Seeing art in passing time and peopled space

loading One of the three blocks of the People's Court.

One basic function of art today must be to heighten the aesthetic significance of normal life. What better way to do this than to re-engage with entrenched architecture?

Lee: Engaging pioneering communities.

Art today can involve the most ordinary of people doing the most ordinary of things, fulfilling the Beuysian dictum of “Everyone (Being) An Artist.”

No more the elitist, inspirational thunderbolt from the sky thingy, it may not even be a commoditised aesthetic object of astronomical value and something awfully technically accomplished. It may deal with spaces not so much as mark-makings within a canvas format but that of the living environment involving real people and stories dealing with memories and time.

This was so in the “re:engage: The People’s Court” project in Penang involving five artists and primarily seven core residents of three blocks of four-storey low cost flats. Curated by Penang-born Lee Cheah Ni and held in a community hall and a flat unit (Unit C31) from January 25 to February 15, it was the culmination of a four-month programme spearheaded by the Japan Foundation, which sent three selected outstanding young curators to Japan on study tours with a view to initiate separate exhibitions on their return.

Caricatures of the residents actively involved in the project.

The other two exhibitions were curated by Perak-born Ong Jo-Lene, called “Making Space” (Sekeping Sin Chew Kee, KL, January 31-February 9), and Sabah’s Harold Egn Eswar, called “Being MAHILINDO” (Sabah Art Gallery, Kota Kinabalu, February 7-22).

The People’s Court flats were among the first low cost projects in the Federationruled elective local council, which was then dominated by the Labour Party. It was built in 19611.

Carved out on an odd-shaped open land that once sited shanty abodes in between Lebuh Cintra and the onetime thieves’ market of Jalan Pintal Tali (Rope Walk), it and the adjoining areas have a fascinating history of demographic changes that included Eurasians, Japanese, Chinese, Indian- Muslim Malabarese and Chulia. The People’s Court flats were relatively sparse compared to the more densely populated Rifle Range flats (“Pak Cheng Poh”) in Air Itam comprising 3,888 units in nine blocks of 17-storey buildings that came later in 1969.

The residents' community centre where the dedicated exhibition was held.

It was, and is, unusually a Cantonesespeaking enclave boasting its own clubhouse, and which once even had its own opera stage and cinema screening Cantonese movies. It is still known for its food, especially dim sum (De Tai Tung “tea-house” on Lebuh Cintra and Tho Yuen Chicken Rice Restaurant on Lebuh Campbell), Chinese pastries (Leong Chee Kee biscuits), yu char koay (Chinese cruller), char hor fun (fried broad rice noodles), ham chin peng (salty deep-fried Chinese doughnut) and leng teh (herbal tea).

The Canto-“canton” also embraced the vicinity of Lebuh Kimberley (Swatow Kay or Mee Suah “Vermicelli” Kay) and Lebuh Campbell. Who would have known that in the early 20th century, the short Lebuh Cintra stretch between Lebuh Campbell and Lebuh Chulia, known as Jipun Kay (“Japan Street”) was a red-light district of Karayuki-san (overseas Japanese prostitutes)?

According to a leaflet provided by researcher Tan Kim Hong, author of The Chinese in Penang: A Pictorial History, the People’s Court was first known as the People’s Stalls in 1940 and as the largest bazaar in Penang selling food and imported goods, especially from the Guangdong cradle of the dialect. But it was ravaged during the Japanese Occupation.

The “re:engage” project is a mini art-cheological survey into the lives and once-upon-a-time of a targeted community with common and dissimilar traits and trade backgrounds, reconstructed through oral history and improvisations with modulated and spontaneous interactions.

The artists were Chang Yoong Chia, “Okui Lala” a.k.a. Chew Win Chen, the Taiwan-trained duo – Tan Lay Heong and theatre activist Yeo Lyle, and Penang-based Taiwanese illustrator Luisa Hung Wan Lu. Chang, 40, a Malaysian Institute of Art graduate, has impressive credentials of several awards, solos and international art-residences, while Chew, 24, was trained at the Multimedia University.

Reconstructing some of the shopfronts in the early days.

The “re:engage” project is a mini art-cheological survey into the lives and onceupon- a-time of a targeted community with common and dissimilar traits and trade backgrounds, reconstructed through oral history and improvisations with modulated and spontaneous interactions.

