Four years ago, Ee Soon Wei took over APW, his family's commercial printing business in Kuala Lumpur. Once a thriving printer since its relocation to Bangsar in 1965, it had fallen into a sad state in recent times. The factory was old, unkempt and neglected, machines were falling apart and the business was in debt. “The building was dilapidated and the management was apathetic. Tough calls had to be made in the first year,” said the 37-year-old entrepreneur.
Today, this same space houses cafés, restaurants and Bookmark, a gallery and an event space. At the heart of it is a co-working office called Uppercase – a 560-square-metre space complete with repurposed wood, concrete, natural light and indoor plants – and where outfits like CreativeMornings have held their monthly breakfast lectures on topics such as survival and how to be a food stylist. At APW, also known as A Place Where, you will find regular yoga sessions, workshops, and language classes, as well as food festivals and art parties. The printing presses still run but on much tighter operations.
As more young people shun corporate life to strike out on their own as entrepreneurs and freelancers, they are demanding shared workspaces that have lower costs and fewer responsibilities than a regular office. Multi-tasking places like APW fit the bill for work, play and a sharing of ideas. Ee refers to Uppercase as a collaborative workspace because people sign up not only for a desk but for the like-minded community of creatives.
“Our study of the 18-35-year-old market is that they are more asset-light and more nomadic in terms of lifestyle. They are not as concerned with a career as they are with experiences. I wanted to create a space that would embody all of this and also bring them closer to the things they care about, like coffee and yoga,” said Ee, who is interested in space and new ideas for its use.
APW is Ee's second major undertaking concerning space and a revival of fortunes. He first made headlines with his efforts to resurrect The Royal Press, the family's printing business in the southern state of Melaka and one of the oldest surviving letterpress printing shops in the world. Ee's plans to save it from oblivion dovetailed with the renaissance in old-fashioned printing.
The Royal Press (TRP) was started in 1938 in Melaka by Ee Lay Swee, Soon Wei's grandfather and a visionary patriarch. In its heyday, the printer was busy churning out advertising posters and packaging labels and newspapers in several languages, including Malay, English, Mandarin, and Tamil. By the 1960s, business went into a slow decline and when photo-offset printing, then computers, came into the picture, TRP and its letterpress printing ways were left behind.
For Ee, he remembers running around the presses as a little boy, surrounded by towering machines and bundles of paper, the smell of ink in the air. He is fond of the history letterpress printing embodies, “I love the narrative that it has existed for such a long time. It was really important during its time as a form of communication.”
His mission to restore TRP was accidental, he said. In 2004, he had returned to Malaysia with an interest to discover his family's lineage. The Royal Press was a good starting point for his research, which eventually turned into an obsession to restore and turn the space into a living museum. His quest soon made news, enough to attract The Discovery Channel to make a documentary about TRP.
It was while he was documenting the family history through TRP that he realised that it played a big role in the community and Malaysia's social history. “We are a typical Hokkien family that never throws anything out. We've hoarded material and machinery that is lost in time. It's a treasure trove of our country's social history, and it's something that I want to preserve.”
The project is not without its hiccups. Generational conflict and bureaucratic obstacles are just some of the challenges he's faced. Fortunately, Soon Wei is made of sterner stuff and grit. “I have two mantras that are very important to me. First, whatever I start, I like to finish. Second, I like to leave a place better than when I had found it.”
Changes happen, however. After eight years in planning and buoyed by his success with APW, Ee is redrawing the TRP blueprint from a living museum into a more utilitarian space. “The generation that would be interested in a place like this needs a multi-faceted space, which includes a gallery, exhibition space, and cafés. It needs to be more than one thing to attract people to come,” said Ee.
After months of delay, renovation work is due to start this month and is estimated to take 400 working days to finish. Ee hopes to have TRP done, dusted and ready for visitors by December 2018. “It's been a long time and I admit, I'd love to see it get done,” he said, a little wistfully.
In the meantime, he's busy planning for other concept-driven sites in other areas of Kuala Lumpur and in Bangkok, Thailand. If his previous projects are anything to come by, it'll be ambitious and it'd be bang on trend. “I like to do things right and to do them well,” he remarked. “I always tell my team that it's fine to make mistakes and fail as long as you strive to improve. You must play the long game.”