Portraits Of Penang: Little India documents the development of Little India in Penang through the photographs of Ooi Cheng Ghee.

The 205-page coffee table book can be found in major bookstores in Malaysia, or directly through the publisher – contact the publisher at 04-262 0123, e-mail arecabooks@gmail.com or go to www.arecabooks.com.

The following write up on the book was published in Malaysia’s The Star.

Malaysian history through the lens of Ooi Cheng Ghee


A luminous book of photography is the result of one man’s efforts to document part of this country’s history before all signs of it vanish beneath the onslaught of ‘progress’.

MARKET Street was the main thoroughfare that led into Little India from the terminal and jetties on the east side of Penang Island, and the “Seven Point Junctions” – as the Tamils then knew it – became the congregation site for immigrants from mainly southern India over the centuries and decades.

It was from this location that entire groups evolved into a society that recreated an imaginary homeland that opened up to the lens of Ooi Cheng Ghee in Portraits Of Penang: Little India, a luminous 205-page coffeetable book on a community that occupied the island’s boondocks in the 1970s.

Ooi had witnessed incidences of indiscriminate “urban renewal” first hand while he was completing his medical studies in Singapore in the 1960s. Old buildings were torn down to make way for smarter versions and, with it, entire segments of history and heritage were swept into nothingness. Ten years and two children later, the young doctor found Penang in a similar flux of modernisation and was determined to capture its fragmentation for benefit of the younger generation.

Post-May 13, 1969, after the tension of those racially-motivated riots had died down, Penang was busy realigning itself for a pulsating future. Ooi, who had taken up photography in 1969 at the age of 25, was shuttling between shooting Little India and the Chinese clans at the Koay Jetty before they too were compelled to assume altered identities. His photo essay on the daily activities of the tradesman and labourers on the waterfronts between 1980 and 1981 transmuted into his first solo exhibition in 2006 at the Galeri Seri Mutiara, Koay Jetty: 25 Years Apart.

Ooi’s ruminations on Little India between 1979 and early 1981 were codified into Portraits Of Penang: Little India and released last year to immense acclaim. A combination of street photography and portraits, Little India records life’s simplicities, the shared affection and elation of community members along with the hardships that they endured in 160 monochrome plates.

The quality of the prints is near perfect, drenched in the deepness of dark blacks and subtle nuances of barely visible smudges and shadows. When Ooi revealed – in an interview at the gracefully refurbished setting of Penang’s China House last month – that 4,000 such photographs are locked away in his drawers covering over 30 years when the disillusioned doctor withdrew from his pastime, this becomes quite a feat.

Little India is a deceptively austere photobook. It is when we sift carefully through the pages that we discover intimate and insightful images that echo stories from a bygone generation. Gareth Richards’ revealing – if slightly overarching – texts are an engaging mingle of sociological study and Ooi’s personal observations. The prints and narrative make Little India a central work in Malaysia’s social documentary photography.

Photographer Ooi Cheng Ghee worked for a long time to gain the trust of the community he was capturing on film.

“During my time, photo essays were the in-thing (with masters such as Henri Cartier-) Bresson and (W.) Eugene Smith (in prominence). I thought maybe I could do something similar here. It was not so much as going for perfection as trying to be accurate (and) without any preconceived ideas … I never had any preconceived ideas because I had no knowledge of the place (Little India) and (its) people,” discloses Ooi.

“The whole place was quite alien to the setup of Penang or any part of Malaysia … it was like another country. I started to (wonder) why they were there and I sensed that they had imported their whole civilisation into Penang: their customs, occupation and way of living. Who are these people? I mean I know Indians but not in that setting … I was (directed) by curiosity to find out (more).”

Ooi’s initial interest in structures moved on to the characters that made up Little India. He found out that this was a closed group of people and he had to earn their trust and sourced inspiration from the techniques adopted by his heroes in photography and how they helped them blend in with their environment. Cartier-Bresson, for example, is renowned for blackening his Leica rangefinder – the camera that Ooi used – to allow him to anonymously capture his subjects.

“After a while, I realised that it was more than just casual shooting of photos and wanted it to shape up into something meaningful. I wondered what this (project) is going to be (and) before I knew it, I had taken a year’s worth of photography. Every weekend, holiday and whenever I had time after work was spent (at Little India). There were no particular aims or agendas. I just walked around, sat there, had teh tarik and soaked in the atmosphere,” he recalls.

“I wanted to show them that I’m interested in them and (their activities), I’m there not just because I want to photograph them; photography is just (secondary). I talked to them, inquired of their wellbeing and business, bought things from their shops and asked them where they got them. It took a while for them to get used to me.

“That was an aspect (of the photography) that I struggled for very hard. They knew that I would never put them in bad light … (I urged them not to be) let down by their position and (it is not degrading to be) wearing such shirts and assured them: ‘I take you for what you are.’ If you motivate and convince people of your sincerity, you have their backing. Eventually, they alerted me of happenings in the Little India such as festivals and their purpose and guided me to them.

“They were not suspicious because they realised that for this chap, photography is a hobby and he was not (about to) exploit them. I wasn’t going for the drama or the pathos or the ethos … although they were disadvantaged, there was a lot of optimism, adaptability and (positive) outlook on life (amongst the people).”

It was the honesty and compassion of Ooi that came to define his book, Little India. His favourites are filed under the “Betel Nut Workers” chapter for he believes that he is the only person with a full set of photos of the betel nut industry in Penang. Another favourite – and one that encapsulates the photo essay – is “Always On My Mind” under the section “Trades”.

As with most of Little India’s images, it is minimalist but as Ooi points out, that is “the key that opens up the other pictures.” An ageing man is seated in his small sundry store, surrounded by products, and is rolling tobacco leaves. Above him, shrouded in dimness, are rows of pictures of individuals, which he had collected over years, and which represent the single abiding link between his loved ones, thousands of miles away, and him.

“He must have come here to make money and go back and he is probably stuck here because he had not made enough. His dreams (of seeing his family again) may never be fulfilled. But he managed to survive. He is not very happy or very sad but he is pragmatic and is living as best as he can. His dreams are at the back.

“This is not to dramatise or romanticise the situation but that was the whole reality,” Ooi says.

“(This returns) to the question of why I wanted to publish the book. I can only summarise it one sentence: those who lived in Little India, need to remember; those who have not, need to know. They were self-contained, made a decent living, they were not starving. There is no abject poverty throughout the whole book – but they are not well off either. There was always optimism that things can turn better and (a collective desire to) do the best (in the meantime). I wanted to portray that.”

The response to Little India, Ooi says, has exceeded his expectations. He was under the impression that only Indians in Penang were able to recount their roots but friends from Kuala Lumpur called up to congratulate him as well as caution him that he could have stirred up a polemic. This realised his fear that certain members of the public were ashamed of their background; they did not like to know it and avoided it. In a community that is still keen on furbishing falsehood and living in a fraudulence of its own making, this was a valid apprehension.

“There are, of course, people like that in every society but they are in the minority. There were rich people who stayed in Little India and they never stepped into the streets. They go from their house to their (chauffeur-driven) cars and I don’t think they could ever (relate) to the pictures. You cannot change history and I told someone who was not really (impressed with Little India) that even God could not change history.”

Portraits Of Penang: Little India
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