Coming back to Malaysia in 2010, after spending the better part of the previous 20 years out of the country, was disconcerting. Everything seemed different and new. Trips to visit places I knew as a boy would be filled with apprehension as I wondered if I would still be able to recognise it. Would it be as I remembered? Would it even be there?
I felt compelled to rediscover the land of my birth. This journey of discovery would take me across the length and breadth of Malaysia with my trusty [make and model of camera] by my side. The starting point of course was my hometown of Ipoh.
In the 60s and 70s, Ipoh was renowned as the tin mining capital of the world. But my memories are of growing up in a small town filled with pre-war architecture, wide open spaces and most vividly of all, the most engaging characters. There was the Indian barber to whom my dad would bring me and my brother for our bimonthly haircut, the dressmaker who sewed my mother’s best dresses, the breadman, newspaper man, the list goes on.
I also remember my dad driving us from our home in Ipoh to places like Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore during our holidays. Along the way, we would stop in towns like Tapah, Bidor and Kota Tinggi for meals and to stock up on the local delicacies. At every stop, we would see main streets lined with the familiar shops that doubled as workshops and warehouses, where craftsmen and businessmen plied the trades passed on to them by their fathers and grandfathers.
I always assumed they would always be around for future generations to appreciate. I could not have been more wrong.
Sadly, most of these people and places from the landscape of my childhood have vanished. Most poignantly, I was there to witness – and document – the final days of the barber who had cut my hair all those years ago.
For the most part however, this process of extinction is taking place without any fanfare. With highways now criss-crossing the country, we now have the choice of bypassing many of the small towns as we go about our business – and most of us do because we have no time and even less desire for longer journeys however interesting they may be.
Even worse, we have become blind to these treasures, accelerating their disappearance from our communities. The crafts of yesteryear are losing the competition against the more affordable albeit soulless plastic products of the factory assembly line. The cacophony of sounds of metalsmiths and woodcarvers at work in every village and town has been replaced by the rumbling of lorries delivering ready-made goods from China!
The entire spectrum of traditional crafts – from the tinsmiths of Melaka to the batik makers of Terengganu – is being threatened by the very efficiencies that society encourages. On an encouraging note, the Malaysian Handicraft Development Corporation has a programme that promotes and preserves these crafts.
It is no different with the traditional trades. The sundry shop owner is losing out to the hypermarket, while the barber cannot compete with the unisex hairdressing saloons.
Realistically, we cannot halt the march of progress. However, we cannot allow it to erase the myriad traditions, crafts and their practitioners which help to make up Malaysia’s unique multicultural identity.
That became the primary impetus for this book. I was determined to document their milieus and their stories so that they won’t be forgotten. Over the course of 24 months, I photographed people from all the country – the shopkeepers in their grocery shops in rural areas; fishermen who set out at first light for their morning catch; the third-generation watch repairer in his little shop; the hawker selling kacang putih (Indian nuts and crispy snacks); paddy farmers in Kedah; and so many others from all walks of life.
They represent the thousands of other Malaysians who in their own way, have carved a clean, honest living out of businesses and traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation. Within the ambit of these shopkeepers, traders, craftspeople and salary workers stand their nearest and dearest: the daughter who has just started school, the son who aspires to be the next great Malaysian sports phenomenon and many others who harbour their own dreams.
Like me, they were all born in Malaysia. And they are the keepers of our heritage.
This book as well as the exhibition and website are all the fruits of the most rewarding 36 months of my life. I am so grateful to the many people who allowed me into their inner sanctums and shared their stories with me. It has been an honour and a privilege.
This is my tribute to them.
My original plan was to document the craftspeople of Malaysia but as with many projects, mine took on a life of its own. As I travelled around the country, photographing and talking to so many interesting individuals, it turned into a celebration of the people of Malaysia.
As I prepared for what would be a three-year commitment, I established some guidelines which would help to ensure authenticity. These guidelines were culled from my years of experience as a commercial photographer. They reflected how I liked to work as well as what I knew would set my subjects at ease.
First of all, wherever possible, I would choose to be a guest in someone’s home (that is, as part of a homestay programme) rather than a hotel, as a means of getting closer to my subjects. As a bonus, I discovered that Malaysia has some excellent homestay programmes. I would encourage locals and tourists alike to support these programmes and experience firsthand the wonderful Malaysian hospitality.
Next, I always made sure I planned ahead before visiting any town or village. I would do my research, find contacts and finally, prepare a schedule. Most importantly, once the prep work was done, I allowed myself the freedom to deviate from the schedule. Most times, I would end up spending a lot more time chatting with someone long after I had finished photographing them because they had such stories to tell, such memories to share.
I traveled light. With the advent of digital sensors for cameras, I was able to capture scenes that in the past would have required artificial lighting. Although as a commercial photographer, I am obsessive about creating well-lit and perfectly exposed images, I knew my subjects would not be comfortable under the intense glare of photographic lights. It was more important to capture the scene as it is, to allow my subject to relax. Most times, I did not formally pose my subjects. As I chatted with them, I would bring my camera up and shoot a few frames, then put it down again. In a way, it was a liberating experience for me as a photographer, to move away from the “manufactured” photograph and allow the subject’s personality to come through.
I also resisted tidying up their premises or homes. I left each setting as I found it which is as it should be. I only moved items out of the way when they hindered my angle of view.
My final guideline: work with people who share the same vision. I am very lucky that I was able to work with two fine professionals, who shared my vision for Born in Malaysia. Allison Hill also happens to be my cousin, while Tan Joo Lee is an old colleague. They were the first people I spoke to when I had the idea to do a book about Malaysian handicrafts. They provided support, encouragement as well as their unvarnished opinions and sensible advice. When I was ready, they came on board 100% to help me make this book a reality.
I am blessed to have this opportunity to create something as meaningful as Born in Malaysia. My journey has brought me into contact with so many people, not just the subjects in this book but also the many people who helped me along the way. I have been enriched by my Malaysian adventure. The stories I’ve heard from the wonderful people I have met have given me a whole new perspective on life.