“I Am Home”: Putting Social Harmony on Show

By Emilia Ismail

June 2022 FEATURE
main image
The online exhibition had a physical launch at the Penang Harmony Centre on Jalan Scotland. Photo by: Emilia Ismail.

FOR GENERATIONS, people from around the globe have come to Penang to make a better life for themselves and their families. Today, the descendants of these early settlers continue to contribute to the state’s multicultural identity. This is clearly demonstrated in the “I Am Home” online exhibition.

The cross-disciplinary collaborative project, helmed by cultural practitioner, researcher and graphic designer Dr. Kuah Li Feng and comic artists Lefty Julian and Azmi Hussin, features multicultural narratives of homemaking in Penang by communities of diverse origins. It comprises quotations from interviews with and drawings of the important moments of 20 selected individuals and families from different parts of Penang. The intention is to illustrate Penang’s cultural diversity, foster community inclusiveness and promote harmony through art and life stories.

“We focus on working-class communities in Penang in hope of creating an archive from which future generations can learn about these communities. The stories of how their forefathers came to Penang, the challenges they faced and how made Penang their home are often untold. Through the exhibition, people get a glimpse of the lives of working-class communities, and this should help foster a sense of inclusiveness and harmony,” says Kuah.

N. Santa Thevi (left) with her son. Photo by: Emilia Ismail.

One of the exhibits features the life story and visual narrative of N. Santa Thevi, the matriarch of a three-generation Indian laundry. According to Santa, there was already an Indian dhoby community settled at York Close and nearby areas along the river when her grandfather arrived from India; they were from the same village. “The community mostly served Indian business people in George Town. During the olden days, my father and husband used to go to George Town on bicycle to bring back huge piles of dirty laundry. The laundry process took a week, from sorting, to washing, starching, drying, ironing, folding and sorting again before they were sent back to George Town. We worked seven days a week and hardly had any holidays because people depended on us for their daily wear," she says.

Aroontana by Lefty Julian. Photo by: I Am Home.

At its heart, the exhibition is not just about giving voice to working-class communities in multicultural Penang – it also suggests loss. Another narrative features a Thai Menora performer and shaman, the late Wandee Aroonratana, who passed away before the exhibition was launched. Born in Penang in 1924, Wandee Aroonratana inherited the skill and knowledge of traditional healing from his father, who migrated from Songkhla to Penang. Herbs and rituals like Menora – a spiritual, dramatic art form – are essential in traditional healing, which used to be so popular that Wandee Aroonratana packed his own remedy under his own brand, “Irawan Powder”.  For decades, he lived as a Thai Menora performer and shaman and performed his last solo performance in 2002 at 80 years old. He passed away in October 2021.

Boon Leua Aroonratana. Photo by: Emilia Ismail.

“I felt sad that my father is not around anymore to uphold the disappearing Thai heritage, but I am happy that his life story and legacy are being told through this exhibition. It’s important to document oral history from the community elders so the community’s story lives on,” he says.

Money changer Shaik Ibrahim bin Hj Isahak. Photo by: Emilia Ismail.

There is also nostalgia and triumph: Lefty Julian's sketch work entitled “Money Changer” allows viewers to relive old times through the life of Shaik Ibrahim bin Hj Isahak. “On Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, we used to have food peddlers selling nasi kandar, roti benggali, tau fu fah, and fresh coconut coming to our doorstep round the clock. Today some of them still come, like the rotiman. If we don’t buy food from the peddlers, then we would just pack our lunches to work,” he says.

Meanwhile, Azmi Hussin astounds with a sketch of Coach Teh Peng Huat from Berapit who coached national shuttler Lee Chong Wei. The narrative reads, “I started coaching when I was 19 but soon, I had to stop for almost 20 years to make a living doing odd jobs. I never gave up my passion for badminton. At the age of 30 I moved to the Berapit new village and started to coach again. The turning point came when I was 50, when a boy was sent to train under me by his father. The boy was Lee Chong Wei, from Berapit too. You know the rest of the story; he became one of the best players in the world.”

Coach Teh by Azmi Hussin. Photo by: I Am Home

One thing is for sure; both Lefty Julian and Azmi stayed true to their signature styles while bringing the stories of these communities to the forefront. The fact that the series of sketches blend seamlessly in the exhibition despite Lefty’s and Azmi’s differences in background and sketching styles is a testament to our multicultural harmony. And it is exhibitions like this that keep the much-needed muhibbah spirit alive in our multicultural society.

The online exhibition can be viewed on www.iamvisualnarrative.home.blog

Emilia Ismail

is a freelance writer who has a love-hate relationship with the weighing scale.