Abdullah bin Johar, retired army barber, Pekan Sungai Besi, Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Kenny Loh.

“Nowadays when we drive on highways we don’t see this side of life, these interesting characters. I was wondering, are they still there or have they moved on? We often bypass these people and don’t realise they are there.”

Kenny Loh had just come back to Malaysia after almost twenty years when he got the idea for what would later become Born in Malaysia. Struck by the changes in his home country, he decided to document ordinary people, many working in trades that were in danger of disappearing. “I met these people – barbers, people making tin cans by hand, and I realised this is a spectrum of what Malaysian people are,” says Kenny.

Now published as a book, Born in Malaysia contains over a hundred photo portraits. Collectively, they show the diversity of our country through its many faces: joyful, stoic, hopeful and serious. The project was supposed to take ten months; in the end it took three years.

Kenny travelled to all parts of Malaysia, without a set plan, just talking to people and hearing their stories. “I would drive for hours and then go by boat for to Sabah and Sarawak. But to do a book without the orang asli or tribes like the Kadazans wouldn’t have been real,” he says.

“I think most Malaysians are very hospitable people. When I was in Kota Bharu, I was invited into Malay homes when people saw me taking a picture. And there was a Kedai Runcit guy in Pahang, every time I visited him, he gave me something to take home. Most subjects became friends.”

Not wishing to intimidate his subjects, most photos were taken with a small camera like a Fuji X100 and a Nikon D4. “I pretty much used any camera I could lay my hands on,” Kenny laughs, adding that it was very different from his commercial shoots. For the books, his notes were reworked by writer Tan Joo Lee and the photos arranged by designer Allie Hill.

As Kenny sees it, Malaysian heritage is not just old buildings and artefacts but people, and we have far more in common than we might think. “We all work hard, we want to give our families a better life. This book is about these unsung heroes. These are not celebrities but simple Malaysians.”

Interview by Ling Low

Chan Kin Wah, second generation watch and clock repairer, Melaka. This was one of Kenny’s most memorable encounters: “I love the watch repairer because he’s preserving our heritage. He had something to say: I repair old watches, why can’t we repair old buildings the same way?”

 

Nur Azmina Burhan, professional hairstylist and volunteer with PERTIWI, Kuala Lumpur. Nur Azmina gives free haircuts to the homeless, accompanying PERTIWI volunteers when they venture out to distribute food in KL.

 

Goh Kwooi Thai, Diva, Chinese Opera Troupe, Ipoh. “Madame Goh was apprenticed to an opera teacher in Kuala Lumpur at the age of 14. She recalled how according to custom, the teacher first had to ask permission from her parents.”

 

Muhammad bin Rosli, Emok bin Rahmat, Jericho a/l Jamal and Razis a/l Jamal, Tras, Pahang. Kenny met these children when visiting an Orang Asli village with NGO workers from SEMOA. SEMOA (Strategic Education Methods & Ongoing Advancement) is dedicated to running schools for Orang Asli children.

 

Thirunavu Karusu a/l Krishnan, second generation barber, Ipoh. Thiru remembers Kenny as a young customer. “I used to have my hair cut at Star Salon as a boy, sitting on a smooth wooden plank placed across the armrests of the barber’s chair. Today, that barber shop is no more.”

 

Eu Yeok Siew and Low Teng Lei, proprietors, and Karen Choo, manager, of Ren i Tang in George Town, Penang. These hoteliers have breathed new life into an old building: “This graceful building once housed Yin Oi Tong, which was established in 1796, making it South-East Asia’s oldest Chinese medical hall.”

 

Mohd Rudin Sulaimeen, proprietor, Kedai Kopi Din Tokyo, Kota Bharu. “71 year old Rudin is the teh tarik maestro. He has been holding court in his coffee shop, standing behind his unusual U-shaped counter for over three decades.”

 

Wong Chor Lum, owner, Cheong Lee Sundry Shop, Bukit Koman, Pahang. For over 100 years, this sundry shop has been the mainstay of the mostly Hakka community in the neighbourhood. It still uses old fashioned scales.

 

“Mr Wong’s niece, De Yi, is the fifth generation of the Wong family to grow up at the back of the shop.”

 

Hariz, Nurul Iman and Nurul Nayli Alya. These are Pok Hassan’s grandchildren. Pok Hassan is a fourth generation boat builder from Pulau Duyong, Terengganu, a group “renowned for building beautiful seaworthy crafts completely by hand and without any formal plans.”

 

All photos courtesy of Kenny Loh, with extracts from Born in Malaysia.

Born in Malaysia is now available in MPH bookstores. Find out more about the project here.


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