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High on heights: Keow Wee Loong interview

The photographer and building-climber takes the selfie to another level during his perilous ascents to some of the tallest skyscrapers in the world. We speak to the high-flyer

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Last August, Wee Loong waved the Malaysian flag on top of a high-rise building to wish Malaysians 'Happy Merdeka'

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A vertiginous view of KL

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Fatin Ilani, also known as the 'Gadis Kebaya', held up a 'Save Gaza' placard during her climb with Wee Loong

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Armed with nerves of steel and a Nikon D700, Wee Loong makes his daring ascent

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Ain’t no building high enough for freelance photographer Keow Wee Loong, who scaled to new heights in his recent climbing adventure. Armed with a GoPro camera and clad in just a black t-shirt, a pair of sandals as well as a handkerchief to cover his face, the 26-year-old climbed 32 floors up to the 1 Sentrum Tower rooftop at KL Sentral without a safety harness on June 29. His intention? He wanted to unfold a ‘Happy Ramadan’ placard at the top as a gesture of goodwill to all Muslims before the start of the fasting month.

To some, skyscrapers are best viewed from above, as demonstrated by ‘roofers’ – a community of adrenaline junkies who teeter on the edges of buildings without harness and take photos of themselves to document their achievements. People see these sky-walkers as dangerous and self-aggrandising, but is the death-defying stunt justifiable if it’s for a good cause? Wee Loong tells his side of the story.

You’re a law graduate. Obviously, that’s not as thrilling as climbing skyscrapers and taking photographs in the sky.

I started with law but I ventured into photography full time because that’s my passion. I think it started in April this year when I climbed the tallest tower in Shanghai. There are many buildings in Malaysia with breathtaking views too, but you know, I can’t name them. However, most photographers like to go to Jelatek for good landscape shots.

Do you study the structure of the building before you climb?
What I’m doing is called ‘roofing’. We take photos of the city from above. Normally, I’ll be there a week before I climb, just to learn about the structure and plan my way up to the building. Setting up the tripod to include myself in the photo is the tricky part.

Wouldn’t a sense of self-preservation keep someone from performing such a dangerous act? We’re talking about climbing a skyscraper without any safety aids.

I used to climb many mountains without a harness because I’m a trained professional. I wouldn’t recommend that anyone follow in my footsteps unless they know what they’re doing. It’s only dangerous when someone performs an act without the skills. You can’t just give someone a surgical knife and ask him or her to perform an operation. If you ask a well-trained doctor, the risk is ‘well-managed’. Everything we do comes with a risk.

What goes through your mind when you’re scaling a building so high?
Nothing much actually. I have very high expectations before I climb but the experience is not as fancy as I imagine it to be. All I do is focus and ignore others when I climb. I’ve only gotten stuck once when the police stopped me on the 29th floor when I climbed 1 Sentrum. The police asked for my IC – but how can I put my hand in my bag and dig for my identification when I’m holding onto the building? [laughs] Your photographs of fellow climber Fatin Ilani in a kebaya – who held up placards that read ‘Save Gaza’, ‘Pray for MH370’ and ‘Justice for MH17’ – have received both applause and criticism from the public. How do you feel about getting so much flak when you’re just trying to spread a positive message?
Everything you do in life can be dangerous. Like driving a car, scuba diving and even crossing the street. If we understand the risk, we will know how to avoid the danger. I’ve done many crazy things in my life and I have no regrets, like how I cycled across the mainland of Southeast Asia in 17 days from KL to Hanoi. The 1 Sentrum climb was just a trial for something big I’m planning in the future. Climbing a skyscraper and rock climbing are the same – you’re taking a risk in both cases. The former is perceived as dangerous because you don’t see people climbing a building often. Life is short; I don’t really care what other people say. If you want to do something, just do it.

But you might get caught. Your name is all over the newspapers and Facebook.

People recognise my name but not how I look because I don’t reveal my face. When I was summoned to the Magistrate Court for my 1 Sentrum case [without my mask on], I asked the reporters what was going on that day. They said, ‘Spider-Man is coming’. Nobody recognised me at all. I always believe in contributing back to society. Since we have an awesome city skyline, we might as well bring some positive messages up there. There were a lot of haters who claimed that this is all a publicity stunt but the ‘Save Gaza’ campaign garnered a lot of public attention.

Even though you broke the law?
Yes, I broke the law but if it’s for a good cause and as long as I didn’t hurt anyone or damage any property in the process, I’m okay with it.

Do simple things still excite you? Like cycling?

Anything can be exciting if you bring the ‘adventure attitude’ along. I’m a weird person. I do exciting things that normal people might find a bit too much. I was born in July and I’m a Cancer – a crab never walks straight.

Who do you think is a better climber? The French ‘Spider-Man’ Alain Robert or you?
When I’m his age, come back and ask me again.

Check out more of Wee Loong's stunning photographs on his Facebook page. His photos are also available for purchase.

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