Rights of the articles on No Man’s Land are reserved to the original authors or media. No Man’s Land is authorized to reproduce and distribute the articles freely. Users may distribute the articles on No Man’s Land accordingly to the above terms of use, and shall mark the author, and provide a link to the article on No Man’s Land .
Please fill out your information to contact No Man’s Land .
The information you supply will only be used by No Man’s Land .

Subscribe No Man's Land
Please fill out your email to get the latest from No Man’s Land .
The information you supply will only be used by No Man’s Land .
Unsubscribe No Man’s Land
ISSUE 35 : Nusantara: Signifier and Its Limitation
An Interview with Rumah Attap Library: From Intellectuals to Practitioners
September 27th, 2017Type: Interview
Author: Ko, Nien-pu , 馬思揚 (翻譯) Editor: Rikey Tenn
Quote From: 群島資料庫Nusantara Archive
Note: Founded by Amateur, In Between Cultura and Au Sow Yee Studio in 2017, Rumah Attap Library & Collective is located in Kampung Attap, Kuala Lumpur. It is a physical library as well as an imagined space, a space for reading, discussion, publication, workshops, forums, and artists/researchers' residencies. Exchanges of books and thoughts related to cultural studies, arts, literature, philosophy and social sciences are welcomed here. It aimed at building an open and critical alternative knowledge system, creating a "living coordinate" generated by public participation. NML's researcher KO Nien Pu arrived Rumah Attap Library from August 7th to 28th. The article "An Interview with Rumah Attap Library: From Intellectuals to Practitioners" is the first part of her interview with the Au Sow Yee and Show Ying Xin, co-founders of Rumah Attap Library.
Founders of Rumah Attap Library, AU Sow Yee (left 4), and SHOW Ying Xin (right 4); photo courtesy of Rumah Attap Library

Alice KO Nien Po: Please share a bit on the motive and background of your founding of Rumah Attap Library & Collective?

SHOW Ying Xin: From 2008 to around 2013, 2014, Malaysia went through much political turmoil, and people fiercely debated and discussed their imaginations of democracy and life, as well as the responsibilities of cultural workers. However, after party alternation failed, these people returned to everyday life, and cared less about politics. In other words, party politics and political movements often dictate the public’s framework and direction of discussion, but intellectuals and cultural workers were unable to reflect and respond. When I returned in 2005, I joined a media agency that focused on political news. At the time, I thought working in the media allowed me to quickly learn latest developments. But after about half a year, I realized that the discussions on media are quite superficial.

Also, it seemed to me that Chinese youths’ discussions had stagnated, but the Malay community was still vibrant; especially independent publishers emerged, and small organizations such as Buku Jalanan continued to operate since 2011. I found it fascinating that there were so many organizations in the Malay community, and they were all concerned with different issues. For left-wing intellectuals, there was a Marx reading group that discussed left-wing history, whereas left-wing activists were concerned with local communities and the poor; there was also Zikri Rahman, who focused on both knowledge and actions. I later interviewed him,(註1) hoping to explore the issue of new cultural reform by the youth, and how young people could walk out from the shadow of their older generation. These groups of young people represented the breaking away from the control of the state in the past, for the Malay community had always had close ties with the state. This contrasted with the Chinese community; the Chinese community had always been independent from the system, and was self-sufficient.

Looking at the relatively quiet Chinese community, my friends and I thought perhaps we would emulate the Malay young people and start doing something. Also, we did not want to be attached or associated with the Chinese organizations like our elders. We wanted to be proactive and mobile. My background is in literature, and when I was in Singapore, I organized reading sessions with these friends whom I later collaborated with in Kuala Lumpur. Inter-Asia School also played a role in my coming to Kuala Lumpur(註2); it was how I got reacquainted with Malaysia. At the time, the three of us wanted to establish an organization called “Amateur,” which later became a member of Rumah Attap Library & Collective. Sometimes we went directly to McDonald’s after work for the reading discussion, then we realized that we could start a magazine. However, we were not sure about the content of the magazine, so we first organized some seminars on some issues we were concerned with. WONG Kee Tat and GOH Siew Poh are Chinese Studies graduates of local universities, and I saw in them many challenges faced by Chinese youths in Kuala Lumpur. They do not trust the academic system; they love knowledge but do not continue onto PhD programs, and want to work outside the system.

