Daydreaming in the city

Questions and answers from an interview with an online and print magazine on my work in Kuala Lumpur.

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1.     Have you always lived in KL?

Actually no, I grew up by the beach in Kuantan, far away on the other side of the TItiwangsa Range. All though my schooling years, Kuala Lumpur was like a dream. Skyscrapers, highways, trains, shopping malls, flying cars, 2020, KL was the promised future of Malaysia. Like most rural areas at the time, to leave home and make a career for yourself in the big city was the ideal dream. As I began to do more freelance work, my move to KL was both incidental and inevitable.

2.     What prompted you to dabble in visual arts and photography?

Just like how we take photos of an event as a way of remembering, I have always felt a need to record my environment, wherever I am. Even while growing up in Kuantan, I would go everywhere on my bicycle, photographing subjects that I felt was in danger of being forgotten.

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As I began spending more time with archival material: books, maps, letters, all fragments of the past, not only did I realise how much things were changing, but I also became conscious of the act of documenting itself. Someone, at some point in time, made an effort to record all these things we now used as a reference material.

So much of what we know about ourselves today was produced during the British colonial period. If we don’t observe and document our contemporary selves, then will we ever have anything to look back on say 50 years into the future? Or are we doomed to continue framing ourselves the way others have done a century ago? Without sustained additions to the archive, we will continue living in the long shadow of Colonial 19th century.

We have so little material about how we are today and there is a real danger of collective amnesia. This is why I have always employed an ethnographic approach in my work, making observations of seemingly random, mundane things, for it is the trivial of the present that reveals changes in the future. Photography became the most appropriate medium for both creation and consumption.

Whenever I feel estranged or exhausted in the city, that I am close to being swallowed up whole by its incessant demand for everyone to hustle, compete and win at the expense of the other, I think about those three boys. And the value of fifty cents.

3.     What are some of the interesting places you’ve documented in KL?

Camera in hand, I started with simple projects which felt immediate, like photographing the old houses on Jalan Tallala. The more time I spent in the city, the more strangers I met, and this gave birth to more stories. There is no fixed format or medium; text, photography, video, oral history, these considerations all come after deciding on a story, not before. Homeless in Kuala Lumpur is a photoessay on a happy homeless man who lived in the now-demolished Pekeliling Flats. Over time I began writing longer pieces; the history of kopitiams, an oral history project on Pudu, and even something as small as life on Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, which was my first feature shot entirely on a smartphone. One of my first documentaries was The Apprentice, a short piece on Mr. Low who still runs the legendary Pak Tai Photo Studio on Jalan Sultan. I approached these subjects as gateways into understanding the larger narrative of what KL means to different people occupying very different spaces within a multi-layered city.

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I also worked on documenting the history of the old standalone cinemas, which resulted in a feature article (A Long Goodbye) and a short documentary (Portrait of an Invisible Man) on the last working analogue film projectionist in KL. From then on, I think my projects somehow grew larger in scope. I worked on a year long project documenting life along all seven tributaries of the Klang Valley riverine network. My most recent documentary, Nine Stories, documents the social history of living in and around Selangor Mansion.

4.     Could you share an interesting/unforgettable story with us while you were working on one of your KL projects?

So many to choose from, but the most memorable was perhaps that one time when three boys approached me on the streets in Ampang. Still in their primary school uniforms, they were hesitant, and finally the eldest mustered enough courage to step forward. “Uncle, ada 50 sen tak?”, he asked. Instinctively I wanted to say no, convinced it was all part of an elaborate scam. But fifty cents was hardly worth the effort. I asked them what for and they explained about the bus fare back home and they were short exactly fifty cents, while pointing at the youngest one who stared silently at the road. I offered much more, just in case they might need it, and they insisted on only needing the exact amount. I handed the eldest a big fat lima puluh sen. “Terima kasih uncle” he said, and raised my hand to his forehead. The other two waited in line for their turn to salam.

I walked away with a big smile, wondering about the kind of people they would grow up to become, and if they will ever remember this moment as much as I did. Whenever I feel estranged or exhausted in the city, that I am close to being swallowed up whole by its incessant demand for everyone to hustle, compete and win at the expense of the other, I think about those three boys. And the value of fifty cents.

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5.     How would you describe the role of a filmmaker and documentarian in modern times? (eg: objective observers, etc.)

Nostalgia is a good starting point for us to start talking about history, but we have to be empowered to move on beyond the familiar. And to dig deeper. We must be able to see ourselves as agents in documenting our own history. It has never been easier to produce documentaries and yet we are only interested in entertainment.

By deciding to engage with anything historical, I feel there is an innate responsibility to be conscious of what others have done in the past, and to continue building on it rather than just repeating what has already been said. By its very nature, documentary work must have an agenda to create a record of a particular subject in a period of time, and subsequently presented in a manner that is accessible to be both consumed and understood. Oversimplified narratives that rely solely on nostalgia and entertainment benefits no one, and only perpetuates the idea that everything must be entertaining to be of value in our society. Entertainment has its place in mass media and should not be conflated with documentary work. We will only end up being a confused society, unable to separate fact and fiction, and worse still, one that wholeheartedly welcomes fiction as fact.

6.     Do you think our city authorities are doing enough to preserve our heritage? If not, how else can we improve?

Heritage is about continuity, not just holding onto past legacies, and refurbishing old buildings. We are in a desperate need of a long-term heritage preservation masterplan that exists within a larger ecosystem, and not piecemeal standalone programmes dependent on private and corporate sponsorship. And this masterplan that’s put in place must be allowed to be implemented to its completion (with reviews), and not have its goal posts shifted endlessly with each incoming mayor or government. Every subsequent generation should be able to see themselves as active participants, and continue to build upon what is already there.

I wish the focus would move away from what KL should look like, and towards what the city should feel like. Rasa. Not rupa. If it feels right, then it will look right. A healthy, vibrant city is one that is lived in, not looked at from afar. The way we think about Kuala Lumpur has to go beyond  an image that needs to be spruced up with decorative trees and colourful musical fountains, and instead to start building the KL we want in 50, 100 years. Maybe then the people who actually live in the city can feel that programmes implemented are indeed in their best interest, and begin to have a sense of ownership over the urban landscape that they themselves make up.

7.     What did you learn about KL and its people throughout your years of documenting the city?

KL is fluid, constantly changing. The urban landscape is a direct result of an ongoing osmosis of ideas, people, culture from all over the world. Any attempt to fix its defining parameters would only seal its death as a living, organically dynamic city. And by this I mean putting culture and heritage into stasis by locking its definition and parameters, without room for growth and change which is how it came to be in the first place.

Comparing old photographs might tell you that the face of the city has changed considerably, but look deep enough and you’ll see how everything that’s happening today is not that different from Kuala Lumpur at the turn of the century. Profit making remains the key driving force in moving the gears of the city. Ask anyone in KL why they are where they are, and the answer would almost certainly be “Mencari rezeki”.

It’s the same script, but with different actors.

Personally, I feel every bit an outsider today as I was a decade ago, stepping off the bus into the darkness of Pekeliling Bus Terminal. As much as I function within it, and continue to produce works about it, I am never of it. And in an immigrant city like KL, that’s perfectly fine. The joy of discovery is not in seeing new things, but in revisiting already familiar places and seeing how things have changed. Only then do we have a sense of belonging and rootedness in the city. Or in any other place for that matter.