Words by KC Yap; photo by Ibnu Aswan; excerpts and corresponding images from Anak Malaysia – Pengembaraan Seorang Jurugambar and Born In Malaysia – A Story of Kuala Lumpur by Kenny Loh.
In a bid to get to know his homeland again, Born In Malaysia photographer and our 2013 Men of the Year laureate Kenny Loh travels the country and captures the heart and soul of Malaysia.
Following 20 years of life abroad and a prolific career in fashion and commercial photography, Kenny Loh returned to Malaysia in 2010, only to find himself a stranger in his home country. Determined to reconnect with his roots and get a clear picture of how far Malaysia has progressed, the photographer has since embarked on an on-going journey across the country, talking to Malaysians from all walks of life and documenting their stories.
From his initial tour, the photographer discovered that much of what he once knew—Ipoh as the mining capital of the world, the Indian barber his father would bring him to for his haircut, the local delicacies and shops and workshops in towns like Tapah, Bidor, Kota Tinggi Malacca, where craftsmen plied the trades passed on to them by their fathers and grandfathers—are fading with time.
Inspired to preserve these memories and paint an authentic reflection of the heart and soul of our multi-cultural heritage and his first-hand account of Malaysia’s warm hospitality, Kenny launched in 2013 his first book Born In Malaysia: A Photographer’s Journey, featuring the people he met along the way, in their day-to-day environments.
This month, we see the release of the book’s Bahasa Malaysia edition Anak Malaysia: Pengembaraan Seorang Jurugambar. Following this will be the launch of his second book Born in Malaysia: A Story of Kuala Lumpur in November, this time with a focus on the diverse people of the capital city today. Below, we speak to Kenny for his personal side of the story.
From your two books, we noticed that you’ve gone from offering a more nostalgic heritage view of Malaysia to bringing to light the vibrant makeup of our city today. Tell us more about the people featured in the KL book.
For the KL book, there’s a slant towards people I really respect, such as activists, lawyers, entrepreneurs, etc. Despite the diversity, I’ve learned that our differences, such as age gap, often become inconsequential in the wake of a common interest. For example, the first time I met Michelle (featured in the chapter “Spinning Fire”), a young lawyer/activist and consultant at Amnesty International, we were discussing NGOs and human rights, and because of this common interest we got on well. Young people these days are so amazing; they are our future generation. Shooting for my new book, I’ve met some fantastic people, young fellows. Because of that, I’m now collaborating with some of them on a different venture, an app. I wanted the KL book to reflect that, where the young, the old and the middle-aged have come to this one city and try to do something better for the country.
Having travelled the country extensively and met people from both the rural and urban communities, do you see a big difference between the two, and what was it like venturing into the countryside?
Throughout my visits, I never once felt unwelcome. In Kelantan, I was invited into their homes. When I was photographing a Malay wedding in one of the small towns, it reminded me of the comics by Lat. I saw two Chinese men arriving on their motorbikes, with chickens hanging down the sides, chickens they had specially brought for the occasion. How cool was that? I realised that while we have our differences and at times may not fully understand each other’s culture, we can simply share our good times. One of the main objectives of my book has always been to allow people to understand Malaysia for what it is and not for what certain groups attempt to mould her into, and to show how much we’ve got to lose if we let the country slide.
You’ve widened your scope to include foreign workers in your KL book. Please elaborate.
The KL book is about people who call Malaysia home. Our lives today have become so entwined with those of foreign nationals. It’s not a complete view of Malaysia if you don’t include them. Many of them, like the Bangladeshi boy in the chapter “I Am Invisible”, feel that they are being ignored; even though he sweeps the floor and cleans the malls, at night, he and eight others sleep in a single storeroom. The same is the case with the Nepalese security guards, who greet us day in, day out, sometimes with a hand raised in salute. It would be nice of us to just acknowledge their presence by greeting them back.
On that note, you’ve also included the often neglected Orang Asli communities.
