Tan Shih Thoe Talks About the Business of Art at Hin Bus Depot

By Alexander Fernandez

February 2024 PENANG PROFILE
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HIN BUS DEPOT celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, and so, Penang Monthly thinks it a great occasion to sit down with Tan Shih Thoe, the brain (and the brawn, considering how hands-on Tan is) behind Hin Bus Depot (HBD), one of Penangʼs hottest creative hubs, to unlock the secrets of its success.

Penang Monthly: For many years, HBD was a dilapidated and abandoned building in a run-down part of town. Why did you decide to acquire it? And once it was in your possession, what plans did you have for it in the beginning?

Tan Shih Thoe: About 14 years ago, we had the opportunity to acquire this historic space. As property investors with a track record of investing in heritage properties throughout Penang, we recognised its potential. Its location and unique character aligned with our interest in repurposing old buildings with the added advantage of a big open space for future development. While we waited for the right time to develop it, our plans in the interim were simply about leasing it out for rental income.

PM: How has HBD evolved over the years and are there significant milestones or turning points that shaped its journey?

TST: After we purchased the property, finding a suitable tenant for it was challenging because of its location. This area was not what you see today; back then, few locals ventured here except to go to Cecil Market and Gama. It was more a hub for foreign workers who lived, shopped and dined here. The property was dormant for three years until Ernest Zacharevic, an artist friend came along. Ernest was looking for a suitable venue to host his inaugural solo exhibition. After exploring several potential locations, we casually introduced him to the depot, and he was immediately captivated by its character. This presented a good reason to refurbish the space for his exhibition, with the hope that it would attract an ideal tenant once his exhibition was concluded. Little did we know that our plans would soon take an unexpected turn. His exhibition garnered overwhelming support and drew widespread attention from both visitors and the local arts community. Unknowingly, HBD became a space for young and emerging artists to exhibit their works and push the boundaries of their creativity. We decided to maintain the depot as an art space. Ever since, our calendars have been filled with exhibitions.

PM: What are some future initiatives or expansions that you are particularly excited about?

TST: I am excited about the recent addition of Coex. It brings networks and connections in the arts and culture sector that HBD currently lacks, creating a synergistic match. Looking ahead and being a little ambitious, there is no reason to keep the creative energy within the confines of HBD and Coex; I think it can expand outwards to the entire seven-street precinct to turn the area into Penangʼs vibrant creative district.

PM: Several years back, you told Penang Monthly that HBD acts as an incubator or a platform for young entrepreneurs to experiment before making it out there on their own. Is that still the case today?

TST: In 2014, we created a platform dedicated to nurturing emerging artists, and the following year, in 2015, we extended our commitment to include crafters, designers and makers through the inception of Hin Market. Today, both platforms continue to thrive.

Hin Market, in particular, has proven to be a transformative space for small business owners. It goes beyond the conventional online shopping experience, allowing entrepreneurs to showcase their products in a physical setting and engage directly with customers. The market not only serves as a bazaar but also provides a safe haven for experimentation and the exploration of new ideas. Many have seized this opportunity before going on to establish their own brick-and-mortar shops, while others have redirected their entrepreneurial journey in a different direction. Regardless of the path taken, this platform has undeniably played a pivotal role in fostering a spirit of creativity and entrepreneurship.

PM: How do you go about curating the vendors, exhibitions and events in HBD?

TST: It is crucial to emphasise that HBD is fundamentally an art space first, with all other initiatives, such as Hin Market, serving as supporting programmes. At the forefront is the monthly art exhibition held within the gallery, managed by a recent addition to our team, Ivan Gabriel, the Gallery Manager.

There are two categories of events at HBD. The first comprises commercial events featuring prominent brands that traverse the country showcasing products, like Samsung, Ikea, Uniqlo, YSL and Coach, among others. These events contribute substantially to HBDʼs income. The second category are non-commercial events that enrich the community, including film screenings, talks, book launches, workshops, music festivals and performances. A special community rate is offered for these events.

The thread that ties all these programmes together is curation. Whether itʼs selecting art exhibitions, curating the market or orchestrating events, each programme adheres to a specific criteria designed to align with HBDʼs overarching identity as an art space.

