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Monday March 2, 2009

Snapshots for eternity

A visual record of life over the past century in Asia is now on exhibit at Badan Warisan Malaysia.

THE country’s first group of policewomen. A family of immigrants from China. An ice-kacang seller and his 60-year-old ice-shaver. A portrait of a huge family whose offspring are now spread all over the world. They are snapshots of the past preserved for the eyes of the future.

Recognition: Louis Boswell, general manager of AETN All Asia Networks, with grand prize winner Azul and his mother Zaharah.

They are also some of the photos submitted to History Channel’s (Astro channel 555) Photos for the Future campaign, a project that began last November to “create a lasting visual record of life over the past century in Asia.”

Out of hundreds of photographs submitted from Malaysia, History Channel chose 20 winning entries last week, photographs that were deemed to have the best combination of “an interesting photograph, a good story and a fascinating piece of history,” said Louis Boswell, general manager of AETN All Asia Networks.

“We were overwhelmed by the response,” Boswell added. “We’ve been doing this campaign across the region, and almost half of the submissions come from Malaysia. I think we struck a nerve here in Malaysia.”

Attention: Photos for the Future grand prize winner, First Policewomen in Malaysia, submitted by Azul Sidek Adnan of Kuala Lumpur. Azul’s mother, Zaharah Routin Ibrahim, is third from right in this photo taken at the police depot in Jalan Gurney, Kuala Lumpur.

The 20 people who submitted the winning entries were given due recognition at a prize-giving ceremony in 1 Utama Shopping Centre in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, last week. They each walked away with a digital photo frame worth RM500. Grand prize winner Azul Sidek Adnan of Kuala Lumpur won a portrait session worth RM10,000 with photographer Kid Chan. Azul submitted a photograph of his mother with her group of pioneering policewomen.

The winning entries, together with a selection of photographs from Malaysia and around the region, are now exhibited at Badan Warisan Malaysia, Jalan Stonor, Kuala Lumpur.

Photographs may just capture a moment in time, but sometimes it’s the stories behind them that make them fascinating.

Cool contraption: Old Man and his Ice-shaver, submitted by Tham Pei Ting of Kuala Lumpur. The proprietor of this ice-kacang shop in Malacca inherited this 60-year-old business from his father, and the ice-shaver is the same one that his father used.

Boswell picked out the photograph of an immigrant family from China as one of the photographs that caught his attention. The photograph, submitted by Loh Siew Ngan of Petaling Jaya, looks like any old family portrait, but upon closer inspection, one notices that the jewellery on the female members were painted on.

“They were immigrants from China who moved here to escape the civil war,” said Boswell. “They didn’t have much money. But they had their pride and they wanted a nice family photograph taken. As was the common practice in those days, the photographer would offer to paint on the jewellery.”

Pioneering lady cop

Azul, who is attached to Bursa Malaysia, never expected that a simple photograph of his mother as a policewoman would win the grand prize. But, in fact, it is a photograph of Malaysia’s first group of female police officers. His mother, Zaharah Routin Ibrahim, joined the force in 1955 when she was 23.

“At first the male officers couldn’t accept us,” said Zaharah in fluent English. “They probably thought, ‘Women, what do they know?’ (laughs). The lower ranked men were at first reluctant to salute us. They felt that it was awkward to salute women officers. But gradually they got used to us.”

The women officers were put in charge of cases involving women and children.

Precious kin: The Loong Clan, submitted by Karen Loong of KL, shows her grandparents with their children. Her father, four at the time, is front centre, between his parents.

“Anything to do with women and children, the women officers would handle,” she said. “If a woman was murdered, we would be sent to investigate it.”

Zaharah said one of the most memorable cases for her, the details of which she can still recall vividly, was a suicide case in Penang where a woman hanged herself.

“It was the first time I’d seen a suicide victim,” she said. “There were the bulging eyes and protruding tongue. It was very frightening. But gradually we got used to such things, and soon we weren’t afraid anymore. When we got a call for such cases, we would just go.”

