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 KINO IMAGE MAKER 
Guardian of our History
 BY CAPT DR THIRU JR 

What  it  is  about  a photograph  that distinguishes  it from a painting or a sculpture? They are all art in various forms,  each  with  its  own  ability to  reproduce  a  moment  depicting reality  and  making  it  eternal.  But  as Robert  Adams  implies,  unlike  Art, photography  goes  beyond  a  mere abstract  retaining,  in  its  simplicity, a  liberty  that  is  revealed  through composition.

This  philosophy  is  made  manifest in  the  compositions  of  Kuching’s perennial imagemaker, Ho Ah Chon, in  documenting  a  whole  centenary of  the  era  of  the  White  Rajahs. Beyond  Sarawak  alone,  it  helps  the world  revisit  an  important  period  of nostalgia, interspersed with a certain romance, a certain melancholy. From portraiture  to  iconic  landmarks  to panoramic  imagery,  Ah  Chon  shows us that the key is not so much in the telling,  but  in  the  showing.  Images of  a  bygone  black  and  white  era communicate  an  emotion  that,  in  a single glimpse, remains both intense and compelling.

Photographs  document  realities  in an  instant  to  produce  that  moment exactly  as  the  imagemaker  perceived it. Be they a monochromatic depiction of fishermen along the old wharf or a grainy continuity of Fort Margherita’s panorama, I found the essence of Ah Chon’s  work  lies  in  the  reduction  of a  scene  to  its  barest  essentials;  we no  longer  find  ourselves  asking  if that  picture  represents  its  subject  or if  it  captures  the  significance  of  the moment.

The Aurora Hotel, built on the old site of the Union Club, was opened in 1955, Kuching.

 The Merdeka Palace Hotel now stands in its place.

Ah  Chon  is  no  Life  Magazine  era photojournalist,  yet  he  blesses  the viewer  with  an  ability  to  “see”.  You extract  the  substance,  not  just  form. The  black-white  era  has  none  of  the clarity  or  colour  attraction  of  our present  era  selfies  that  are  heavily- filtered,  cropped  and  sharpened.  Yet it’s the very lack of clarity in his photos that frees the viewer from the greatest distraction in understanding a photo’s greater  message.  We  are  free  from the  distractions  of  colour-dependent emotion, contrast and visual intensity that are all extraneous to the essence of the object. As Ted Grant succinctly puts  it:  ‘Colour  photos  shift  focus  to a  person’s  clothes,  black-and-white photos reveal their souls.’ Not  surprisingly,  appreciating  the works of Ho at the State archives also reveals a technical finesse. He appears minimalist,  despite  using  every  tool available  to  promote  his  chosen avenue  in  all  that  technical  marvel  – the  mystery  of  monotones.  Like  any pre-war  photographer,  the  image- maker  relies  predominantly  on  the standard 35mm Kodachrome camera, to produce not just the required shape, line or form but also to conjure the kind of  print  required  from  the  negative. It  is  the  most  unvarnished  medium indeed  to  convey  a  message,  though containing  a  richness  of  panoramic expression even in the most mundane visuals  of  Kuching’s  early  life. 

Ho Ah Chon, 1924- 2007. All photos are original prints from the Ho Ah Chon archive at Pustaka Negeri Sarawak.

Right: The 'Kiosk' also known as the 'Summer House' selling delicious ice kacang.

The gamut  of  human  emotions  present is  difficult  to  describe.  They  range from  a  certain  richness  of  human expression in his portraits, to a certain surrealism in his panoramas. There is also a certain unpredictability in the manner  he  chose  to  reveal  Kuching. His prints swing from one extreme to the other, appearing even deliberate at times.  One  photo  appears  grainy  yet obvious,  with  a  choice  of  low  tones and high contrast. The very next print reveals  the  opposite,  high  tone  and low contrast, to create a lasting image that is clear yet subtle. 

Carpenter Street, Kuching as seen in 1950.

It  is  in  this  way,  that  he  turns  the documentation of the every day into an art form. For me, it seemed as if the image served to approach something irredeemably intimate for the image- maker.  I  was  never  a  photographer and  have  spent  virtually  all  my  life devoid  of  art  appreciation.  Yet  we never  see  it  as  a  human  deficiency. For  most  people,  reading  a  deeper meaning  into  these  things  seems  to circumvent  their  simple  approach  to life:  face  value  and  being  matter-of- fact. So what if I saw an old building? So  what  if  there  was  milky  orb  of moonlight  over  the  setting  sun  over the  Waterfront  horizon?  So  what  if my  eyes  viewed  a  carefree  hawker laughing, completely satisfied with his wares for the day?

Street scene of Gambier Road in Kuching.

To  me,  that  answer  only  appeared at  the  very  end.  I  saw  no  purpose, no  great  calling  but  simply,  a  deep desire  to  visually  capture  something irredeemably  intimate.  An  old  photo has no philosophy. It’s faded, grainy, old and almost translucent, lost in time. But  what  of  memories,  what  of  how we  Kuchingites  perceive  the  past?  It is  perhaps  this  lack  of  purpose  that reveals it. I saw an old black and white image of Kuching’s iconic Waterfront.  But the image-maker saw a lot more, from  the  perils  and  pitfalls,  to  its promise and potentials. Ho Ah Chon’s photography  documents  our  history in a manner than predates the mode or genre itself, seeking to simply expose the  otherwise  unknown,  hidden  or obscured.  And  what  might  be  more unknown,  hidden  or  obscured  than the most mundane? Like  a  good  panoramic  photo,  the essence  in  understanding  the  work of  Ho  Ah  Chon  lies,  literally,  in  the bigger  picture.  No  one  single  image alone tells the story. Looking through his entire work chronologically is how I  eventually  understood  its  singular purpose  as  a  complete  archive  of absolute  historical  significance.  He saw  what  most  of  our  predecessors didn’t, from the elements of a fledgling city  and  its  minute  features  to  its grapple  with  modernity,  almost  an iconographical  investigation  of  what constitutes the soul of Kuching.

The Old Kuching Fire Station along Khoo Hun Yeang Street was demolished during the 50s. Today the open air hawker's market occupies the site.

Ho Ah Chon tells no great truth. He just  shows.  There  is  no  image  of  his equal to the powerful, singular effect of  Alfred  Eisenstaedt’s  ‘The  Kiss’ on  V-Day,  Kevin  Carter’s  ‘Vulture Stalking  A  Child’  or  Jeff  Widener’s ‘Tank  Man’  at  Tiananmen.  Yet  the viewer  cannot  help  but  see  a  certain similarity between Jeff’s iconic image and  the  seemingly  insignificant work of Ho Ah Chon, in the strange realisation that, somehow, both reveal a key message: a belief in courage and ultimately,  the  notion  that  it  is  often not the spectacular, but the mundane that is capable of change.

More than just an image-maker, he is a chronicler.

Capt Dr Thiru Jr is an amateur writer and musician outside his day job flying for a leading airline. A regular Joe from Penang, he currently lives in Kuching with his family, and two demanding dogs.

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