Guess what!

Well its the end of NOv and I haven’t yet achieved any of the things i hoped to achieve this month. The excuses are always valid cause this is not priority. But i am commited to this project and will continue to work at it. At some point it’ll finish and the pics and stories will see light of day! But for now i keep struggling to find the time. Next month is also busy and i have to take some time off to work on some ideas for the Malaysia@50 contest. No No no….not excuses…geez….

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KL Chinatown’s night women

Its about 9.20pm and a slight rainfall dampens the air.

Traders along Petaling Street in Chinatown are bereft of their usual high traffic of shoppers. Their spirit however is sheltered to fight another day… afterall, this is one of their common susceptibilities. From a cluster of tightly packed vendors, someone yells out in Cantonese -“Why must it rain?!”

Tonight I was hoping to gain some insights to street prostitutes operating in Chinatown. If you look closely, they are along the fringes of Petaling street – particularly on the southern end, closer to ATC Law College. The covered pedestrian walkways in front of the old colonial shophouses are rife with hookers.

For weeks now I had been wanting to check out the upstairs of an old shophouse used by the prostitutes. Thats how I met Anna. A lady from Johore in her late 40s. (In fact, all the women working out of this shophouse are older veterans…. in the twilight years of their careers.)

I agreed to rm20 for a suck and fuck. She ushered me up a set of narrow wooden stairs. Light was streaming down from the landing area upstairs. The air suddenly felt so old. I watch as her moving silhouette cast an incredible picture against the shady green walls along the steep narrow stairs. How I wished I had my camera out….but I had to be patient. I cannot allow them to feel threatened. I have to win their confidence and trust.

An elaborately adorned red chinese alter greeted me as I stepped on the wooden landing. There were two other working girls…(also late in their years) and an old chinese man on a stool… I was lead into a 6×6 sq ft room partitioned by thin old wooden boards with an open ceiling. Seriously, every breath you take can be heard!

Anna closed the door and asked me to pay first. She asks for an extra rm1 for the room charge. Then droped it into a half cut mineral bottle. She didn’t flinch when i declined to have sex. I asked some questions and as expected she felt uncomfortable. Within minutes she was asking me to hurry. In between my ‘getting to know her session’ she had to answer a call from her son (whom she says is the reason why she keeps this job)

I ask for permission to take a photo of the room. She agrees but rushes me. I took what i could, remembering that the old man outside may become suspicious at the volume of talking that transpired. Anna leaves the room… I didn’t want her to do that yet…but left with no choice. I asked myself…do I risk it and go out the door with my camera? or play it easy and come back another day (as i have to anyway)

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I walked out of the room with camera safely in my bag. The old man wasn’t there! I had the entire landing to photograph, including the beaming alter and other working girls… But Anna had already started going down the stairs. She was hurrying me to follow. Inside, I cringed at my missed opportunity.

This is the start….I tried to make a deal with Anna downstairs. It was a loose verbal agreement, but she will try and help me another time. The old man was lingering around. He looked at us suspiciously. I might have to appear in slight disguise the next time…ha ha ha
So the story on Chinatown prostitutes will start from here. Last night was the first of a series of ground work needed to document something.

The pictures will come….I hope 🙂

Front page – the Star newspaper

Sorry this is a little out of sync with KLGTU but nevertheless, I just wanted to vent out this opinion>>

Its almost 50 years since we took Malaysian journalism into Malaysian hands. Why do picture editors or even newspaper editors themselves hold on to such artificial branding of our country’s image? (at the expense of our intelligence and cultural appreciation)

How does this picture promote greater national unity and cultural appreciation?!

It doesn’t really! – It merely exposes cultural tolerance, in one miserable picture (worse still, in a political driven function). It gives absolutely no respect to Deepavali itself and displays a superficial link to a supposed Malaysian pride in having a multicultural community. [view picture alternatives]

Please do note that we are not talking about national security here…its only a Deepavali celebration!

Photographers block

After shooting in Chinatown streets for most of last week, I find myself still without a clear direction… of approach …of something to pour focus into… Sure street photography can be organic as I mentioned earlier, but if i wanted more depth in my coverage, I feel that I have to do more…

As i return to Chinatown more often, I can slowly feel that my perception of things around change. From the mysteries of something new, to the boredom of repitition. Its a mixture of “Gosh i am walking down this street again…everything seems the same… hey whats that?…nah…geez what am i looking for?!…” I see potential in subjects but i need to engage them deeper…. i am reluctant to do it…probably because the idea is not dramatic enough? I dismiss it and move on….and the cycle repeats itself…

I would love it if I could just return there more often in a week and just hack at the ideas. Find something. I believe it will always come. But can’t really do that cause of other commitments…so this ad hoc approach also has its effects. But its always going to be like this…probably for the good….cause nothing handed over on a silver plate will ever taste as sweet….

