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GEORGE TOWN, Sept 12 — At 7am, the Nasi Kandar Beratur restaurant was serving the last of its customers; the pots and trays that were filled to the brim with curries when they opened at exactly 10pm the night before now practically dry.
A few diners were focused on their plates of rice coloured with fiery reds and oranges, while another group that had gathered in front of the popular eatery was there for a different reason.
Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and each with a camera slung around their necks, they are participants of the Heritage Photowalk & Cafe Crawl, part of last month’s George Town Festival (GTF) 2014.
The rest of George Town was just waking up, whereas this group was raring to go and continue where they had left off about 12 hours ago. The two-day event was designed take photography buffs through the city’s architectural and artistic gems, found among its labyrinth of small lanes, historical buildings and traditional businesses.
All of that translates into veritable photo opportunities, making this UNESCO-listed zone an ideal subject matter for one to point and shoot.
Organiser Caffa Asia is a Kuala Lumpur-based company that specialises in coffee-related branding and marketing events such as the Coffee & Art Fringe Festival Asia, which debuted at Publika last year.
Co-founder Karen Khoo had seen the potential in George Town’s booming coffee cafe scene and being a Penangite, she jumped at the opportunity to be a part of GTF. Her business partner Sasya Ahmad suggested roping in respected street photographer Maxby Chan to lead the walk.
Sasya had met Maxby on a Photosafari Experiences (PMPE) trip, one of several that takes place each year among members of photography forum PhotoMalaysia.com and are open to shutterbugs of all levels.
On top of being an administrator of the forum, Maxby teaches, writes and gives talks on photography, film processing and printing. He also conducts street shooting walkabouts and leads the PMPE trips, usually in far-flung locations involving off-the-beaten-path sojourns.
Coincidentally, Maxby is also a Penangite so things fell into place comfortably. On Day One, the walk began at Yeng Keng Hotel and moved to Lorong Stewart, Jalan Muntri and Love Lane — a hunting ground for murals and wire art, steel rod caricatures by Sculptures at Work that capture each street’s history.
The cafe crawl portion of the walk also covered several cafes that were supporting GTF 2014, including Mugshot, Twelve Cups and China House. The group split up after lunch, to rest and recover from the heat before reconvening for sunset watch at Fort Cornwallis, Malaysia’s largest standing fort that was built in the late 1700s along the promenade.
Unfortunately, the skies chose to open up that evening and rained on the photo parade, but it didn’t dampen spirits, which were still high on the second morning as the group left the nasi kandar restaurant and made its way along Lebuh Armenian. The first order of the day was to catch the sunrise from Chew Jetty. Most households, wooden homes built on stilts and populated by over 1,500 residents, were still asleep while some cafes and little souvenir stores had just started their business day.
The walkway, the longest among the clan jetties, was thinly carpeted in water from last night’s downpour. We stepped gingerly around the puddles as we went along, stopping every now and then to snap shots of interesting details. The money shot, however, awaited at the end of the plank path where a Taoist temple stood looking out to sea. The skies were clear with little clouds and as the yellow orb floated above the horizon, its rays turned the waters a sparkling gold. In the distance, ferries were leaving the Weld Quay terminal.
Pointing to the small fishing boats that were moored to the jetty, Maxby regaled the group with stories of Penang past. “Up until the mid-1960s, you could still see huge fishing trawlers here,” he called. “That was, until a big fight broke out among the fishing community. The coastal fishermen were angry that the trawlers were sweeping up everything from the sea floor and leaving nothing for them. They surrounded the trawlers in their sampans until the trawlers agreed to leave.” According to Maxby, the latter then moved their fishing base and their families to Pangkor Island.
Maxby may have moved his own base to Kuala Lumpur years ago, but returns to Penang often enough to be able to observe the numerous changes that have taken place in recent times. The way he sees it, the ongoing heritage conservation efforts make good economic sense. “It’s getting harder to create jobs for the market. Heritage conservation projects in Penang have become a new economy that produces new job opportunities.”
With his background in property development and construction, Maxy has an innate sense of the built environment so it’s not surprising that as a photographer — which he only took up seriously after his retirement five years ago – his focus is on street scenes. For this Photowalk, he opted to bring his Ricoh GSR Mount as he wanted a camera that had a fast focusing feature. “With street photography, you often only have a fleeting moment to capture a scene or a person’s expression,” he explained.
And did you know that your camera straps can double up as a tripod? Maxby showed how it’s done: Hold your camera in front of you, stretching it as far as the straps would allow. That will keep the camera steady enough and make it easy to pan, letting you take shots without worrying about blurry effects.
From Chew Jetty, we legged it to another famous heritage icon, Khoo Kongsi and who better to be our guide than Karen, a 48th-generation Khoo? Karen gave us a brief background of the Kongsi’s history and showed us around the quaint museum located next to the temple. Of particular interest was a monochrome wall of Chinese characters in lit-up grids, which highlighted the pre-determined middle names for each generation. Karen pointed to the box marked for her generation. The Chinese character shown read "Kah" and accordingly, that is Karen’s middle name.
Being able to share part of her personal heritage and do her bit to promote her hometown were part of the reasons Karen was so keen to be a part of GTF. “I didn’t realise that Penang had so much to offer until about two years ago, when I visited China House for the first time,” she revealed.
“I was really impressed by what they had done and then I noticed that more and more trendy cafes were popping up.” As a local, she admitted, these parts of town were not usually on her agenda whenever she returned to Penang as they’re tourist attractions. “Doing this has helped me rediscover my own roots — can you believe that was my first time at Chew Jetty this morning?”
Echoing her thoughts were Ruby Leong and Peter Chan, who joined the Photowalk to learn more about the city they still call home. “Of course we’d been to all these places before, but we don’t usually walk around town as tourists do,” said Ruby. This Photowalk appealed to them as it gave them a reason to haul themselves out of bed early on a Sunday and to explore all these familiar spots in greater detail while practising their photography skills.
The two of them have been ardent supporters of GTF activities since the inaugural instalment in 2010. “We’re very proud of this annual festival,” said Peter. “Ten years ago, if friends asked us where they could go or what they could do, we would be at a loss. Nowadays, there’s so much to see and do in George Town, with art popping up like mushrooms after the rain.” Ruby pointed out that international performers don’t usually come to Penang but thanks to GTF, there are so many world-class shows that one can catch over a one-month period.
In that, Caffa Asia has met their objectives in organising this unique Photowalk: To introduce and promote Penang and its cafes, and to let people enjoy photography from new angles. “Whenever we organise an event, we want it to have value for people,” said Karen. “We would love to do more of such walk, perhaps one that’s more coffee-related.”
* Vivian Chong is a nomad and foodie who documents her travel and lifestyle adventures at http://thisbunnyhops.com