Revisiting Malaya 2.0; photo courtesy of SHOW Ying Xin

KO: Why do they not trust the system?

SHOW: Because the previous generations had lost touch with the society within the system. Especially after the political tsunami in 2008, students found out that their teachers did not really understand the society, and believed that the teachers and lecturers in schools were pedantic; such youths were active beyond the academic system, but some of their organizations later became silent and inactive. So, we decided to first establish a small team to organize seminars. For the first seminar, we invited Professor NGOI Guat Peng to talk about the issue of intellectuals, in which we shared common interest. Scholars in the university system no longer were engaged in intellectual works; actually, throughout the 1990s, the Chinese community had constantly talked about the responsibilities of intellectuals. Ironically, when these people came into power, their actions violated such responsibilities. They exploited power, and many young people were disappointed with the Chinese intellectuals during 1980s ~ 1990s. Amateur organized a number of seminars, inviting speakers such as social activist and artist Fahmi Reza, who were persecuted by the government at the time; The seminar attracted a large crowd, and some police officers from the Special Branch were also in attendance. Later we also invited Nisha Ayub to talk about transgender rights, as well as issues of migrant workers and refugees, which were issues rarely discussed by the Chinese community.

Amateur continued to borrow the venue from Lostgens’ artspace, and had no money to rent a space of our own. So, we hoped that we could join forces with a few other organizations to rent a space. At the time, we contacted a number of organizations. I remember participating in the “Revisiting Malaya 2.0 International Conference”(註3) in Yogyakarta in July last year, and visiting KUNCI Cultural Studies Center with AU Sow Yee, where we talked about that Amateur was looking for a space. She told me that someone asked her if she wanted to rent a studio. I thought we could work together, yet it seemed like we would be lacking something if we simply shared the rent to a space, so we came up with the idea of the library. KUNCI is a library and a research institute. After KUNCI, I visited C2O Library & Collabtive in Surabaya(註4). They also had a library where they could host events, and they also published magazines. We wanted to operate a space like this, and it just so happened that Zhongshan Building had that cluster-like atmosphere. Amateur and AU Sow Yee invited “In Between Cultura” to join, and they had no objection with the idea of establishing a library. Their background was in sociology, and had published Street Voice, a cultural criticism publication; later they established their own studio, and were engaged in promotion and education of cloth menstrual pads. They were also concerned with feminism, and had women sharing their private experiences. I also interviewed them when I was at Malaysiakini(註5). The three organizations coincidentally have backgrounds in humanities, sociology, and arts, and thus we select books in these three directions.


業餘者: 蘇穎欣, 吳小保, 盧姵伊, 李志勇, 黃麒達; photo courtesy of SHOW Ying Xin

AU Sow Yee: Last year I attended the forum held by Inter-Asia School in Yogyakarta, and told Ying Xin about the new space for lease. She also knew another organization. At the time, we thought about what else we would do in addition to running a space. Library was a good idea. I felt people worked separately in KL; academic disciplines and languages were quite divided, and had no interaction. We thought by creating a space where different disciplines, backgrounds, and languages could mingle and interact would be a good idea. I had always felt that this city do not need another art space. When everyone was saying how art was absent here, the problem was not about the quantity of exhibitions, it was the fact that the fostering of ideas behind creative practices was yet immature in this environment (at least in Kuala Lumpur). I grew up in KL, so I thought, if I were really to do something, I must do something most needed here. Such training was important, but rarely could we find ways to foster critical thinking. That was how the concept of library gradually took shape. We continued to think over the process. In the beginning, many people asked: Are you a community library? I believed that was beyond our capability. Our members were doing this voluntarily, and community library was not our goal. Actually, Kuala Lumpur already had community libraries, we just hoped that it could be a place for in-depth interaction and exchange. If this library were referred to as an “living body,” it could be regarded as a body that was capable of doing all kinds of things; all its operations would become a part of the library. To put it more simply, it could have more than just the books; it could host simple reading groups, seminars, or performances, and afterwards, in-depth exchange could also take place.