All five were virtually embedded with the residents like part of the families, spending leisurely hours chatting with them, cooking with them and working with them on devising wooden MPV holders, collaging old available photographs (from 1979 to 1990) and plastering text and drawings on paper and Styrofoam food boxes on public and private walls of the flats.

The project was a lived-in reverse diary encapsulating the hopes, dreams and struggles of ordinary lives of a less visible group of people in a social cul de sac, where memories get embellished with a tinge of nostalgia through the mist of time. Remnants of the past are still around like the foldable camp-bed, the spittoon and hot-water flasks so different from the electric thermos flasks.

The residents are a close-knit community, seemingly contented living in claustrophobic one-room cubicles with a living room, kitchen and toilet. The units are windowless with slit-eye ventilation holes, and the beds are spartan because of space constraints. The walls are waferthin with the goings-on in neighbouring units being an unwanted sort of public entertainment.

It has one of the earliest residents’ associations, with even its own modest “clubhouse” and a children’s education fund.

They get together on festive occasions and during religious festivals like the Hungry Ghost Month, the Tiong Guan Festival and the birthday of the resident “datuk gong”, called Datuk Ah Wah, with a dedicated shrine near a large tree that had witnessed generations of inhabitants come and go. During Chinese New Year at one time, gambling was also prevalent – and not just the leisurely mahjong.

“The creative production of these artworks should allow their creators and the audiences to fluidly imagine and re-imagine the place, its people and (its) art from (re)new(ed) perspectives and perceptions,” wrote Lee.

Rather than just creative producers and chroniclers, the artists were also conspirators, moderators, facilitators and collaborators in reframing the culturalhistorical pocket narratives with presentday input and interventions.

National Visual Arts Gallery director (publications) Zanita Anuar and curator Tan Hui Koon looking at one of the exhibits during a visit to the exhibition.

Tenancies can be passed down. The residents’ profile has changed over the decades, with mostly geriatric oldtimers still there while their children and children’s children, who should be better-off economically, have gone away to greener pastures.

The old trades have also died off, like Song Kong San’s long obsolete batterycharging station (for trishaws and motorcycles). Song, who also peddled Japanese toys, has retired to a quieter life with his wife, Ho How Lian.

Leong Howe Sin’s father specialised in popular Guangdong biscuits like Chinese shortbread and dragon-phoenix biscuits, all baked over charcoal stoves then, selling under the name Leong Chee Kee Biscuits.

Portrait cartoons carved on wooden clogs.

Yee Mee Fong, born and bred there, had vivid memories of the competing flavours and scents emanating from kitchens nearby. Lee Yoke Fatt has moved away but his salted fish business he started 45 years ago remains.

Not all families were crammed into one pigeonhole like refugees’ quarters. For Chew Chong Hin, her father had rented three lots for the family of seven. Lee and Chan Yong Kam were among the longest residents, having stayed there for 55 and 52 years respectively. Chan has helped organise the Tiong Guan Festival for 48 years, and is now its executive adviser.

Memories, objects and old photographs are the only currencies in creating a dialogue and reconstructing the lifehistory of the pioneering community: the belief systems, values, outlook and struggles. The little nook may look like an anachronism, renegotiating and reorienting its lifestyle in an era of urban superstructures and high-tech savvy. How long this traditional community can stave off developmental changes, only time will tell.

The project, under the umbrella label RUN & LEARN: New Curatorial Constellations, was supported by the residents’ association, Lighting Up Media and the Arts (Luma), George Town World Heritage Incorporated and Komtar Adun Teh Lai Heng.


1 Penang Monthly, “When Labour Ruled The Council”, April 2014.

Ooi Kok Chuen has been writing on the art scene at home and abroad for 30 years.

Related Articles

Nov 2016

A Journey into the Testy World of Colonial Art

The Artist and Empire: (En)countering Colonial Legacies exhibition at the National Gallery Singapore explores the issues of post-colonialism and decolonisation.

Oct 2017

Barking Up the Right Tree

Eucalyptus bark is Datuk Sharifah Fatimah Syed Zubir's metier.

Aug 2017

The Day Pakatan Harapan Found its Footing

The die is cast; they are ready. Are Malaysians?

Jun 2017

Wandering Souls in a Forbidden Land

A tribute to the late Malaysian artist Zulkifli Mohd Dahalan.