Zaharah said the women were paid much less than the men, but since they were such a small group, they didn’t try to fight for equal pay.

However, they received the same training as the men – law studies, firearms training and judo classes.

“I only got to fire a gun at the shooting range,” she said. “I never had to shoot anyone while I was on duty. But in those days, we weren’t given a gun to carry around anyway, not like today. The crime rate back then wasn’t like now. We used to raid hotels, brothels and opium dens.”

After she had her first child, Zaharah quit the force to become a housewife. She had spent 14 years in the force, and was posted to Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Alor Setar.

Asked what made her join the police force, Zaharah smiled and replied: “Curiosity. When it was announced in the papers, I decided to apply to become a policewoman. At the time, I didn’t know what it was all about (laughs).”

Ice over decades

Tham Pei Ting, 33, of Kuala Lumpur only wanted to enjoy the bygone-era atmosphere of the little shop on Jalan Bunga Raya in Malacca, and perhaps a bowl of cendol to beat the heat. Little did she know that the photograph she took of an old man and his ice-shaver would be one of the 20 winning entries.

Tham, who works for Nomad Adventures and was in Malacca recently for an urban race she was putting together for her company, came across the shop while walking along the street.

“There was a stall with glass panes, and the sign just said something like ‘ABC’,” she said. “And it was along a row of shops that were very small and very low. And if you drove past them, you wouldn’t really notice them. That street was also very difficult to walk on as there was no proper pavement.”

So she entered the shop and saw that it was a quaint, antiquated place that had four tables cramped into it and old Coca-Cola glass bottles lining the walls.

“They had square tables and glass panes on top, with the menus in between,” said Tham. “There were many different things, like ice-cream with fruits, that you don’t get in other shops.”

It was only on her second visit to the shop that she struck up a conversation with the proprietor and learned that he inherited the business from his father and that the shop has been in operation for 60 years. The ice-shaver is the same one that his father had been using for decades.

“If I should go to Malacca again, I would definitely go there,” said Tham. “It’s not just because of the ice-kacang there, but also the shop itself.”

We are family

From humble beginnings as a family of 20 in Cameron Highlands, Pahang, Karen Loong’s family is now spread all over the world, from Indonesia and Singapore to Canada and the United States.

Loong, 40, submitted an old portrait of her huge family, which included her father when he was only four. The youngest in a family of 18 children, he is now 74.

Loong said only three people from the photograph are left – her father, her aunt who is now in Vancouver, Canada, and an uncle who lives in Washington DC.

“Very early on, the family members had spread all over and many had died before I was even born,” said Loong. “But I met probably five or six of them. The oldest aunt lived in China. We visited her in Hong Kong when she moved to the island from the mainland.”

Prior to submitting the photo, she didn’t know much about her father’s side of the family. Along the way, she learned that her grandfather was a fishmonger at the Pudu market, and her grandmother was known as “Queen of Mahjong.”

“I was told that she really enjoyed playing mahjong. Maybe she had to keep on winning to subsidise her 18 children!” Loong laughed.

For her, the relevance of the photograph is that it shows how families in the past were able to stick together, no matter how large they were. Loong herself has a daughter, and already she finds it quite hard to cope. So she is amazed at how her grandparents were able to bring up 18 children.

“Nowadays families fall apart quite easily,” she said. “It’s probably a good lesson to be learned from history.”

Copies of that family portrait were made and handed down from generation to generation, said Loong.

“It’s good that I found out from my dad what my grandfather did,” she said. “Once people are gone, you can’t get answers anymore. My mother died about 21 years ago. Now when I have a question, something as simple as whether I had measles when I was a child, I have no one to ask. My dad can’t remember anymore. So I think it’s important to get whatever you can from the older generation while they’re still around.”

> Photos for the Future is on exhibit at Badan Warisan Malaysia, Jalan Stonor, Kuala Lumpur, from now until this Saturday. For enquiries, please call Yap Lu Yi ( 03-7494 0292).

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