“Change is inevitable,” says Eric Peris softly. In the leafy, secluded art space of Sutra Gallery, the diminutive photographer sits and looks at me over his spectacles. He’s 78 and his weathered face reveals more than his measured words.
There’s no denying he knows what he’s talking about. After all, Peris has seen much of the world through the lens of his camera to be intimate enough with the winds of change and how it has swiftly enveloped familiar landscapes with the onset of development and progress.
Recognised as an iconic photographer in the black and white medium, Peris’ career is as illustrious as they come. A photojournalist with the New Straits Times for more than two decades, Peris’ newspaper career - which included running a weekly column for the New Sunday Times features section, Sundate from the mid-80s until the late 90s - culminated in his appointment as photo editor in 1991 until his retirement in 1994. He’s held scores of exhibitions since the 80s, sat on the regional panel of the Joop Swart Masterclass by the World Press Photo since 1995, and is one whom many consider to be a godfather in Malaysian photography.
There’s no slowing down for Peris yet. We sit together along with two other photographers, Lee Hong Leng and K.F. Choy, to talk about their latest exhibition, Re-visiting Kuala Lumpur, currently running at Sutra Gallery. The exhibition showcases changes that have reshaped and altered the nation’s capital in a span of 42 years. We discuss progress and development and how these have somehow surreptitiously changed the faÁade of the city.
“Everything is transient,” says Peris serenely. “Villages grow into towns; towns web into conurbations of housing estates, high-rise buildings and factories; highways lance across the land, presenting unfamiliar new landscapes to the eye. The exhibition features changes that have transformed the city into what it is today.”
Kuala Lumpur has certainly undergone a dramatic transformation over the past 42 years, morphing from a quiet city into a bustling metropolis brimming with skyscrapers. The city is a symbol of this country’s rise from a developing nation to one of the ‘tigers’ amongst Asia’s economies.
As the city swiftly transforms, Peris and his collaborators, Lee and Choy, have captured images of urban destruction, decay, genesis and renewal; buildings lost and iconic structures being built; the trappings of daily life gone by; transformed neighbourhoods and social history. All revealed in stark monochrome photographs of familiar places in two different settings - then and now.
Time Long Past
The backbone of the exhibition comprises the series of imagery taken around Kuala Lumpur by Peris in the year 1976 while he was still a journalist with the New Straits Times. “Whenever I was free, I’d roam the streets of Kuala Lumpur with my camera, taking pictures for my own collection,” recalls Peris, smiling. “It had been five years since I joined NST, and with no intention of holding an exhibition in the future, I simply took photographs for the sake of recording.”
His pictures captured familiar spots of the city including popular shopping centres like Batu Road (now known as Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman) and Jalan Bukit Bintang, the famous Benteng known for its wide selection of food when dusk falls, and Federal Hotel’s Revolving Restaurant. Just over 20 years after Independence, the city, says Peris, had started to grow at its own slow pace. “There was still a lot of greenery and the traffic was very manageable then,” he remembers.
His idea of holding an exhibition only came up decades later after a recent visit to the nation’s capital. “I walked around Kuala Lumpur and was staggered to see the tremendous transformation the streets have gone through,” he shares.
One of the biggest changes, he adds, was the view from the Revolving Restaurant at Federal Hotel. The hotel is steeped in history; built and completed to house the various heads of state who flew into Kuala Lumpur to attend the country’s Declaration of Independence on Aug 31, 1957 by our first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman. “At that time (in ‘76) you could enjoy the view. Today you can’t. It’s all lost, blocked by so many buildings. It’s still a beautiful restaurant with an amazing view. But it’s no longer what it was,” remarks Peris half-wistfully.
Recalling the photographs he took in 1976, Peris made a decision to contact Lee and Choy who didn’t hesitate to join him in recording the current images of the city, guided by the pictures he took back then. “I asked them, ‘Look, why don’t we do this?’ and they agreed,” he says, gesturing to the two jovial men seated with us.
The trio made a selection of the images they wanted to showcase, using iconic buildings and landmarks such as the revolving restaurant, Padang Merdeka and what used to be the former infamous Pudu prison. “I walked with them through the areas I’ve been. Then they went out on their own to capture the images,” explains Peris, adding: “It wasn’t about going to just one spot and re-shooting the same image. We needed to get a feel of that place and situation - whether it has changed in a way that would make us appreciate the past or if we preferred the current changes. I think we learnt a lot.”
