Born in Malaysia

Updated: 17 Sep 2013

Malaysian professional photographer, Kenny Loh spent almost two decades overseas before returning to find so much has changed about Malaysia. Armed with a camera and notebook, he set out to various cities to rediscover this familiar yet foreign land and it's all documented in his new book, 'Born in Malaysia'. Ahead of Malaysia Day, he shares a tell-all with Cheng Sim.

What does being a Malaysian mean to you?
Sometimes, it's hard to define because we are a mix here and there. When you meet another Malaysian and that person starts talking to you, you just know that's your countryman.

What do you miss most about the old Malaysia you remember?
Back in the days, people do things that they enjoy doing, like the kedai runcit guy. He wakes up every morning, opens the door and nicely arranges things to sell. Nowadays in KL, we walk into a hypermarket with bright fluorescent light and nobody asks, 'Can I help you?'. I miss that but you can still find it in small towns.

What do you think is the current state of our country's heritage preservation?
We do try our best. Of course, there's always someone who say there's a better way of doing things but I also challenge those who say that to step up and contribute. They're usually the ones who look at other people and say, that person is not doing a good job. For heritage, especially, you need good architects to come in as well as designers and craftsmen. I myself contribute a lot of time to NGOs to support the education of orang asli groups but I only have so much time and I do my bit. A small part.

What's your favourite photograph from the book?
One of my favourite is the watch repairer. He sits quietly in his little shop and repairs watches as best as he can. Whenever I visit him in Malacca, he always tell me, 'Why can't we repair our buildings without some crazy colours at the front and just respect tradition?' That would be my favourite photo.

Chan Kin Wah, a watch repairer from Malacca

Which Malaysian town/city inspires you most?
I would say Ipoh because I grew up there. Also, Penang and Malacca because there are so much history and heritage there. You can go there for a day - like I always do - and ended up staying for a few days. There's just so much to discover. I think it's a tie between Malacca and Penang.

When was your last visit to Penang?

Actually about a month and a half ago, I was in Penang to photograph Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng. We had lunch and YB Danny Law was there too. I showed them a mock-up of the book and asked if I can send it to them. They said 'Why not?' I'm hoping to go to Penang and see if they're interested to do a book with me or maybe, a Penang edition. In 'Born in Malaysia', the subjects that I have of Penang are easily more than any other city. In fact, the Chief Minister (CM) asked me a lot of questions about Penang, just to test me.

Kok Ying Chow, a signboard maker from Penang

And your impression of Penang's Chief Minister is...
Funny guy. When I met him, he looked at me and asked, 'Why do you want to take my picture? There are so many pictures of me'. I answered, 'CM, you need an iconic picture of yourself. Like, President Clinton. He has his own iconic picture and when you look at it, you know it's him'. I told him that I'll photograph him from the side, just enough to see his specs and sideburns and people will know it's him. Then, he said okay. When I met him at Dome, he walked in without security and all by himself. He then sat and started talking to me and other journalists. How approachable, I thought.

Do you have a favourite Penang story?
When I walked into a shop on Lorong Hutton, this owner said to me, 'You're in the wrong shop'. Then, I asked why, which he then replied, 'Brother, you tengok lah semua hindi album' (Brother, take a look. It's all Hindi song albums). I said to him, 'How do you know? Maybe I'm looking for something'. He didn't think so and I asked him one thing, 'Do you know Lady Gaga?' Then, he looked at me and replied, 'Who is Lady Gaga?' Afterwards, I mentioned about an Indian artiste from many years ago and he was very excited.

Osman Mydin, a record shop owner from Penang

Lastly, how will you celebrate Malaysia Day?

I'd be delighted to photograph, I'll be photographing something. Whatever. Try to capture how people celebrate the day. To be honest, everyday is a celebration in Malaysia. It may sound a bit cheesy but it is. Just go up to any Malaysian, sit down and spend time talking to them.

'Born in Malaysia' by Kenny Loh is now available at all MPH bookstores.

Tags: Features