About them, I feel that we often try to impose our views on them, but at the same time, we are also taking over their lands, cutting down their trees. The village elders said that they used to hunt and fish, and now they can’t do those anymore. They are being forced to come to the city, with little education and knowledge of the urban way of life. So I’ve volunteered with an organisation to build dormitories nearby schools for them to stay for free so that they don’t have to walk long distances from home to school every day. Often, for my commissioned work, I hire them as my assistants. Many today also work for government contractors, but get paid less than a foreign worker. I was surprised to find out that one of them gets paid RM800 in some months and nothing in others. Another looked at me and said, “Don’t ever say that I’m lazy, but if you work seven days a week and don’t get your due salary, are you going to continue working?”
By capturing your subjects in their daily environments, you’ve given readers a true-to-life experience of our society.
I don’t know why, but we seem to like the “pentas” (stage) and cultural dances a lot. We seem to have dancers all the time. If you are a foreigner, you want to interact with the people. I think tourists who really want to experience our culture are better off at the mamak or warong. That is the Malaysia that I know, that people want to know.
With rapid gentrification and so much going on in KL, what have you come to discover about the city?
One of the telling signs of gentrification came to me when I met the owner of a very old rattan furniture shop in Penang. He said, “Do you expect me to sit here every day and have you people from KL coming as tourists and take photos of me? If you really want me to stay, please come and buy my rattan merchandise, but no one does.” That totally put things into perspective. With regard to those who are caught in the midst of gentrification, we need to ask, do they have a reason to continue staying, are we giving them one? In KL, Khazanah and its subsidiary Think City are trying to get Malaysians to revisit our cultural landmark Central Market. Despite refurbishment and our passion for shopping, it struggles to attract the modern crowd who prefers to shop at places like Pavilion. To me, Petaling Street still serves its function as home to immigrants who are mainly now foreign workers. That’s the city evolving. The bigger issue, though, is how the City Hall and society are managing that, integrating them into our city.
The following are excerpts from the books Anak Malaysia—Pengembaraan Seorang Jurugambar and Born In Malaysia—A Story Of Kuala Lumpur by Kenny Loh.
“HUTAN SUMBER REZEKI”
NGA, ORANG ASLI PEMBURU DAN PENGUMPUL HASIL HUTAN
Dalam perjalanan ke Cameron Highlands, saya terlihat Nga yang sedang membuka gerainya di tepi jalan. Pada hari itu, beliau menjual madu lebah hutan dan beberapa barangan lain yang diperolehi daripada hutan.
Sejak turun-temurun sebelum tertubuhnya Malaya dan Malaysia, masyarakat Orang Asli di Cameron Highlands seperti Nga bergantung kepada hutan untuk mata pencarian. Awal pagi hari itu sewaktu saya bertemu dengannya, saya terasa diri ini begitu kerdil melihat kehidupannya yang bergantung kepada sumber hutan dan keyakinannya bahawa ia akan memberi rezeki kepada diri dan keluarganya.
Sekiranya anda sedang memandu dan terlihat Nga atau Orang Asli lain menjual buah-buahan, madu dan kraftangan, berhentilah seketika untuk membelinya. Jangan pula terlalu berkira semasa tawar menawar harga.
“QUEEN OF ALL TRADES”
ANGEL NG, BARTENDER AND PARTNER AT PS150 BAR
PETALING STREET, KUALA LUMPUR
PS150 is the latest bar in the Petaling Street area and marks the inevitable gentrification of what was once the place where immigrants congregated upon arrival from China and India.
These days, you are more likely to meet immigrants from countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, India and Myanmar manning the various stalls, along with tourists from all nations.
Angel Ng has always loved the area with its mix of people—sex workers, gangsters, backpackers, tourists, illegal immigrants—everyone trying to make a life for themselves. She sees the beauty and the ugliness of the area and is hopeful she can contribute to its development.
Fiercely independent, she stayed away from the family business and chose to work at various jobs in Singapore.
The focus was always on being promoted with each new move. Working her way up the ladder from her first job as a telephone operator to cosmetics salesgirl and now at PS150, Angel has always been deliberate about how each job will enhance her chances of success.
* For more excerpts, check out the full spread in our August 2017 issue. Follow Kenny Loh’s journey with Born in Malaysia at www.born-in-malaysia.com.