If a picture could paint a thousand words, then Hari Ho’s photographs of the long-gone inhabitants of Central Market’s wet market during its final days would be able to tell their stories at a single glance. Just weeks before shutters rolled down with finality on the wet market or Pasar Besar located at Jalan Hang Kasturi way back in 1985, it was business as usual at the noisy and chaotic, yet irresistibly atmospheric site.
Yet for the intrepid photographer, it was a chance to document the people and their range of responses and emotions: the exuberance, intensity, determination, focus and inevitably, the weariness that reflected the back story of the impending disruption to their way of life.
The cavernous interior of the vibrant market had been a hive of activity for decades with a riot of colours, smells and sounds competing with each other. It teemed with pedestrians, housewives with shopping baskets, wholesalers and retailers scurrying about their daily business. For as long as anyone could remember, the dimly-lit space offered fresh, local and often cheap seasonal produce alongside a slice of local life.
Housed within an art deco-themed building circa 1925 with a remarkable skyline consisting of blue-green coloured Colorex glass muting the heated rays of the blazing sun overhead, the famous wet market’s days were finally numbered. Conspicuous signs hailing its imminent closure had been pasted on grimy walls for all to see. On Sept 30, 1985, the market ceased to operate.
It was the beginning of the end for some, and for others, a chance to carve out a different life elsewhere. For most, it marked the end of the old days and old ways, in line with the surge of developments that would soon assail the city of Kuala Lumpur.
Fast forward 32 years later, these powerful evocative portraitures of ordinary people captured in a moment of history would be unveiled for the very first time in an exhibition aptly titled Central Market.
“Have you ever been there?” he asks me. Without waiting for an answer, Ho proceeds to describe with remarkable clarity the market as he remembers it. “It was an amazing place. You could buy any possible kind of vegetable, fruit and meats. Back then in the 50’s, things were very basic and this market was a treasure trove of produce you couldn’t normally get anywhere else.”
The litany of words trails off and he pauses momentarily before adding half-wistfully: “I still remember the smell of lemons when I stepped into the market as a young boy.” For the Ipoh-born photographer, the wet market represented a wealth of memories that go back as far as when he was just ten years old.
When news broke that the historical market was about to be shut down for good, Ho embarked on a personal project to document the people of Central Market in a series of photographs in the final weeks prior to its closing. He admits to not having a plan at the very beginning. “I was simply taking pictures of the scenes at the market at first before deciding on portraits.”
Taking portraitures of people however, wasn’t something he set out to do immediately. “I needed them to be comfortable with me with the camera pointed straight into their faces,” he recalls. He “hung around” them and built relationships with the plain-speaking, hardworking traders, fish mongers, vegetable sellers and the people who worked tirelessly in the dank interiors of the wet market. Like his inspiration, American photographer Diane Arbus, Ho spent considerable time with his subjects before finding just the right moment to take the best shot, using an ordinary film camera.
“It was the only way I could produce the type of photographs I was aiming for,” explains Ho, adding that he went there every day for many weeks before it was closed. “I’d go there around 4.30 in the morning because that’s when the activity starts,” he recalls.
The sheer beauty of his shots was heightened by the fact he never posed or planned them in any way.
Each caught the drama, wit or joy of the immediate, or “decisive,” moment. “I told them to be themselves, look into the camera and try to find that quiet space within. That’s why you’ll find that they’re looking straight at the camera. They’re not posing; they’re simply being,” he says waving to the stacks of framed photographs behind him.
It’s a far riskier and time-consuming proposition to forgo the manipulated shots and instead view photography as a collaborative venture between two souls on either side of the lens. But Ho points out that the more he took himself out of the picture, the better they became.
Many of his monochromatic portraits show people on their own at a time when they’re not involved in busy communal activities; an almost meditative time when they can stop and think. The portraits are very personal. We see people frozen in time, caught in a private moment and we’re given an insight into a world we don’t usually see.
The 69-year-old photographer speaks of the people captured in his photographs with great reverence and respect. He comes across as a photographer of great empathy; someone who spent time with his subjects and took meticulous notes of their lives and the stories they told for detailed photo captions.
