What to expect: Central Market by Hari Ho

Amylia Hilda spoke to Hari Ho on his exhibition which explores the interesting characters behind Central Market’s wet market of old

'Wong Yen Hoon', 2017

Before becoming the tourist hub it is today, Central Market used to be a wet market. And the ‘Central Market by Hari Ho’ exhibition is a showcase of monochromatic portraits of the vendors who worked there before it closed down in 1985. Ongoing until September 10 at Wei-Ling Gallery, the exhibition is the result of Hari’s daily visits to the market to photograph these vendors – some of whom have been around for generations – who bring it to life.

We spoke to Hari to find out more about how the exhibition came to be, the stories behind the images and his personal experiences with the now-closed market

What made you realise this was a project you wanted to get your hands on?

The market was closing and it just seemed like a natural thing for me to do. I’ve been looking at portraiture for awhile and it just so happened that the subjects had no inhibitions, no artificial superficialities; they were just real people who were all really interesting to have as subjects. The project actually started off as a social commentary, because the market was forced to close and there were all sorts of, shall we say, allegations. But soon after it became very much a photography portraiture project because I had moved to Australia with my family and I wasn’t able to pursue it as a social commentary project.

Does Central Market hold any personal significance for you?

I was born in Ipoh and when I was about ten years old, my father relocated to KL. I remember going to Central Market within the first few weeks of being in the city. For me, as a ten-year-old boy then, it was fantastic! It was this huge traditional market that sold produce that every family would require, and just anything at all! I remember walking through the market, and the smells; the poultry section smelled awful, and the smell of the fruit section was fantastic! Until today, I still remember the smell of the imported fruits. This was in the late 1950s and anything that came from outside of Malaya was unusual. For a child like me at the time, it was wonderful!

What kind of medium did you use for the portraits?

The portraits were done on film; I processed and printed the original prints before I left for Australia. Portraits were done on 35s, and the photo I titled 'The Day After' was done in large format 4x5. For this, I broke into the sealed-off market after it was shut down to photograph the silent and abandoned market. 

Was there any particular moment that stood out while shooting the vendors?

Absolutely! There are quite a number of them. They were very friendly to me, and I think because the market was closing and many had been there for generations, it was a big event and there was this sense of occasion. When I first started, I just went there to talk to them; I hardly used my camera. When I started to photograph them, they were quite relaxed because they already knew what I was working on.

There was a man who people in the market thought was crazy, but he wasn’t; he was actually a hardworking person who helped to load stuff from the lorries and whenever he could get some vegetables, he would set up a small stall and sell them. He also collected military knick-knacks; he liked badges and hats and anything that seemed like military merchandise. The day that I was shooting his portrait, he was selling bitter gourd. When I told him I was going to shoot his portrait, he stood up and saluted. I was very happy with it. He actually slept in the market; he had his own little corner where he had a Malaysian flag, toy horses, toy guns and all sorts of military stuff.

There was another man who was very dignified and kind. He’d use his own money to buy leftover fish from the market and he would treat all the cats there. He sold pumpkins, ginger and mostly root vegetables. What was remarkable about him is that he was always dressed in white and his clothes were spotless. When I shot his portrait, he unexpectedly raised his hand and it looked very good. Later, I asked him why he raised his hand and he said that when you meet a friend you either shake his hand, or you hug if he’s a good friend. But when you do a portrait like this, he said he wanted to greet the world; I thought that was lovely.

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