PM: Managing a creative hub involves both artistic vision and business acumen. How do you strike a balance between fostering creativity and ensuring the sustainability of HBD?

TST: Approaching HBD as a long-term business venture has been instrumental to its sustained success. Recognising that significant income may not materialise in the initial stages, careful cost management has been a crucial factor in ensuring our ongoing viability.

During the early stages, when income from the rental of our units around HBD began to trickle in, we reinvested it back into our programmes, placing a strong emphasis on collaboration with the arts community. Their active involvement and ownership have not only enriched our offerings, but also fostered a sense of shared responsibility and community. This symbiotic relationship, built on trust and support, has been instrumental in HBDʼs role as a space dedicated to fostering creativity, particularly within the art sector.

PM: You mentioned years ago that HBD is not a money-making venture. Has that changed today?

TST: HBD as an art space is still a non-profit venture. The revenue generated from artwork sales is channelled back into the gallery, covering essential aspects such as staff salaries, space maintenance and office administration costs. However, this self-sustaining model often necessitates additional financial support from external sources to bridge the funding gap.

To maintain the galleryʼs sustainability, we have to find other income streams. Initially, personal investments were made to launch the art gallery, supporting the exhibitions and programmes. As HBD gained recognition and established itself, the space became increasingly appealing for commercial tenants seeking to rent units around HBD. In the initial stages, rental rates may have been below market standards, but as the gallery and its programmes flourished, the demand for surrounding units grew. This growth allowed the owners to adjust rental rates accordingly, transforming the rental of units into a profitable venture.

This process highlights the progressive evolution of HBD—from an initial investment to a self-sustaining art space, ultimately turning the rental of units into a revenue-generating venture. This strategic approach not only ensures the galleryʼs financial stability but also reinforces its commitment to serve as a non-profit entity dedicated to fostering artistic expression and cultural enrichment.

PM: Do audience participation and interaction contribute to the overall atmosphere and success of events at HBD?

TST: Definitely! The diverse range of visitors creates a vibrant and inclusive environment. Furthermore, their positive experiences, translated into word-of-mouth recommendations and social media endorsements, are powerful tools for marketing. This significantly boosts the visibility and reputation of HBD, attracting new audiences and reinforcing its status as a cultural and creative destination.

PM: I think we can all agree that you’re a major player in Penangʼs creative scene; what is something you feel the government needs to prioritise?

TST: While I appreciate the sentiment that HBD is considered a major player in Penangʼs creative scene, I think itʼs crucial to recognise the significant contributions of individuals like Joe Sidek who once helmed the George Town Festival, and institutions such as Penang Art District and the now-de-funct Penangpac. These entities, despite not having dedicated physical spaces (except for Penangpac), have played a pivotal role in elevating George Townʼs profile in arts, culture and performances. There is a need for the government to acknowledge the multifaceted nature of the creative landscape. Allocating more resources, particularly financial support, to influential programmes—such as those initiated by George Town Festival, Penang Art District and previously Penangpac— would be instrumental in fostering a resilient and thriving creative ecosystem.

PM: As the owner and manager of HBD, how has this journey contributed to your personal and professional growth?

TST: The privilege of meeting individuals from diverse backgrounds, ranging from business leaders and government officials to arts and cultural enthusiasts, activists, educators and NGOs has brought immense fulfillment to my lifeʼs journey and provided invaluable opportunities for collaboration and learning. These interactions have significantly broadened my perspective and understanding—I’ve learned the importance of keeping an open mind. This principle, which I apply to both life and art, allows me to continually discover and learn new things, reinforcing the belief that the more one sees, the more one grows.

*NOTE: An episode of Penang Institute’s English podcast, Spill The Teh, titled “[EP6] Inspiring Spaces: Hin Bus Depot’s Impact on Penang’s Creative Scene” published on 1 August 2023 draws context on the founding of the hub. Those interested can listen to the episode here: https://penanginstitute.org/category/podcasts/spill-the-teh/

Alexander Fernandez

is a budding plant enthusiast, feline fanatic, Netflix junkie and gaming buff. He hopes to one day travel to Japan.