KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 18 — Not many have managed to catch the diva putting her face on but photographer Kenny Loh is nothing if not persistent.
Madam Goh Kwooi Thai has been performing Chinese opera for four decades when Loh tracked her down in Ipoh.
Her troupe was performing at a Chinese temple in conjunction with a festive celebration and he managed to catch her at her dressing table.
“These days, only a handful of people, mostly senior citizens, can appreciate her performance and skill,” says Loh who is launching Born in Malaysia, a book of his three-year journey around the country, to commemorate the nation’s 50th anniversary.
From the shopkeepers in grocery shops and kopitiams to hardworking fishermen who head out to sea at dawn, Loh’s photographs and vignettes celebrate “the caretakers of our collective heritage.”
The barber who cut his hair
“The idea for the book came about in 2010. I had returned to Malaysia after almost two decades away in late 2009, and I found everything to be so different now,” shares Loh.
Wanting to capture the story of Malaysia’s fading crafts and craftsmen, he set out on a road trip with his camera and notebook in hand. Along the way, as he travelled across the country, he met other interesting people who weren’t necessarily craftsmen.
“I felt they had good stories too. So the book about craftsmen became a book about ordinary Malaysians. I want to give them a voice,” he says.
Loh was born in KL but grew up in 60s-era Ipoh. He recollects, “My dad was an amateur photographer. When I was six, he gave me a Kodak 110 Instamatic to play with; he wouldn’t let me touch his Nikon F camera. That got me started on photography.”
This continued in his school days when the camera was “one way to meet girls, as I was shy when younger. It helped to have a layer between us when I talk to people.”
This skill came in useful when Loh rediscovered the barbershop where he used to have his hair cut as a child.
Run by Thirunavu Krishnan, a second-generation barber, the Star Air-Conditioned Hair Dressing Salon opened for business in 1927 in Jalan Belfield, Ipoh.
“Sadly today, the barber shop is no more. The entire row of shophouses was sold for redevelopment. I was fortunate to have had a chance to photograph Thiru and his shop before it closed,” says Loh.
Loh had gone to boarding school in the UK but eventually managed to persuade his father to allow him to study photography in the US.
He spent three years in Boston and Providence, apprenticing under established photographer Morgan Rockhill.
“I studied the history, technical and theoretical aspects of photography at school, but it was only with practical exposure that one learns to become a real photographer,” he says.
A successful career in corporate photography followed but over the years, Loh became jaded with manufactured photoshoots. He says, “This project gave me a new perspective. I would just go out without extra lights or equipment. The less stuff I have, the more at ease my subjects feel.”
Loh’s amiable personality helped him capture a loving moment between former weightlifter Tan Kim Bee, who represented Malaya at the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, and his wife of 54 years. “He told me his wife made his shirt and he only wears it on special occasions.”
The project also allowed Loh to observe regular Malaysians doing good without expecting fanfare or publicity. One example was Nur Azmina Burhan, a professional hairstylist who volunteers with PERTIWI by giving free haircuts to the homeless in KL.
He adds admiringly, “She would just set up her stool on some garbage bags by the side of the road. Some of the homeless had kutu or matted hair, but she didn’t care. She would joke with them as she cut their hair, regardless of who they were.”
‘Not less significant’
Loh laments the current emphasis on famous people, “There’s this whole ‘come and look at me’ culture. Ordinary Malaysians may be simple people but they are not less significant.”
By sharing their stories, he hopes that his fellow Malaysians will use the book as a starting point to talk about other Malaysians. “Rather than keeping the books on their coffee tables, I hope their copies will become dog-eared from heavy use.”
Loh knows most of his countrymen can be shy. “I was in Kota Belud, Sabah, talking to Bakar bin Job, a 63-year-old Bajau parang craftsman. His young grandson would hide shyly by his side. His horses were even warier; they kept running off whenever I tried taking a picture of them!”
Despite most of his subjects’ simple professions, Loh found that they are content with their lives and take pride in their work.
“You’d think they would be jaded with their jobs after decades at it, but they’re not. I was taking the ferry at Sungai Bernam, Teluk Intan. The boat pilot was very careful. He told me there are many places where the boat can run aground and his passengers’ safety always comes first.”
‘Berapa kali tarik?’
One of Loh’s favourite stops was Kota Baru, when he dropped by Kedai Kopi Din Tokyo.
Mohd Rudin Sulaimeen, the 71-year-old proprietor, always had a crowd of regulars sitting around the U-shaped counter to watch him “pull” tea.
“He would shout out, ‘Berapa kali tarik?’ (How many times should I pull?) Someone shouted out ‘Enam kali!’ (Six times!), and soon everyone joined in to count down each pull!”
Perhaps nothing else better demonstrates the camaraderie of real Malaysians than this anecdote. Loh nods and says, “I want people to really catch that this is a book about us. This is who we Malaysians are.”
* Born in Malaysia will be available at leading bookstores throughout Malaysia from the end of September 2013.