Seeing Penang from the Outside – and from Above

loading David ST Loh and wife, Rebecca Lee.

Stories abound of Penang’s talents leaving for greener pastures, be it for KL or farther abroad. It would seem we are a lot of adventurers, folks who have drunk from some fount that inspires wanderlust. We all know of someone who has left. We could even be the ones who have done the leaving.

Some return; most don’t.

It might sound bleak, but there are also positive stories of those who have come back wanting to make a change, to inject colour and dynamism into the landscape.

Photojournalist and publisher at Elaton Publishing, David ST Loh, is one such homecoming story. For over three decades, Loh has made a name for himself in the international sphere with Reuters, making his way up to Editor-in-Charge of the Global Pictures Desk at Thomson Reuters in Singapore.

Currently attached to The Malaysian Insight, his works have been published in newspapers such as New York Times, Washington Post and Financial Times, and in books. He has also held solo photography exhibitions and most recently published the well-received book, Over Penang, with wife Rebecca Lee as project co-ordinator, Bettina Chua Abdullah as writer, Gareth Richards as editor and Allie Hill as designer.

His passion for Penang is evident through the book’s bird’s eye view photographs which capture a rarely seen – and wonderfully breathtaking – side of Penang. “When I came back two years ago, I got myself a drone because of a client (wanting aerial photography). Now, I thought I knew Penang, but the images that I saw blew my mind,” says Loh. “I did that for a while, and after six months wondered what I should do with the body of work. I got in touch with Joe Sidek (festival director of George Town Festival) to hold an exhibition of the photos.”

The Over Penang exhibition, which was part of the 2018 George Town Festival, was so well-received that its run was extended, attracting people such as Penang’s chief minister and the US ambassador. “The chief minister liked what he saw, so I told him we can take it on a tour. But I said, ‘Let me do a book first so that it can be more substantial.’ He agreed to fund some of the printing in return for copies of the book. So, 2018 was the year we did all the shooting. By June this year, we had the book.”

The Methodist Boy’s School alumnus has indeed been actively promoting Penang far and wide – with the Over Penang + Beyond photography exhibition at the prestigious Fullerton Hotel in Singapore last July, and with plans to do the same in Hong Kong and Thailand. “In Singapore, it was amazing. We had this elderly Penang woman who came, looked at the images, remembered old times and started crying.”

Loh muses on the Penang he knew. “Growing up, I stayed in Tanjung Tokong, near Fettes Park, opposite the RAAF. I had a very good childhood – we did a lot of things and we explored like crazy. Once we turned 16 and got our driving licence, that was it – round the island all the time and all that. I have good memories of Penang.”

Loh's breathtaking works, which can be found in his book, Over Penang.

I ask him how he feels about the changes Penang has undergone over the years, especially with all the development that has taken place. “I think we have done a very good job. I always tell people that besides the traffic jams along the few main roads and the bridge, Penang is mostly easy to drive. I stay in Tanjung Bungah and I can get to Komtar in less than half an hour. In terms of maintaining the place, we have done a very good job – it’s just that we don’t have enough public transport, trees and parks.”

But the changes in the landscape though, especially the increasingly crowded skyline and the transformation of beloved places – does it bother him? Case in point, Gurney Drive.

“For me, Gurney Drive was a gone case because it stinks – it was silted, muddy, full of cockroaches and all that. How were we going to fix that? The government doesn’t have the money, so I find (the Gurney Wharf project) to be a good alternative. Don’t forget – it’s just a 99-year lease; it’s all going to come back to the state.

“I would love to have the old Gurney, but it’s been gone for decades. How can you say you want the old Gurney back – who’s going to pay for that? You move on. In Singapore, they don’t even care – they just destroy and demolish everything. I was just in KL and my goodness, all the highways. Why is it that they can build highways everywhere when in Penang, we just have the one?”

I remark that not all returnees feel the same way. “That’s the thing – the information hasn’t been received by them. The old Gurney Drive is gone, so we are improving on what is there – we are making the best out of what has evolved. You can’t always say you want the old. People grow, the state grows.”

He does have some frustrations though, coming back. Loh initially had difficulty establishing a base, just like any new kid on the block, but relied on his The Malaysian Insight work – attending press conferences, events and such – to network. “In a very short period of one year, I got to know a lot of people. I started a WhatsApp group to share the photographs that I took, and I pushed myself to come up with new content every other day. It has become the best marketing tool for me – I get follow-ups and leads from all these people. It’s just amazing.”

Loh and family.

While Loh laments the lack of a one-stop centre providing crucial information – such as on banking services – for returnees, he tries to put his years of experience abroad into use locally. He suggests turning newsletter Buletin Mutiara into the state’s PR arm, a long-term plan for the arts, a good music festival for the state (Loh laments the discontinuation of the Penang Island Jazz Festival), a re-look at the trishaw industry and, importantly, paying for creative talent.

Finally, I ask him why he made the decision to return. Loh pauses for a second, and says, “The reason I came back, I think, was because of the memory of my mom. She passed away a few years ago. She always asked me, ‘Why do you have to go somewhere else? Penang has everything.’

“I think she saw many things that most people didn’t, and I am starting to as well. There are not many places where you can live like a king even if you are not earning a CEO’s salary – in that sense, we are very lucky to have that. So that’s my love for Penang – it gives you so much in return.”

Julia “Bubba” Tan is editor of Penang Monthly and head of Penang Institute’s Publication Unit. She believes that all roads lead home, wherever that may be.

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