“Here’s Wong Chee Mun,” he points me to a portrait of an eccentric-looking man standing behind a pile of vegetables on the ground, posing with a salute. “People think he’s crazy but he’s not. He’s actually very hardworking and the only one who sleeps in the market at nights.” Smiling, Ho tells me that Wong loads and unloads lorries for a living, sells vegetables and loves to collect military paraphernalia such as toy guns and military badges. “When I took this picture, I told him to be himself. He looked straight at me and saluted!” he recalls with a laugh.
Sifting through the photos, he pulls out another picture — it’s a dapper elderly Indian man whom he identifies as Visvanathan. Says Ho: “He’s a Chettiar (a subgroup of the Tamil community originating from Chettinad in Tamil Nadu, India. Historically, the Chettiars are most commonly associated with the moneylending profession). When I took his picture, he put his umbrella over his arm and posed in this very dignified manner.”
“On the opposite end...,” Ho’s words trail as he pulls out a portrait of a group of young men posing in that affected, chest-puffing style reminiscent of the rockers in the 80s. “This is the ayam gang. They were the chicken processors who plucked, slaughtered and processed chicken meat. As you can see, mati-mati gaya mesti ada! (strive to be fashionable, no matter the cost)” he says, chuckling.
Then there’s the photo of a plaintive-looking elderly man with an arm raised in a wave by the name of Wong Yen Hoon whom Ho declares to be “a very kind man”. It seems this gentleman feeds every single stray cat that live in the market.
Recalls Ho: “He sells ginger, pumpkins and other dry produce.
He’s always dressed in white: white shirt, white pants, and he manages to look absolutely spotless. When I was going to take his photo, he unexpectedly raised his hand in a wave. When I asked him why, he told me that for this portrait he wanted to greet the world.”
“I want to celebrate the banal and show people that the ordinary is exceptional,” continues Ho, telling me that these ordinary people at the cusp of extraordinary times in bustling Kuala Lumpur represented a swath of the country’s population who, in his words, were “pretty wonderful”.
He speaks in a quiet almost depreciating way about his images and body of work — which are as enigmatic as the man himself. Leaving his native Malaysia as a young man to travel and work throughout the US, Europe and Asia, Ho laughingly regales me about his years as a hippie “with waist-length hair” living in communes across the US. “We fought the battles for your generation!” he declares, grinning.
When he eventually returned home, Ho dabbled in various jobs including lecturing in literature, advertising copywriter and as an associate creative director at a Malaysian advertising agency. Still, photography remained a passion that he harboured through the years. “I learnt photography by simply seeing and doing. I spent a lot of money on film and shot hundreds, if not thousands, of photos,” he recalls.
His Central Market project was one of the last Ho embarked on before moving to Australia where he’s now based. Still, it took him more than three decades to finally exhibit them. “I moved to Australia and these photographs ended up sitting in boxes all these years like a piece of unfinished business. I’m quite pleased that they’ve been unveiled at this moment because somehow the timing seems right. Now when you look at them, you’ve got historical context,” he says.
A prolific photographer, Ho’s other works have been exhibited and collected across Southeast Asia, America and Australia. Notable achievements include the Howard Arkley Award 2014, adjudicated by Doug Hall, former Director of Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane and the founder of the Asia Pacific Triennial, Brisbane.
Asked if he has any advice for budding photographers out there, Ho admits: “I don’t know.” A pause before he continues: “I guess if there’s any advice I could give, it’d be for them to learn to see. Forget the technicalities and the equipment; learn the honesty in your seeing.”
Suffice to say, Ho knows what he’s talking about. After all, his ability to “see” culminated in stark, beautiful portraits that give an incredible insight into the lives of the ‘everyman’. Thirty-two years later, their spirit still resonates through these powerful images. As Malaysians look upon their faces now they can feel a sense of pride in the tenacity and hope expressed by the city’s forgotten generation.
WHEN Aug 2-Sept 10
WHERE Wei-Ling Gallery
8, Jalan Scott, Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur
TIME Monday to Friday 10am-6pm, Saturday 10am-5pm