Hin Bus Depot: A Decade of Stimulating Creative Resurgence in Penang

By Ivan Gabriel

February 2024 COVER STORY
main image

NESTLED IN THE heart of George Town, Hin Bus Depot is more than a historic landmark; it is a pulsating creative community hub sprawling over 60,000 ft2 , exposing threads of history, art and sustainable community living. Its origins, rooted in the post-World War II era, tell a tale of resilience and transformation.

In 1947, Hin Company Ltd erected the bus depot along Brick Kiln Road (now known as Jalan Gurdwara) to house and maintain their iconic Blue Buses. These buses, synonymous with the company, were more than just a mode of transportation; they were a cultural emblem, ferrying passengers and stories through the streets of George Town. The navy bodies of the buses became woven into the fabric of Penangʼs identity.

Founded by Lim Teng Hin and his son, Hin Company Ltd obtained one of the licenses to provide bus transportation on the George Town–Teluk Bahang route. It ran three different routes; Weld Quay–Tanjung Bungah–Teluk Bahang via Jalan Burma, Weld Quay– Pepper Estate via Mount Erskine and Jalan Utama and Weld Quay–Tanjung Bungah via Jalan Kelawei. The depot, constructed in an Art Deco style, stood out from George Townʼs Victorian and Georgian architecture as a stylish icon through the 1970s.

Over the subsequent decades, the company underwent several transformations, initially becoming part of Koperasi Gabungan Negeri in 1973, followed by its acquisition by SJA Group in 2000. Eventually, it ceased operations in the early 2000s, a few years after the depotʼs closure in 1999.

It felt like the end of an era. The once-thriving bus depot now resounded emptiness, its cavernous interior silent without the hum of bus engines and the chatter of commuters.

The Revival: A Glimmer of Hope

New winds blew in 2010 when new owners acquired the property. Initially exploring plans for leasing, a serendipitous encounter occurred in 2013. The historical value, the architectural quirks and the silent stories embedded in the depotʼs walls captivated Ernest Zacharevic, marking the beginning of a transformational journey.

What was initially intended as a temporary refurbishment for Zacharevicʼs exhibition, “Art is Rubbish is Art”, became a catalyst for change. The overwhelming support garnered during the exhibition, and the areaʼs suitability as an inspiring space for emerging artists compelled the owners to pivot from leasing to maintaining the depot as an art space. The decision was not just a business move but a commitment to fostering creativity and community.

A decade after the blue buses ceased plying the streets, the heart of Hin Bus Depot, against all odds, began beating again. As the first strokes of paint on the walls and the whispers of renewal ended the decay, a new era began for this historic site.

Hin Bus Depot underwent a significant metamorphosis. The schedules of buses are now replaced by art pieces. Its original interior and compound now host creative spaces. Walls once neglected now stand as canvases for art, blurring the lines between preservation and innovation. This fusion of past and present positions Hin Bus Depot as a unique abode for creatives.

Two years into the undertaking, the owners came to full recognition of their responsibility to make this space sustainable. Looking back today, Hin Bus Depot has contributed greatly to the flourishing of the arts in Penang. It has introduced many to their first art gallery experience and provided emerging artists with a platform to showcase their works. And it has become an exciting weekend destination for tourists from near and far.

A Placemaking Triumph

Hailed as a successful case of creative and sustainable placemaking by Penang Institute, Hin Bus Depot has grown to be a bustling creative hub since its inaugural exhibition in January 2014. Placemaking here refers to the intentional process of planning, designing, managing and programming spaces to improve the quality of life among those in the vicinity. There is a lot of emphasis on generating cultural, social, economic and ecological patterns and activities. Making placemaking sustainable is more than just introducing more greenery to the space; it is about balancing the environmental needs with the needs of the locals.

When the new Hin Bus Depot owners started clearing the space, they wanted to retain the original façade as much as possible. They only added trees, a lawn and a raised timber deck. Then, as more creatives discovered the place, the exhibition halls and the outdoor space began to get enquiries.

Today, the space has hosted over a hundred exhibitions and other events. Its support for unconventional shows and independent artists defines it. Hinʼs ethos, spread by the artists that grace its spaces, is one of non-offensiveness and of community enrichment.

Lodged amidst the historic streets of George Town, just at the fringes of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, it stands as a testament to the incredible power of placemaking. What was once a dormant bus terminal with a fading legacy underwent a remarkable metamorphosis, and emerged as one of the iconic cases of placemaking in the region.

However, its journey is not without challenges. The delicate balance between preservation and upgrade existed before the pandemic. The Covid-19 lockdown was not merely a disruption; it was a squall that tested the foundations of the establishment. The financial strain was not just about numbers on a ledger; it was a collective struggle for survival.

Instead of resorting to stringent measures, the owners chose empathy. Collaboration and support became the cornerstone of Hinʼs response to the lockdowns. The rent reductions, the payment plans and understanding the unique challenges faced by each tenant were not just business decisions; they were gestures of solidarity.