Its Organic

I spent the last 2 days down by Chinatown. Trying to get a feel again, to what KLGTU is about. Sometimes its confusing to put into context what you see on the streets to what the project stands for. Recently, after coming back and analyzing my efforts, I was reminded that this KLGTU project is organic in its growth. Like a living organism – (although the basic structure exists), its final conclusion/output is yet unknown…and that the project grows, together with the extent of the people and the things that I seek out. However, most of the time its left to chance and ‘chance meetings’ are usually the ones that dictate the somewhat organic growth of KLGTU.
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Stumbled by chance….a service like Western Union. Nepali foreign workers busy filling out forms for money repatriation – probably through a Nepali institution incorporated in Malaysia called IME Impex, along Jalan Silang.


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Completely organic. This man arriving in Chinatown and looking for the address to his accommodation. I had chanced upon a pulse of what makes this place tick.

klgtu_15241.jpgThis street in Lebuh Pudu (Central Market side of Chinatown) the birth place of Yap Ah Loy’s KL…has mixed elements that take us back 50 years. Colonial buildings as a backdrop, modern day workers trying to catch a ride home, the new edition of more Rapid KL buses and the infallible recognition of those horrible red plastic chairs (No doubt a Malaysian identity).klgtu_1538.jpg This street hawking couple , has been selling fish and chicken congee since the British days. They were young lovers in their teens when they first opened up their stall. (I marvel at their dedication towards a single goal. Its probably evolved over time, but still unadulterated by modern influences. Most amazingly, they stayed simple and together!) He reminisces about the buildings around and how they used to live just a row behind, but economic development had forced them to move to Cheras some twenty years ago.

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Another Chinatown scene. I feel its totally organic because…unintentionally…it manifested itself. I wasn’t at all looking to shoot people engaged in food preperation.

Gaining Access

Photographers doing documentary work realize how important the ability to gain access is. When you are trusted by your subjects, that position is a passport that allows you to move freely and shoot freely with minimal impact on the events that take place.

Gaining access is crucial even in at the very basic level, because it is what gets you into a position or creates the opportunities for the sought after visuals. Then as the stakes rise – the more access gained the deeper meaning your visuals can carry.

There are many different ways to gain access (depending on what you want and who your subjects are). Here is how I recently approached Kampung Baharu.

Some research has to be done first, to arm yourself with some background information. I then scout the place out by just walking (a lot of walking) and observing. I start shooting the streets and at the same time opening myself to people who have a story to tell. That usually works to an extent.

But usually not enough if you are searching for something more precise. Last week I had just spoken to an editor of a magazine, she wanted story and pictures about the Malay architecture in Kampung Baharu. That was a bonus because its in-line with KLGTU and it helps build me more content.

I visited Kampung Baharu twice. Once at night and another time during the day. It helps me build my own street contacts and give me a feel for the place. I then thought of the probable contacts I have to Kampung Baharu and by shear ‘coincidence’ I recalled Rizman (a driver for someone, whom I shot an event for, two weeks ago.) telling me enthusiastically about his father’s family currently still living in Kampung Baharu. Right, that is one source, but not enough.

I came across sources two and three the subsequent day. Walking the Kampung Baharu streets, I ‘coincidentally’ ran into two owners of hard to find intact Malay styled houses (they were just entering into their homes, of which most others have disappeared or are infused with modern construction designs,) and they were welcoming for me to comeback to take pictures and interview them.

That very same day, I ran into my forth source ‘coincidentally’ yet again. I had brushed past this particular character twice, earlier in the day. Initially it was the longish stares, then quick smiles and nods. Then I bumped into him a third time. He was sitting in a stall just outside his house. He invited me for a drink and past experiences have told me…take the invite…you never know what it may lead you to…so I walked in, smiled and sat down.

Guess who this person turns out to be? The honorary Secretary for the ruling council of Kampung Baharu! Now that blew my mind because instantly I have access to accurate information and can get hooked up with relevant residents through his contacts.

‘Coincidences’ seem to be a dominant power that helps me gain access wherever I go and whenever I need help. What is this ‘coincidence’ phenomena? Is it like the meaning it carries…(a chance encounter with no link to cause and effect) or is there something else more mysterious to it? I guess that discussion will be left for another time eh…?

Street Reflections

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VISA accepted in a mamak shop – Masjid India

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No VISA signs anywhere on a global franchise like this one – Bintang Walk

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Busking is a culture that seems to be gaining popularity. No doubt its globalisation at work…and also revealing its dangers…cause where are the Malaysian traditional instruments?