KUALA LUMPUR, May 1 — It’s an old business, the art of printing paper — from books and magazines to pamphlets and maps. Yet hidden right above a half-century-old printing firm in Bangsar is a sanctuary for some of KL’s up-and-coming young entrepreneurs. Welcome to Uppercase, a collaborative workspace with a difference.
Located deep inside the industrial compound of APW (the refurbished premises of Art Printing Works, a commercial printing plant first established in 1965), Uppercase is the latest project by Ee Soon Wei, APW’s chief executive officer.
A scion of the family behind the printing business, Ee had already rejuvenated the area for food-and-beverage (F&B) and events — coffee purveyor Pulp by Papa Palheta and event space Bookmark, respectively — and has now set his sights on attracting the brightest minds in Klang Valley.
“This area was originally for printing hardcover books,” says Ee. “I had an idea for this shared workspace as far back as two years ago but it really only came into fruition in the past six months. I was concerned about access but not any more now that we have built an open-air car park across the road.”
Melbourne-educated Ee had been in corporate communication for six years, working for the likes of L’Oreal and Sara Lee, before he was cajoled by his family to return to Malaysia four years ago to take over the business.
He recalls, “To be honest, I was reluctant initially because printing isn’t really a sexy business. We were stable due to some long-term contracts but it made no sense to reinvest large sums of money in new machinery. The industry wasn’t growing and it is hard to persuade young people to join.”
Ee’s family gave him carte blanche to revamp the business with two conditions. He explains, “One, I couldn’t shut down the business. Two, I couldn’t move the business from the premises. My family wanted to preserve it for the workers who have been with us for decades.”
Realising he had to get creative, Ee was inspired by his grandmother who had taught him the old-fashioned way of building success from nothing. “Years and years ago, she would wake up at 5am every day and collect bougainvillea petals. She put them in old envelopes and sold them at the market for worshippers. Using the money she collected at the end of the year, she bought stocks. In time, the stocks appreciated, and then she sold them to buy land.”
Displaying an ancestral knack for seeing opportunities, Ee decided to re-purpose the disused space the way traditional businesses did in Singapore and Japan and revive the site by “transforming it into an urban creative campus.”
Much cleaning up, disposal of old machines and streamlining to create new pockets of space later, Uppercase is now open and attracting entrepreneurs and young ideators. The first to move in was Jeffrey Lim, the founder of the Cycling Kuala Lumpur Bicycle Map project.
The map designer had launched a volunteer-powered bicycle map initiative that has led directly to the city of Kuala Lumpur’s first cycling master plan.
“Uppercase is really a central location for my business,” says Lim. “My staff live in PJ and we do our surveying in KL. The space is also reflective of my personal belief to restore and modify what we can rather than taking the easy route of tearing something down and building something new every time.”
Architects Jun Ong and Kyle E of POW Ideas share Lim’s views. For the pair, who had been working out of Kyle’s home kitchen, Uppercase is a blessing. Ong, who recently showcased his light installations at the i Light Marina Bay festival in Singapore, says, “The best part is being right in Bangsar, which is so strategic.”
E adds, “The energy here is so conducive to our work. It’s casual and we get to meet creative people from different fields. Having our own space also meant we could finally hire some staff and expand our team.”
One of the duo’s current projects is designing the Pocket Park; this is Ee’s passion project to bring more trees and greenery into urban spaces, starting with APW.
Collaborations such as this is common here; APW also printed Lim’s first run of cycling maps as a pro bono service to the community.
Another Uppercase tenant is social enterprise FTalent led by actor-director Razif Hashim. According to FTalent’s Sho Suzuki, “We teach theatre skills to promote communication and to instil confidence. Our participants are diverse: from entrepreneurs and architecture students to accountants and even lawyers. We conduct free acting classes for the public twice a month, every alternate Tuesday here at APW.”
Sho fondly calls the FTalent office “the Backstage” as it’s located in the rear of the shared workspace. Besides these types of semi-open, partitioned offices, other occupants may prefer the more open “hot desks” where they have the freedom to move around as their muse takes them.
One “hot desk-er” is professional F3 driver and host of Go Fast or Go Home, Daniel Woodroof. The 19-year-old wunderkind has been racing since he was 12, and is now developing a Kuala Lumpur-centric lifestyle app targeted at millennials called unwrapp KL.
He says, “I’m now looking for investors and needed a space to work. I found out about Uppercase through word of mouth. The best part about working here, besides being more productive, is the people I meet. This is key to what I do, which is about networking.”
Uppercase certainly has a lively atmosphere. Judging by the merry clamour of an ice-breaking session by clothing label Pestle and Mortar, as amused tenants look on, one would never guess that this was happening right above a production facility.
Ee explains, “Our space can be hired for one-time events too; it’s not just for permanent tenants. Even if they are only here for a day, they appreciate the creative environment here.”
If vigour for work starts to flag, tenants may help themselves to free-flow coffee, tea and Milo provided in the pantry. Those seeking a more delicate brew don’t have to look further than their neighbourhood coffee specialist.
Marcus Foo, head honcho at Pulp, says, “Tenants at Uppercase can simply make an order there and we’ll deliver their coffees to them.”
Next in the pipeline for APW are Paper Plates, a food hall, and two more event spaces, The Bindery and The Canopy. (Note all the names are related to the printing business, if you recall the aforementioned Pulp and Bookmark too.)
Ee says, “At the end of the day, I want to ensure that the heritage here is preserved even as we pivot our family business to stay vibrant and relevant.”
Vibrancy is certainly not a challenge, what with designers and race drivers, architects and theatre educators, and some of the best baristas in town, all in one place. These are the people that call APW their place of work (and play) and, given the amount of time they spend here and the happy looks on their faces, a home away from home.
Uppercase @ APW Bangsar
29, Jalan Riong, Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur
Tel: 03-2282 3233