There is a photo shop on Jalan Sultan. In the heart of Chinatown, it stands in a decrepit colonial row, embedded between a pet shop and a silver trader’s. The name of the shop, Foto Pak Tai, hangs below a much bolder blue sign that spells out “Konica” in retro lettering. Konica, the Japanese photo company, no longer exists. But Foto Pak Tai is still in business – just about.
I had passed Foto Pak Tai many times before, knowing it as the place where my parents had their wedding photos taken over thirty years ago. More recently, I grew curious about how such a place could survive. We live in digital times, snapping photos with our smart phones in seconds, and deleting them just as quickly. Once upon a time, people used disposable cameras: now, it is our photos that are disposable.
Outside Foto Pak Tai, there’s a clouded glass screen that displays the kinds of memories we would have once enshrined. Graduations, weddings, family gatherings. But now, the photos look dated and faded. As I approach the slip of a doorway, I see an old man fiddling with the lock. “Are you closed?” I ask him in Chinese. He shakes his head, telling me that he’s just opening. So I follow him up the dark stairs, treading a carpet matted with layers of black dirt and age.
At the top of the stairs, there’s a cramped room cluttered with photo frames. Dusty families are captured immortally against a blue background, their smiles fixed as samples. Tacked onto the wall, meanwhile, are row upon row of police photos. To the side, there’s a mirror and some old fashioned combs, and a rail hanging with jackets for those who want to smarten up for their shoot. The only problem is that the jackets look like they haven’t been touched since the 80s.
I venture into the photo studio, which is dark, apart from a single square of skylight. What strikes me is the surreal mural on the back wall: a dreamlike vortex involving a pair of doves. It must have been painted years ago as a backdrop for wedding photos. I wonder how many couples have come to this room over the decades, readying their faces to be frozen in a moment they can keep forever. I wonder how many of their marriages have outlived this shop.
“Was there anything in particular that you wanted?” the old man calls to me, from a side room. I tell him I just wanted to look around, that I’m curious to find out about the place. But he deflects my questions. “There’s nothing much here,” he says. “There’s nothing much here.” After I persist, he eventually reveals that the shop has been open for 60 years, and he has worked here for 45 of them. But soon, he tells me, it will close. He doesn’t know when.
The old photographer squints at a MacBook while he talks to me, surrounded by the debris of pegs and paper clippings. The ceiling is peeling in a spectacular fashion, every inch of plaster curling up. When I say that it’s a shame they will close after so many years of business, he just shakes his head. “It’s just practical, he says. “Who would want to come to a place as run down as this?” Now, he tells me, their main customers are policemen who come to take their portrait photos. Young people “like me”, he mumbles, don’t come here.
I ask whether the MRT development plans have affected the owner’s decision to close. “Possibly,” says the photographer. “Some of the old buildings around here are going to be affected.” But he also points back to the obvious problem of sustaining a photo business in this day and age. After all, even Konica, the Japanese brand they once franchised, has gone bust. The company, which pre-dated Kodak, merged with Minolta in 2003. Soon after, they sold off their photography businesses.
Intrigued by the survival of other photo shops in KL, I decide to pay a visit to another Konica shop that I’ve spotted on Jalan Batai in Bukit Damansara. When I get there, however, I find that I’m already too late. Below the signature blue sign, I see only flowers. “It closed years ago,” the lady tells me, from within the florist’s shop that now occupies the space. “But if you’re looking for a photo shop, try across the road.”
I follow her directions to Plaza Damansara and find what I’m looking for in the shadow of Menara Millennium. It’s a Fujifilm shop called Photo Zone. In the shop window, there’s a poster proudly proclaiming that our Prime Minister has had his visa photos taken here. Inside, things are looking quite lively, and I seek out the owner – a Mr. Chong, who has run the shop with his wife for the last 12 years. I ask him how business is going.
“Things are ok,” he tells me. True to their VIP claims, the shop has a good reputation. Mr. Chong has been careful not to lower quality despite the extra cost, and so he often finds that people come back – especially from the business and government sector. Their main business is in passport and visa photos, and he tells me that there will usually be a spike in customers before holidays. Still, “a lot of places haven’t survived,” he confides.
“The decline of film photography was much faster than anyone expected,” Mr. Chong explains. “Especially after Kodak decided to stop making film.” Now only very few people – 30 to 40 per month, he estimates – bring film to be processed at Photo Zone. Mr. Chong adds that he is considering out-sourcing all film photography in future, as they already focus primarily on digital processing. Yet the shop still sells rolls of film, as well as batteries, photo frames and albums.
Mr. and Mrs. Chong
“People don’t realise, but when you keep your photos on your hard drive, it’s not secure. You could have a virus that wipes out everything,” says Mr. Chong. He tells me that he encourages people to print their photos, in order to keep cherished memories safe. The message seems to be getting through – especially among artsy young people. “In the last few years, there’s been a revival. Young people are getting into lo-mo photography, experimenting with film. I guess they think it’s more fun,” he says.
This analogue ‘backlash’ has given Mr. Chong hope, and he is fairly certain that he can sustain his business in the next few years. But other photo shops across the city may not be so confident. As technology develops, these photo shops will either diversify into other businesses or slowly fold. Once, it was normal for families to make an occasion of visiting a studio for a portrait every few years. Now we capture and upload our most intimate moments on a daily basis. Of course, we can’t stop progress – but we can at least give pause to what we are losing in the process.
Four passport photos – RM14
Instax Mini 7 Instant Camera – RM220
Fujifilm Xtra Superia 400 film roll – RM15
Available at Photo Zone, Level 1, Block B, Pusat Bandar Damansara, KL