Portraits of Penang : Little India

I was invited by a friend to a photography exhibition at the Galeri Seni Mutiara, The Whiteaways Arcade over at Beach Street. This place is located right above Old Town Cafe… just head on up a small spiral staircase from within the cafe. The exhibition was titled “Portraits of Penang : Little India” by Dr Ooi Cheng Ghee.

Looking at images from the past, especially places that you know & where you grew up is like a journey I hadn’t imagined before I walked into the exhibition hall. It not only takes you on a path of rediscovery but it was more like a journey through time back when things were much simpler. While for some of us, a photograph is but a flat 2D image, to me it was simply a moment in time when Penang’s Little India was in its full glory. Imagine yourself immersed in that moment in time, the smells of Indian spices, the hustle & bustle of traders along the narrow streets… it must have been truly a spectacle. I was but a boy that time & remember going to Little India in those days. What Dr Ooi captured with his Leica M4 with a 35mm lens is something quite extraordinary & none like I remembered nor imagined it would be seeing his photos for the first time.

On our way out, we bumped into Dr Ooi himself coming in! It was truly a privilege meeting him in person, something we had not expected. What was even more fascinating was his friendliness & generosity… he was ready & eager to share with us the history of the making of this remarkable photo essay on the life in old Little India. Wow! A personal private tour of the exhibition by Dr Ooi himself!

He went on to explain about how he took up photography & how he came to take up social documentary photography as a very unique form of photography at the time especially in Penang. For the course of an entire year in 1979, he captured some 4000 images in this place of which 160 are seen restored in a sepia like black & white prints in his book, Portraits of Penang : Little India.

He pointed out to us the little things that we missed the first time around. From things like his own reflection on one of the images he captured, to the meaning of why he used the image of the man holding the glass of tea as his book cover. What really dumbfounded us was the 5 years he spent tracking down the people in his photographs in hopes of putting meaningful captions for them. And here I just wrote an article about the Words that matter in a Photograph!!

The afternoon spent there was awe-inspiring & it was truly an honor meeting Dr Ooi in person. I got myself a personally autographed hardcover of Dr Ooi’s book. It retails for RM100 but I think it’s money worth spent! For serious photographers, I truly recommend this book to them.

The exhibition will run from May 13 until May 31 from 11am to 6pm daily. Admission is free. I highly recommend it to friends & family!

I leave you with some links to learn more…

Link to Facebook page
Link to The Star Online article

Perhaps my favorite photo from his entire Little India collection. Called, “By the light”… you need to see the original print to truly appreciate it!


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