The Transformer: How Ee Soon Wei Revived APW Bangsar

The CEO of A Place Where by APW Bangsar talks about the importance of narrative in the art of preservation.
APW Bangsar

Ee Soon Wei, CEO of A Place Where by APW Bangsar.

APW, located in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, forms an inextricable part of the city’s cultural scene. But this place has served the city for decades since it first came to life as a commercial printing factory, and a highly prolific one at that. 

Art Printing Works Sdn. Bhd. was first established in 1952 in Lebuh Ampang before relocating to its present location in Bangsar’s Jalan Riong in 1965. Fast forward to the present day; the space now houses a curated selection of F&B and retail outlets and is known for hosting various culture and lifestyle events. 

We met Ee Soon Wei, the chief executive officer of A Place Where by APW, at Pulp for his usual morning coffee before heading up to his office for our interview. Overlooking the APW space, the office is filled with design paraphernalia, from pinboards tacked with doodles and sketches to piles and piles of books and magazines. 

It was never really a calling to join the family business, as Soon Wei puts it, but more of a natural direction for him to take up a management role at APW. The third-generation heir of his family’s printing business took up stints in the corporate world at Sara Lee and L’Oreal before joining APW in 2013.  

APW Bangsar

A corner of the APW office.

“I grew up hearing about it so much that I had this impression that, to some degree, it had a certain magnitude and is somewhat meaningful,” he says about the family business, adding that part of this attachment stems from his memories of growing up seeing his father darting around the factory amidst huge paper stacks and paper cutting equipment. 

But when Soon Wei first took on the management role at APW, it was not the full-fledged creative hub as we know it today, nor did he initially set out to build APW with that vision in mind. 

Times Are Changing

The digital boom was just starting to take hold when Soon Wei joined the company, and print was no longer the lucrative business it used to be. “I think there was that reality in that I knew that the digital realm was pursuing quickly. Then there was the situation where the business was at a standstill and things weren’t reassuring,” he recalls. 

APW Bangsar

“To be honest, in the first fourteen months of joining, I didn’t do anything other than clean up the factory. It was dilapidated and not well managed, and we were in debt. There was a lot of room for cleaning up and putting the house in order.” 

Soon Wei, who would best describe his role as a “transformational consultant,” thought of ways he could re-engineer the space into a creative industrial space. The idea is not new, but it was a matter of how it could be adapted to fit the Malaysian market. 

Field Work

While travelling around Asia, Soon Wei looked at similar conservation and repurposing projects in places such as Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, and China. 

“In Hong Kong’s Tai Kwun (a community hub located in the former Central Police Station compound on Hollywood Road), I realised it was a joint project with the Hong Kong government where the private sector and a GLC linked together. So, I realised very quickly that in Malaysia it would be private sector-led,” says Soon Wei. 

“Then, I went to Beijing to look at the 798 Art Zone; it was a huge large format factory, and what the government did was give spaces to creatives to exercise space. So, I took all these learnings and thought about ways on how we could apply them to be locally adaptable.”

But it took a fair amount of convincing his family and stakeholders in the beginning. “They thought it was absurd,” says Soon Wei. “They couldn’t see a cafe operating here. They said no one would pay RM10 to RM11 for a coffee. There was a lot of stakeholder management and a lot of ideas that needed to be broken through.” 

APW Bangsar

APW Bangsar features a curated selection of F&B outlets and retail outlets.

It was not until a good four years later that Soon Wei saw real results come through. “I was doing things little by little. Initially, it was very challenging to get reputable tenants. It’s different from today, when people are more sustainable, and I need to bring them to the next level now, but initially, it was a lot of convincing.”  

The results speak for themselves; APW was recently recognised for its conservation efforts in preserving heritage sites by The Edge Malaysia.  

Long Live Print

But looking at the piles of books and magazines on the office shelves, I gather that Soon Wei must have a soft spot for the print medium. I wonder if he believes in the adage that print is dead.

“There must be passion for storytelling, creativity, and strategy”

“I think the value of print is there, and there is an appreciation for print,” he says. “But the market size for consuming information in that format now has alternatives, which is a digital substitution, and we need to recognise this. Secondly, I think innovation in print media has also been limited. It has not integrated with digital.”  

APW Bangsar

At the end of the day, he believes it all boils down to how print can stay relevant in the digital age. “I think for now, the idea of print has to be unique; it has to be collectable; it has to be a limited run, and that run becomes a collection of batches.” 

“But to do so, there must be passion for storytelling, creativity, and strategy. It needs to be seen as a progressive art form.”  

Similarly to the transformational work Soon Wei has brought to APW, preserving something—whether it be an art form such as print or a heritage building—requires an ecosystem to work, and he’s brought this great detail for methodology in applying a narrative to APW that in turn honours its print roots. 

 As for his ambitions for APW moving forward, Soon Wei’s vision is pretty straightforward. “It’s not so much about the commercial. I’m not a leasing manager, I’m building the space, I’m creating the narrative,” he says. 

“I think for now, the push for better storytelling and uniqueness is more important than ever.” 

A Place Where by APW.

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