Portrait of a Social Commentator
Photography by OOI CHENG GHEE
SOMETIMES we discover our passions in life while engaged in the most mundane of activities. Renowned Penang photographer Dr Ooi Cheng Ghee’s interest in photography was piqued while sitting at a bus stop in the late 1960s.
“As a medical student at the University of Malaya in Singapore (now known as the National University of Singapore), I had to catch two buses to get to the main campus. While waiting for my connection, I would often look at the camera shop across the road from the bus stop. One day, out of curiosity, I wandered over to take a look in the window. I was immediately drawn to a Praktica camera and I knew I had to learn more about it.
“After graduating in 1969, I sold everything I had, except my clothes and a few books. I had about 300 Singapore dollars, which was a lot of money then. I went to Orchard Road and asked for the best camera my money could buy. I ended up getting a Nikkormat, which is still in working order today.”
Upon returning home, Ooi joined the Photographic Society of Penang and honed his skills by taking photographs of family and friends, sunrises and sunsets, and the local flora and fauna.
“Family members always oblige you,” he says with a smile. “But after 10 years with the society, I was tired of taking salon-type pictures and was ready to do something on my own. So in 1978, I submitted a portfolio of 12 pictures to the Royal Photographic Society in London and was immediately accepted as an associate.”
At that time, Ooi was influenced by a number of photographers. “When I first saw American Paul Strand’s work and how he used his photographs to effect social awareness, I began to question what I’d been doing. Then there was Lewis Hine, the photographer and sociologist who taught Strand. Hine was the first photographer to advocate against child labour and used his photographic essays to change public opinion and influence a change in the US government. They both had a purity of approach, emotion and thought—there wasn’t money in photography back then so their motivation wasn’t commercial.”
Ooi’s desire to raise social awareness through his photography coincided with an ambiguous period in Penang’s development. “In 1979, we were industrialising; factories were popping up and people were moving away from the city centre into new townships,” he recollects. “Penang had lost its free port status and people were migrating to the suburbs. When I first walked down the streets of Little India after an absence of 20 years, I felt as if I were in another country. Many roads were deserted. Houses were abandoned. It was quite different from the Little India I knew as a kid.
“As I walked the streets, the whole spectrum of life unfolded before me. I saw the rituals of the people who had stayed behind, their code of ethics, how they took care of the place, their trades, and so on. I knew I had to record it before it disappeared forever. After that, whenever I had an hour or so to spare, I’d drop by the enclave, walk around, observe and take photographs. “I used a Leica, a small unobtrusive camera that doesn’t make a lot of noise. I think it’s one of the best cameras ever made. I used only one lens. Sometimes, I would get very close to a subject, maybe two to three feet away, take my camera out and just shoot. It was all very casual.”
When Ooi finished shooting Little India that year he had taken more than 4,000 photographs and enthusiastically set about generating interest in his social essay.
“No one was interested in an unpleasant subject,” he recalls. “It was also too early for my photographs to be regarded as a record of some importance. Still, the endeavour taught me much about photography and my neighbourhood.”
Undeterred, Ooi began work on his next photo essay, which focused on Koay Jetty, one of the eight original clan jetties built along the George Town waterfront.
Shortly after, his house was broken into and three of his cameras—including his beloved Leica—were stolen. Demoralised by his loss and the lack of interest in his essays, he decided to take a respite from photography. For the next 20 years he devoted himself to his work as a doctor and his family—he and his wife Hor Leng have two daughters and a son.
Although he spent more time with his family, he never really gave up photography. He continued taking some pictures and kept track of what was happening. “Between 1980 and 2000, there wasn’t much change; just the same old thing packaged in a different way. Then I attended a photography exhibition in Penang in 2004. I immediately saw the progress and change that photographers had been making. Not long after, I bought my first digital SLR camera and began experimenting with it.”
The spark had been reignited.
Little India revisited
Ooi’s renewed interest in photography also gave him the confidence to dust off his old photographs when people began expressing interest in his earlier work. However, it took him five years to select and prepare the 160 prints that appear in Portraits of Penang.
“They had not aged too well and many of them were blemished,” he explains. “It would have been impossible to print my photographs using old photographic methods.”
Ooi is hard-pressed to pick his favourite photographs. “Possibly the series on betel nut workers,” he says, after a brief pause. “Penang is named after the betel nut, yet there are few records of the industry. Most people express a preference for a specific picture because of how they’re related to it rather than what it tells.”
Observing and listening
Although Ooi’s youngest daughter recently graduated from university and many of his responsibilities are now behind him, he still practices medicine at his clinic. “I continue to work because I enjoy my practice and like to be with people,” he says. “I also think my work has helped me become a better photographer. One of the first things I learned as a doctor is the importance of observing, listening and paying attention to details.
“Anyone with an interest in photography must realise the importance of learning to see things. The Malaysian education system is such that people read to understand words, but nobody teaches us how to see. Seeing is a skill in itself. Learning photography by example is a tedious old method. Young photographers must learn to free their minds, be brave enough to make mistakes and change their mindsets. It’s also important to take photographs because you’re interested in the subject matter, not because other people like it.”
When not at his clinic, Ooi likes to read. His favourite author is John Berger, who is known for both his fiction and non-fiction. “His writing can make your life difficult,” he says with a chuckle. “He’s very imaginative, and cleverly combines fantasy and reality. I’m currently reading Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red, a fascinating novel about conflicting painting styles in 16th-century Turkey. I make time to read. I’m quite a disciplined person. Two days a week I run five miles, three days I play tennis, and one day I play table tennis. My life is quite routine.”
His dream project is to take a month off every year for the next 10 years photographing billboards throughout Malaysia because they depict the contemporary lifestyle accurately. “To me there’s nothing that documents the way society lives better than billboards.”
Reproduced from MPH’s 105th Anniversary issue of Quill magazine