Then, there was Hin Market, which “housed” dozens of creative businesses which were forced to close during the Movement Control Order (MCO). Instead of telling the regulars, “Well, thatʼs all folks,” digital marketing through Facebook paved a way for these craftisans to continue showcasing their products.

After Covid-19, new challenges emerged. Changed consumer behaviours, evolving market dynamics, and the need for flexibility in the face of uncertainties require continuous adaptation. The owners of Hin Bus Depot seem fully cognisant of what needs maintaining; creativity and resilience both thrive on a sense of community and common purpose.

Community Building

A stroll through Hin Bus Depot reveals not just a gallery and artist studios but a dynamic sense of community. Hin Market started with six stalls in 2015. There are now more than 70 stalls there every Sunday, attracting over 1,300 visitors on average. The market serves as a testing ground for those with new creative products and who wish to share their hobbies and introduce new dishes and drinks to visitors. Many entrepreneurs have been incubated there and have gone on to set up their own stores at other locations around Penang.

The impact of Hin Bus Depot extends far beyond its walls. Before its revitalisation, Jalan Gurdwara was a quiet street. There was no art, no fancy dessert stalls and no craft centres.

The popularity of Hin Bus Depot over time has transformed the surrounding areas into a must-visit destination for locals and tourists alike. Crafters and artisans set up shop along the thoroughfare, contributing to a street life renaissance. Murals adorn surrounding walls, turning Jalan Gurdwara into an open-air exhibition space.

Surrounding alleys now house exciting cafes, boutiques and bars. The entire area has turned into a labyrinth for exploration and wonder. Back streets are lined with murals, graffiti, fairy lights and bar tables and chairs. Cafés and unconventional businesses blossom. Hotels have started popping up to accommodate those wishing to stay close to the pulse of George Town.

Creative Placemaking as a Blueprint for Penang

While Hin Bus Depot stands as an example of successful creative and sustainable placemaking, Penangʼs journey toward developing its cultural and artistic industry requires a broader, diversified approach. Relying on a singular success story, no matter how impactful, is not a sustainable strategy.

In my opinion, embracing diversity in placemaking is key. Each district and neighbourhood in Penang has a unique history, charm and potential. Today, we have the opportunity and the privilege to initiate placemaking ventures across Penang, and not only in George Town. There are mini-festivals held on the mainland, like Butterworth and Nibong Tebal, but what should take centre stage is meeting the cultural and creative needs of these locations, which could be very different from those on the island. Local champions play a primary role.

Abandoned buildings dotting Penangʼs landscape are potential canvases waiting to be dusted and coloured. Entrepreneurs, artists and the community can be encouraged by the state and the city councils to breathe new life into these dormant spaces. Transforming abandoned buildings into cultural hubs, galleries or community spaces gives new life to places formerly admired and provides platforms for creative expression.

Seeing how Hin Bus Depot is usually fully booked for events, exhibitions and the like, the need for more of such spaces is obvious enough. Inclusive approaches involving the surrounding community— residents, artists and businesses—to participate in and shape their neighbourhood would be most effective. After all, community-driven initiatives hold the best potential to uncover hidden gems and untapped cultural resources.

We often forget that locals are a localeʼs heritage, and placemaking can be a bridge between the old and the new, celebrating heritage without confining it to the past. Adaptive reuse of heritage buildings, integrating traditional elements into new designs, and incorporating cultural narratives into urban planning weave together the old and the new seamlessly.

Government support is instrumental in creating an environment conducive to placemaking. Establishing policies that incentivise businesses and individuals to invest in cultural initiatives, offering grants for creative projects and simplifying bureaucratic processes for adaptive reuse of spaces… all these catalyse placemaking. Clear guidelines and support mechanisms empower communities to take charge of their cultural landscapes.

Education is key to a culture of placemaking. Penang can put in place initiatives that highlight cultural preservation, urban revitalisation and community engagement. Workshops, seminars and outreach programmes can empower citizens, artists and entrepreneurs with the knowledge and skills needed to shape the cityʼs cultural evolution.

The privately owned Hin Bus Depot has blazed a trail, and the authorities have the opportunity (and an example) to capitalise on this momentum to create a network of unique, community-driven placemaking initiatives across the state which collectively define Penangʼs identity. Embracing such a multitude of exciting narratives will easily make Penang a canvas for endless possibilities.

Now 10 years old, Hin Bus Depot is a pulsating reality, and its beat will hopefully echo across the land and awaken the latent creativity in the young and old, and reintroduce them to the joys of generating living culture.

Ivan Gabriel

is a curator with a curatorial approach committed to making art accessible to diverse audiences. He views each showcase as a chance for inadvertent education, using art as a powerful platform to initiate conversations about contemporary issues, provoking audiences to think and reflect.