Ooi Cheng Ghee, Portraits of Penang: Little India. Foreword by Andrew Sheng. Penang: Areca Books, 2011. xiii, 212 p. ISBN 978-967-5719-05-9
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The art of photography and the applied science of medicine have much in common: intensive training, diligence, dedication, creativity, manipulation, anticipated results, even chemicals.
Ooi Cheng Ghee combined his career as a medical practitioner in Penang and his avocation as a photographer before laying down his camera and storing his photographs and negatives in a drawer for twenty years when he decided that no one else was interested in them.
Little India is an ethnic enclave in George Town on the Malaysian island of Penang. Penang had been one of the British-ruled Straits Settlements, along with Singapore and Malacca, and became part of the Malayan Union in 1946 and was in turn succeeded by the Federation of Malaya in 1948 and, today, Malaysia. Penang’s British rulers had imported Chinese and Indian immigrants and used the immigrants’ skills and labor to develop the labor-intensive economy of the Settlements and other locales in Malaya. Other Indians came on their own to seek their fortunes in Penang’s booming economic development as a free-trade port. Penang’s Indian immigrants, mostly ethnic Tamil and Muslim, settled in an urban area known eventually as ”Little India,” named for a similar enclave in Singapore. The area is very much alive and very important in the identification of Penang’s citizens of Indian origin.
I was in Little India in July of 2011 when the whole city was celebrating its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Part of the celebration featured exhibitions in galleries and other spaces. A selection of Ooi’s photographs of Little India was featured in a gallery at the Kapitan Keling Mosque in Little India, where I met the photographer.
In his excellent introduction to this book, “Capturing the Twilight of Penang’s Indian Quarter,” the Penang free-lance journalist Himanshu Bhatt, a native of Little India, relates Ooi’s approach to medicine to his approach to photographing in Little India: “...he wanted to assess the wellbeing of a neighborhood, to diagnoses its peculiar moods and manifestation...His x-ray charts were the black-and-white images that revealed the heart, lungs and soul of a community on the brink of despair (p.1).” The root of that perceived despair was the economic change resulting from Penang’s having lost its free port status and the consequent loss of trade and its attendant occupations. Bhatt describes Little India and its residents as “the service back-end of a seaport which looked out into the world (p. 1). Little India would change forever by the late 1970s, and Ooi recorded the changes in his human interest images.
Bhatt’s essay is a history of Little India in miniature. In it, he notes the changes that globalization and commercialization have made on Little India and the differing work ethics of the elders and the younger generation. In doing so, he quotes several of the older residents’ views of the changes. Although some of them do indeed despair of Little India surviving as a vibrant—rather than tourist—community, others hold a more positive attitude. The World Heritage Site designation ensures that at least the physical vestige of the place will be preserved.
Ooi’s photographs, primarily of residents plying their trades on the street or in open-air shops some three decades ago document what for the most part can no longer be appreciated in living reality. A theme of the two introductory essays is that visitors, tourists, and the younger generation might not have a sense that what they experience in Little India is not as it always was, or even as it was in 1979 when Ooi made these photographs. But that is true of all places and all times, except perhaps in Disneyland.
In his ten-page essay that precedes the presentation of the photographs, “Power in Image: Ooi Cheng Ghee’s Bigger Picture,” Gareth Richards, a photographer and the editorial associate for the production of this book, details Ooi Cheng Ghee’s modus operandi as a photographer on the streets of Penang and his motivation. Having grown up in a nearby neighborhood, Ooi sensed that Little India was in a downward spiral. Ooi’s impulse, states Richards (p. 9) “...was simply to document what he felt was passing away and to understand why this was happening.” Ooi himself notes that “It took many visits before I started to be aware of the sparks of vitality and activity which I had initially missed (p. 9).”
