.
  5. A. Filmer. (2012). Restored splendour in the city. The Star. Link.
  6. W. Li Za. (2022). 92-year-old Lee Rubber Building is now a cosy 49-room hotel in downtown KL. The Star. Link.
  7. S. Kaur (2022). The former Lee Rubber Building in KL City will reopen as a boutique hotel this July. New Straits Times. Link.
  8. C.Y. Hoon. (2015). Reviving heritage at The Row. EdgeProp. Link.

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