Based on my experience of growing up in this city, it lacks archiving; many things are scattered and uncollected. This is also reflected in art practices, as art are very much entangled with the environment. The education system still inclines to conservative and institutional thinking, so we want to play a role the schools fail to assume, allowing ambitious youths to at least have a place to connect with or get to know one another. When I taught in college, I saw students with great potentials, and they longed for more knowledge; but after they graduated, they fell into a lazy cycle due to excuses such as lacked of time and failed to find the right channel. The focus of the library is to fill in the voids in higher education, for the systematic education is directed towards a more pragmatic way of thinking.


At Borobudur (Revisiting Malaya 2.0); photo courtesy of SHOW Ying Xin

KO: Talking about KUNCI’s philosophy of alternative education, libraries also try to organize events such as reading groups or seminars. Can you share with us how libraries should consider own role as well as role in alternative education?

SHOW: I find them very professional, having sufficient budget and manpower. Many organizations in Indonesia receive subsidies from the Ford Foundation, such as KUNCI and Indonesia Visual Art Archive. We do not have such budget, and for the many things we want to do we need to start with fundraising. We also found out that when a number of like-minded groups get together, we often run into some issues in actual operation. For example, we all have different imaginations of the library. At first, I hoped it would be positioned as a cultural studies library, but after some discussion I felt that I was limiting myself. We just could not reach any conclusion, but I thought it also reflected our situation at the moment; we had many possibilities. We could not be like KUNCI, which could launch quickly some alternative educational programs. Lostgens’ provided classes, while also focusing on community; commercial bookstore also organized reading session, and there are also cultural classes being offered regularly around us. I dare not to say that we want to establish an alternative system outside of the school system; currently, our idea is to have the books here, so those who are interested can access them, allowing people who cannot get into the schools to really gain something through reading these books and participating in activities.

AU: When we first began our operation, it was a bit rush; we had to establish the basic framework with limited time and resources. Also, we had to raise a certain amount of fund before we could delve into the planning of details, such as bookshelves or other expenses. So, in the beginning we did not offer book loan service, for it required a comprehensive procedure and all books must be archived. It does not have to be as comprehensive as the system in normal libraries, but at least there should be a system in place so people can take out books. I felt that we were not capable of achieving all these, but at least now we have started to be exposed to some people who question or criticize academic disciplines or social history, or they want to know more people; at least we can first gather these people together. Right now, with our scale and resources, we really cannot mobilize all of the people, and there are organizations more suitable than us that can be engaged in things involving a wider public.


[1] See SHOW Ying Xin, “A Conversation with Zikri Rahman Co-Founder of Buku Jalanan.
[2] Inter-Asia School (IAS) is a minjian (民間) international organization dedicated to creating new critical spaces of dialogues among Asian intellectuals and searching for new modes of knowledge production for the staging and formation of the Asian circle of thought. IAS aims to overcome the long-lasting barriers of interactions and the predicaments of thought engendered by colonialism, wars and the Cold War. With a hope to bring about solidarity and cooperation among intellectual communities in Asia, IAS will carry out the following forms of collaborative work and activity: digital archiving, research, teaching, conferences, workshops, exhibitions, translation and publishing, etc. Related organizations have also been established in Taiwan, China, Singapore, and other Eastern Asian regions, and conferences and forums are organized on a regular basis. (accessed on 2017/9/12)
[3] See “Revisiting Malaysia 2.0”. (accessed on 2017/9/12)
[4] Founded in Surabaya in 2008, C2O Library & Collabtive is an independent library and co-working community. (accessed on 2017/9/21)
[5] See: (accessed on 2017/9/21)
See Also
An Interview with Rumah Attap Library: Archive of the Other Mapping Project ,Alice Ko Nien-po