Which does he prefer? “Oh, the past of course,” replies Peris wryly. “Back then it was more peaceful and people weren’t rushing here and there.” He recounts with a chuckle how they went walking in Kuala Lumpur and found that there were more foreigners around than locals. “The only language we heard was Bengali!”
A pause and he continues: “We just want to convey what it was like in the past and how much it has changed since then. Has the city changed for the better? We don’t know. What we do know is that it will keep on evolving and changing.”
He waves his hand impatiently, saying: “Enough about me. You should hear what Lee and Choy went through to take the photographs!”
The camaraderie between the trio is obvious, as with the obvious respect they have for their ‘sifu’. “I’ve always wanted to collaborate with Eric for a long time. When he contacted me about this project, I jumped at the chance to work with him,” says Lee, smiling.
Adding, he says that Peris’ photographs brought back a lot of memories: “The year 1976 was when I first came down to Kuala Lumpur. I used to work at a photo laboratory in Penang and when they moved their operations to Kuala Lumpur, I followed suit two years later. His pictures were quite similar to my recollection of what KL used to be back then.”
Former businessman Choy on the other hand admits that most of the locations were unfamiliar to him. “I used to come down to KL on my business trips back in the days. But to be honest, when I saw the photographs, I couldn’t recognise the locations at all. The only place I knew of was the revolving restaurant. The rest were alien to me!”
The challenge to shoot at the same locations depicted in Peris’ photographs was daunting. Some of the buildings captured in the older photographs no longer exist, points out Lee. “The former High Court building on Weld Hill (Bukit Mahkamah) at the back of the Maybank headquarters was one of the locations we were supposed to photograph. We couldn’t find the place at all!”
Then there was the question of positioning. At some locations they couldn’t shoot at the angle that Peris was able to capture his photographs. “Buildings have sprouted up, roads have been built - there were so much changes that we had to be creative in the way we approached the shot. We had to return to the same place numerous times to get that perfect photograph,” recalls Choy, adding with a laugh that there was one shot they actually had to take through the window of the toilet.
“We had to do what we had to do!” he quips, shrugging his shoulders. Chips in Lee with a grin: “Of course, Eric had more freedom and better access to take photographs back then because he was a photojournalist!”
Out in the city, these lens-toting compatriots sat for days, even weeks, with their subjects, just listening to them, learning what it is that they have to teach the world, before finally lifting the camera to the eye.
They’re quick to reveal that Peris gave them a lot of freedom in this project. “I’m a great believer in respecting the other person’s view. It’s wrong on my part to insist you must stand and take a picture from the exact angle I shot years ago. In fact, given the changes in the city’s landscape, that would be extremely difficult. I’d rather they get the essence and spirit of the photograph rather than splitting hairs over angles and positions,” says Peris.
I could see how these images of the “man-altered landscape” can reflect, unconsciously or otherwise, the growing unease about how the city’s faÁade is gradually and unequivocally changing all the time. “The familiar sight of buses gathered around the old Klang bus station at Pasarama Kota and the scores of mini-buses (Bas Mini Wilayah) whizzing down our roads, no longer exist. These are scenes that the younger generation are unaware of,” laments Lee, adding: “We can’t stop change. We can only move along with it.”
As this century fades into the past day by day, it’s worth understanding and appreciating that its course can, should, and must be chronicled by a visual narrative. “We need to know the past, in order to understand the present and be able to make the right choices in the future. That’s wisdom,” says Choy, resolutely.
The timespan of more than four decades between the photographs Peris captured in 1976 as a young photojournalist on the cusp of his career, and the images today showcases an amalgamation of loss, growth and tremendous changes that have taken place within the streets of our capital city. Gazing at the images gives me a sense of nostalgia as I recall my own childhood in this ever-changing city. “Does it make you feel sad?” I ask Peris. He smiles but doesn’t answer me immediately.
“Nothing is permanent. If you can accept that, you can enjoy yourself and life,” he replies, before concluding gently: “Perhaps 30 years from now the faÁade of the whole city might change. Iconic buildings that are there today might not be there in time to come. We can keep a historical account of the past, and learn from it. But change? It’ll keep coming, whether we like it or not. After all, we ourselves are transient beings. The sooner we understand that, the easier it’ll be for us to accept it.”
Re-Visiting Kuala Lumpur
WHERE Sutra Gallery, 12 Persiaran Titiwangsa 3, KL
WHEN Until Feb 28, 2018
For info, go to sutrafoundation.org.my or call 603-40211092