Penang’s Creative Sector Struggles to Stay Afloat

Hin Market is the place to be on weekends. Photo: Hin Bus Depot

POP-UP MARKETS are a viable platform for creative start-ups and their products. But when Covid-19 hit, some of these pop-ups vanished overnight. A few like the Hin Market managed to recover by modifying their previous set-up to accommodate the SOPs; others like Occupy Beach Street did not.

Read also: Penang Stays Wide O:PEN to a New Era of Creativity

Every week since 2015, when it first drew public interest, Tan Shih Thoe, the founder of Hin Market, would curate and “strategically mix and match the stalls based on categories of products sold. I wanted a close set-up between the stalls to encourage interactions and positive competition,” he explains.

When the MCO came into effect in March 2020, digital marketing through Facebook became necessary for the Market to continue showcasing the products of its stallholders. “Eventually, this led to the creation of the Hin Store on our website to give our stallholders’ online presence a boost.”

The sale of food items and wearables was able to compensate for the financial loss suffered during the lockdown period. Photo: Hin Bus Depot

Neither Here nor There

“ It is not easy to sell creative products online. There are too many competitors, and a great variety of products is available for shoppers who want more bang for their buck."

Now that restrictions are once again semi-relaxed post-MCO 2.0, the Hin Market has reopened to the public with an added boon. As of April 2021, it is now a two-day weekend market.

But the SOPs for a creative marketplace is still ambiguous, worries Tan. “We are neither a night market nor a wet market. But to the best of our ability, we try to ensure safe compliance of the SOPs for both our stallholders and visitors. Fortunately, we have the support and assistance of RELA to monitor the entrances of Hin Bus Depot. Signage have also been put up to remind visitors to follow the SOPs.

“After the initial MCO, we saw an increase in the number of stall applicants. These are applicants who are either looking for an alternative income stream, or are keen on starting small businesses after being retrenched. But because the Market is keeping with social distancing measures, space is currently quite tight.”

Uncang Tea offers eight unique tea blends...                                                                                          ...that are naturally coloured! Photo: Jenny Ho

Selling Online Has its Shortcomings

T-shirts designed by Jose Bayas Ilao for his brand, NOWAYJOSE. Photo: Jose Bayas Ilao

The Hin Market was intended as a hub for creative talents to encourage and support each other in building up their brands. Jenny Ho has been a part of the Hin Market community since April 2018, where she sells herbal and flower tea blends under her brand, Uncang Tea. The Market was for her a testing ground to get public feedback on how to improve her products, and it was also where she would later meet resellers and distributors for her tea blends.

The bulk of Jenny’s customers were foreign tourists and during the lockdown, Jenny says she was only able to sustain 25% of her normal sales volume. “I decided to stop producing and instead, started marketing the stocks I had left through my website and through online marketplaces like Shopee, Lazada as well as AirAsia’s OURSHOP e-commerce platform. “It is not easy to sell creative products online. There are too many competitors, and a great variety of products is available for shoppers who want more bang for their buck. It is hardly the place for creative products to thrive in. What is needed, I think, is a home-grown online marketplace to promote purely local creative products to international consumers,” she says. Next, Jenny is looking into creating products that are more “local-friendly”.

Henna artist Ida now has a shop set up along Lebuh Armenian. Photo: Ida

Ida’s henna designs on products. Photo: Ida

The lack of international tourists has caused sales of arts and crafts to plummet. Tan reported a drop of 50% or more in sales. Jose Bayas Ilao previously sold his self-designed hand-painted T-shirts NOWAYJOSE at physical stalls before fully migrating his business online to Facebook, Instagram and Etsy. “Through Etsy especially, I am able to reach an international market. But although my reach has expanded, I’m also forced to bear the high shipping costs.” Besides marketing his T-shirts online, Jose is also co-renting a shop on Lebuh Kimberley with a few artists and artisans to set up the Penang Artisan Hub. “I am now focused on art-making. I paint and draw, and I’ve done a mural.” He has also recently started exploring a new market segment and is accepting orders for customised uniforms.

Henna artist Ida, on the other hand, bore the worst brunt during the lockdown period. But with skill and no small amount of gumption, she managed to pivot. Ida now has a permanent shop at Lebuh Armenian where she “inks” the hands of local tourists (before MCO 2.0) and prints her henna designs on bags, accessories and canvases. She also receives customised orders through Instagram where she is mostly active on. “With assistance from friends, I’ll be exploring online marketing next,” she says.

Despite the hardships, uncertainties and challenges encountered, one thing is for certain for these creative entrepreneurs. They are not waving the white flag just yet.

Nicole Chang has just completed her PhD programme at the Department of Development Planning and Management, School of Social Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia.

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