The “bigger picture” referenced in the title of Richards’s essay is Ooi’s belief, which he appears to have developed from studying the New York photography of Paul Strand, “...that photography could be used to reform society (p. 12) and Ooi’s own vision of images “...as compassionate observation linked to the desire for political and social change (p. 12).” He was motivated in large measure by a passion to document an enclave that “as a whole, was intent on building its future while wiping out many traces of its past (p. 13).” Richards reveals that in 1979 Ooi stopped taking photographs after his cameras were stolen and as he came to realize that no one was interested in his creations. We are fortunate that Ooi saved his images so that, when times changed and his photos were recognized as both documentation and art, the photos were still available. Of his 4,000 images, 160 have been chosen for inclusion in this book. The book was published just before I saw the framed images in Penang, where huge crowds were enjoying them as they recognized many of the human subjects. In a sense, Ooi has “repatriated” the photos to the Little India community.
What we could not know without reading the essay by Richards is that the photographer went again and again to Little India in the course of a single year and talked to his subjects. His photos exhibit a sensitivity and closeness that might not have been possible without actually engaging the people. We also learn that as a medical practitioner, Ooi looked at the whole person. Thus, some of the most engaging images show people’s backs rather than their faces. Each of the twelve sections of the book (such as “places,” “wheels,” “street life”) is preceded by a short explanatory essay by Gareth Richards that in a few paragraphs explains a great deal about the local context of the photographs.
Both of the introductory essays focus somewhat on Ooi’s photographs as visual documentation of the despair of people as they are being left behind in a gentrifying Penang. But if we view the photographs separately from the essays, that despair is not evident. Rather, we see portraits of Penang’s hard-working ethnic Indian population going about their work and their leisure some three decades ago. Richards devotes quite a bit of his essay to interpreting Ooi’s intentions, motivations, and influences, derived from conversations with Ooi himself, but there seems to be a disconnect between what we are told motivated Ooi (other than his passion to document a quickly-changing community) and Ooi’s photographs themselves. How these photographs achieve Ooi’s goal of employing his images to reform society is not explained in the accompanying essays, nor is there any stated rationale for the need to reform the society of Little India. That reform and preservation can be opposing forces is not explored in this book.
Interpreting photographs is always a tricky undertaking. Even though Richards defines the images in this book in his essays preceding each section, the photographs are of course open to other interpretations by other viewers. This is not to challenge the interpretations of Richards or the intentions of Ooi but to acknowledge that we can interpret the images through the lens of our own sensibilities.
The photographs themselves are expressive and expertly focused, lighted, composed, and framed. Each image, one to a page, is printed in warm tones and accompanied by a very short caption that adds little of significance to their identification, but thumbnail images with fuller descriptions are at the back of the book. The images in the book appear to have lost some of their clarity resulting from the negatives having been digitally restored after two decades of storage in a drawer in the heat and humidity of Penang. A map facing p. 1 puts Little India in a geographical context that anyone not having been there could hardly fathom otherwise.
Portraits of Penang: Little India is very well produced. Areca Books has done good service in making these otherwise unknown photographs available to a wide audience in an approachable format.
Lest it be thought that this book alone visually documents 20th century Penang, mention must be made of the efforts of the Penang Heritage Trust (www.pht.org.my/) to document and preserve the history of the settlement founded by Sir Francis Light in the late 18th century and to promote its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Also significant are the illustrated publications on Penang’s heritage by local historian Khoo Salma Nasution, including Heritage Houses of Penang (2009), Sun Yat Sen in Penang (2008), and, with Malcolm Wade, Penang Postcard Collection 1899–1930s (2006).
Portraits of Penang: Little India is an important book. There is no comparable visual record of a working-class ethnic community in Malaysia. The images are stunning as art and evoke empathy, and are equally valuable as historical documentation. What Ooi Cheng Ghee has captured are views of life that the ordinary person might not see, or might see but ignore, not realizing, as Ooi did, that the opportunity to experience those aspects of daily life cannot ever be encountered again.
All images except the book jacket were provided by Ooi Cheng Ghee and are used with his permission.
Raymond Lum is Librarian for Western Languages and curator of historical photographs in the Harvard-Yenching Library, Harvard University. He is Reviews and Resources Editor of the TAP Review.