School nostalgia in black and white


Visitors looking at Lim’s black and white images at the exhibition in The Old Frees’ Association building. — Photos: JEREMY TAN/The Star and courtesy of LIM SIANG JIN

SOMETIMES it takes only one image to bring back a thousand memories.

Those who visited a black and white photography exhibition by Lim Siang Jin at The Old Frees’ Association (OFA) building in Penan, might agree.

Titled “Our Legacy: Landmark Memories of Penang Free School (PFS)”, the exhibition featured 31 pieces that captured some of the time-honoured institution’s iconic sights.

Any alumnus would instantly recognise the grand buildings, long corridors, soaring arches, flagpoles, benches, spiral staircases, sunny fields, swaying palm trees and canteen.

Lim posing with a piece titled “Grit” which captures a pair of students standing between towering and slanting trees.Lim posing with a piece titled “Grit” which captures a pair of students standing between towering and slanting trees.

Lim, 70, studied at the school between 1966 and 1972. Now based in Kuala Lumpur, he has returned regularly in the last few years to train student leaders and produce videos on the school’s history. He also set up information systems for its bicentenary celebrations in 2016.

“All these were done to perpetuate the school as a living legacy. But I felt they weren’t enough. I still had memories to share that mere words cannot convey,” he said at the recent exhibition.

Lim returned to PFS for a six-day shoot in June and July this year, capturing over a thousand digital images. This was whittled down to the final set and converted to black and white in post-processing.

“Awestruck” highlights the awe that a freshman would feel when seeing the roof frames inside Pinhorn Hall for the first time.“Awestruck” highlights the awe that a freshman would feel when seeing the roof frames inside Pinhorn Hall for the first time.

Though each piece was framed like album pages to evoke the style of the 1960s, they were printed with advanced 21st century machines and included radio frequency identification (RFID) tags for proof of authenticity.

“It was a nostalgic project that allowed me to reconnect with many Old Frees alumni. I’m delighted that the images resonated with them,” said Lim, who was the school’s head boy in 1972.

His love for photography started around the age of seven when his father bought him a Kodak Instamatic.

In “Nuanced”, Lim uses the school’s main arch to represent its ideals of diversity, student empowerment, excellence and service to others.In “Nuanced”, Lim uses the school’s main arch to represent its ideals of diversity, student empowerment, excellence and service to others.

By his teens, he was allowed to use a Rolleiflex and spent much time in studios and on photo outings, constantly sharpening his skills. He also became a keen painter.

Lim then attended the University of Kent and University of Leeds in Great Britain, where he received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees respectively in sociology.

Upon returning to Malaysia, he worked as a sub-editor and later joined a research organisation as head of publications.

In “Memorable”, Lim frames the school building and quadrangle within an arch.In “Memorable”, Lim frames the school building and quadrangle within an arch.

After that, he became a founder director of a financial news organisation and later headed the media business division of a media group.

Upon semi-retirement in 2005, he dived back into photography with Rasa-Rasa Penang, a book charting the island’s culinary wonders.

Dr Khoo Boo Teik, an author and also professor emeritus with the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, liked Lim’s fragmented approach towards storytelling.

“Arterial” captures the well-trodden corridors that connect various parts of the school.“Arterial” captures the well-trodden corridors that connect various parts of the school.

Rather than a series of images in linear form, the works are each a vignette to be looked at in isolation, which then combine to tell the greater story of the school, often referred to as just PFS.

“When you look at the pictures, it brings back memories for many of us who went to the school,” Dr Khoo added.

The exhibition was held in conjunction with the centenary celebrations of OFA and 75% of proceeds from sales of the pieces went to the PFS Student Leadership Workshops and the soon-to-be-launched Free School Guide.

The remaining 25% were allocated to the OFA Sesquicentenary Education Fund.

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