Written by Ng Su Ann
There’s a famous saying by architect and sustainability expert Carl Elefante: “The greenest building is the one that is already built.” Against a backdrop of rapid modernisation, our city of Kuala Lumpur struggles for architectural, cultural, and historic preservation.
Enter Shin Chang and Shin Tseng, co-founders of REXKL
, then Rex Cinema
Rex Cinema, located in Petaling Street, was a crowd-packing cinema in its heyday before it burned down in the 70s. In its time one of Malaysia’s largest theaters operated by Shaw Brothers, it seated up to 1,300 people at any given screening, and was the first to acquire digital sound processors in 1993 for the blockbuster '
When it ceased operations in 2002, a backpacker’s hostel was built in its place, followed by a migrant housing, then a karaoke shop.
Again, a second fire in 2007.
Fifth time’s the charm.
Today, REXKL is a cultural centre for artists, creatives, and entrepreneurs alike, most recently home to design workshops by Jun Ong, projection mapping talks by Filamen (who returns this year to curate Immersio at Urbanscapes Festival), film screenings by Kelab Seni Filem Malaysia, karaoke open mic nights, rice tuak brewing workshops, a series of conversations on culture and politics by PUSAKA, pop-up cocktail bars, lion dance and mak yong performances, vintage flea markets, and more.
To honour REXKL’s past life as a historic cinema, it will host 'Tayangan BMW Shorties'
from 16 until 24 November as part of Urbanscapes Festival
The week-long film screening will feature Southeast Asia’s best films, including Malaysia’s very own 'Fly By Night' by Zahir Omar and 'Jagat' by Shanjhey Kumar Perumal, alongside the action-packed animation 'Goliath', and Filipino Che Espiritu’s 'Pan De Salawal'.
Breathing new life back to the old building are architects Shin Chang and Shin Tseng, who repurposed and revived the historic three-storey through adaptive use: at once preserving a cultural heritage, sparking greater economic development, plus a realization of forward-thinking sustainability and social responsibility.
It’s all in the name, too. REXKL stands for: Recycle (“We’re recycling the building,” Shin Tseng laughed. “We shouldn’t be building more buildings.”), Empower, X for crossover – like with Urbanscapes, as a platform for collaborations and dialogues, Knowledge, and Learning.
“We want to make sure we’re not excluding anyone. No one should feel like, 'oh that place isn’t for me,' we’re big on not alienating any parts of the community, and trying to be as inclusive as we can. That’s why we’ve still got the dimsum stall.”
There’s also an aunty who runs a scissors sharpening stall; it’s a rare skill, honed to a fine edge over decades.
As a child, Shin Chang grew up in the city. His parents ran a kopitiam on Jalan Raja Laut, not far from REXKL. Shin Tseng, meanwhile, remembered going to Petaling Street to watch movies with his father, to shop for Chinese New Year decorations.
“We should remember Rex at its glory, which was a very avant garde, progressive space back then; they played the most popular Western movies, it’s almost like it was ahead of its time, it was a trendsetter,” Shin Tseng said.
“Unfortunately, a lot of people look at it – and Petaling Street – as a past
, y’know, in the past tense. We’ve never seen REXKL as a nostalgic venue, or for its nostalgic value. It’s about what it is for the future, bringing forward what it could be – but we do recognise its past as being bold, glorious, and so I think that’s the spirit we want to celebrate.”
The core of Kuala Lumpur is downtown Kuala Lumpur: its beating heart, its origin story. The core of downtown Kuala Lumpur, meanwhile, is Petaling Street.
There stands REXKL: a calm oasis in the chaos that is Jalan Sultan and its surrounding streets, a centre for all to reconnect in the city.
“We’ve always believed that art, culture is very important,” Shin Chang said.
“Malaysia lacks proper art and culture spaces, to be honest; we have them, but there’s no accessibility, no critical thinking. We should be more critical, sensitive enough to put out good work, and so the intention is important.
"As architects, we build buildings – the ‘hardware’, the space – but we are never focused on the ‘software’. Now we’re moving towards content building, which to me is the software that makes people happy, that makes a space lively. In this one or two km radius, as a hub, we want to connect with the immediate communities first.”
“It’s about community building: there’s old community and there’s new community, and we want to be inclusive to everyone, to revive day-to-day life in Kuala Lumpur. The way we look at it, it’s about us fitting into the city, improving cultural content and lifestyles, creating jobs," Shin Tseng added.
"There’s a lot of stories here. There’s a joy in walking on the streets here, and not ignoring what is happening above ground, below ground; getting to know its history, its alternative history from the residents here. That to me is the joy of discovering – and rediscovering – Petaling Street.”
REXKL hosts Tayangan BMW Shorties from 16 until 24 November as part of Urbanscapes Festival. The week-long film screening will feature Southeast Asia’s best films, including Malaysia’s very own 'Fly By Night' by Zahir Omar and 'Jagat' by Shanjhey Kumar Perumal, alongside the action-packed animation 'War of the Worlds: Goliath', and Filipino Che Esperitu’s 'Pan De Salawal'.
For the whole month of November, REXKL will also be home to iNyala, Malaysia’s first interactive light art installation exhibition by college and university students under the guidance of industry professionals, themed ‘Imagine The Impossible’.
On 16 & 17 November, there will be an Urbanscapes edition of Buku Tiga Lima, a REXKL lifestyle market. Finally, from 16 until 24 November, as part of Immersio 3.0 for Urbanscapes, STATE SENSOR – Singaporean artists, Brandon Tay and Safuan Johari – will exhibit Maximum Volume, a light sculpture exploring light as form using programmable LED strips, transforming static structures into dynamic, immersive configurations.