In Penang, hobbyists turn passion into business
GEORGE TOWN, Aug 8 ― More than six years ago, a group of passionate heritage and arts activists got together and came up with the idea of starting an art bazaar to showcase the local art scene in a way that Penang residents could relate to ― an open-air market.
After much discussion and with the state government’s support, the first-ever Upper Penang Road (UPR) Little Penang Street Market made its debut, offering an eclectic mix of arts and handicraft by local artists and hobbyists.
Held on the last Sunday of each month, the street bazaar has been through rain or shine, bad times and good times, and this month, it celebrates its sixth anniversary.
Despite pessimistic predictions that the bazaar, like countless other similarly-driven projects, would die a natural death due to the high prices that the art pieces, knick knacks and handicraft set by bazaar participants, the UPR Little Penang Street Market is still going strong.
It continues to attract attention with its myriad activities and the ever-changing art, antiques, handicraft and food stalls that promise visitors something new, something different and definitely something worth splurging on each month.
It is also thanks to the Little Penang Street Market that Penang’s vibrant art scene was kept alive while encouraging those artistically inclined to immerse themselves in their passions. It is at this little street market that many creative entrepreneurs found a way to either forge a living entirely on their craft or to supplement their income.
This bazaar has opened up a whole new market for local handmade handicraft, knick knacks, costume jewellery, fashion items or even specialty food that has a far reaching effect. It spurred this hunger in Penang residents for high quality, unique and most importantly, lovingly handcrafted items from earrings to handbags to specialty food.
It has literally opened the doors for local artists to sell their wares and have their masterpieces or handicraft appreciated, not only at this particular bazaar but at other similar bazaars in shopping complexes and malls. It has turned these talented artisans into home-grown entrepreneurs who eventually set up their own stores.
One such entrepreneur is 33-year-old Mah Chun Huey. Fondly known as Huey amongst her regular patrons, Mah decided to go into a very niche market early this year after receiving overwhelmingly good response to her homemade multi-flavour marshmallows. She had initially picked up making marshmallows because her small niece loves these sweet, fluffy treats.
“She used to eat a lot of the store-bought marshmallows and those were just too sweet and contained too much additives and flavourings so I decided to get the recipe from the Internet and learn to make it for her,” said the friendly, unassuming Mah.
Soon, she was making huge batches of marshmallows of different flavours and sharing it with her friends and relatives. One of them suggested that she sell it at a festival so she gave it a try and her marshmallows were quickly snapped up. That’s not all; she started getting calls and email orders for them.
“That was when I realised that there is a market for homemade marshmallows so I started developing more flavours and tried the market again at a bazaar at Straits Quay,” she recounted. Again, the response was so good, she and her boyfriend, Woong Wun Wah, 31, decided to set up a café to sell her marshmallows. In May this year, the Huey & Wah Café opened its doors at a little shop lot at the exclusive marina retail centre of Straits Quay in Tanjung Tokong.
By now, Mah has developed several different flavours of marshmallows that one cannot buy from anywhere else. Other than the conventional vanilla marshmallows, she has chocolate, green tea, lemon, passion fruit and Guinness Stout. To complement her marshmallows, her café naturally offers hot chocolate drinks, coffee, fresh milk and other baked goods such as cookies and muffins.
Did she ever regret venturing into the F&B industry when her formal education was in fine arts and mass communications? Not in the least. Mah is enjoying every minute of running her own café with Woong and having all the time in the world to create perfect fluffy, soft and flavourful marshmallows for those with a sweet tooth.
“Making these marshmallows is also an art as it involves hours of preparation and hard work,” she said of her bite-sized treats.
Of course, this is not Mah’s first venture into business as she previously had an online business selling recycled vinyl banners to customers overseas, particularly the US and UK. She is handy at turning used, unwanted vinyl banners into useful items like planters, laptop covers, mobile phone covers, and storage bins. She is still running the online business but for now, she is putting all her energy into the new café so the other business has slowed down a bit.
“I am concentrating on this café for now until it is stable first before I go back fully to my recycled banner business,” she said.
To Mah, it is not about the financial gratification that draws her to entrepreneurship. Instead, it is the freedom to do her own thing, to be in charge of her own destiny, which drew her towards being her own boss where everything is done on her own terms.
“With my own business, I have the freedom to express my own creativity and to decide on my own future so I don’t think I will ever want to work for people because it would mean losing my freedom,” she said.
It seems Mah is not alone in this thinking. There are many other young entrepreneurs who want to make their own way on their own terms by making full use of their artistic talents.