The Faded and the Fallen

By Jennifer De Souza

July 2024 PHOTO ESSAY
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Words and photos by Jennifer de Souza.

LIKE MANY STREET photographers, I am intrigued by old houses that at first glance seem faded and misplaced. They are overshadowed by shinier, swankier modern buildings—yet, when you do pay attention, they offer glimpses of what a place used to be.

Development is no doubt vital—for housing people and facilitating modern living. But through photography, I can look beyond and focus on the “Faded” to recognise and pay respect to the character and heritage of these buildings.

Layers of Development

Along Jalan Selangor in George Town, an old house is eclipsed by layers of development. Each layer looks out upon the surrounding generations—KOMTAR upon a hotel, and the hotel upon the low-rise commercial and residential buildings nearby. Big lorries, food and beverage vans, commuters in cars, and traders on motorbikes form a constant flow and hubbub with fleeting moments of calm. Yet, the Faded shelters its inhabitants in privacy.

Renters sustain a home in the twilight years of the Faded, one that is perhaps a little gritty, but far from grim. A letter hangs partially out of the mailbox, awaiting their return, and pot plants are watered each evening.

The Corner House

Over on Jalan Seang Tek, high rise buildings tower in the distance as an old house clings determinedly to a corner.

From this angle, the house seems to have a massive, futuristic chimney.

Jalan Seang Tek bustles with small businesses, but the Faded has been passed over by potential renters. It lacks intricate features, its barebone structure costs too much to be refurbished.

And so there will be no opposition to the demise of this Faded, no letters to the media, petitions or court cases. After all, no records were kept and stories told of the families who lived there.

The Faded awaits the bulldozer. The demolition and “clean up” will be quick and go largely unnoticed. The traffic jam caused by the dump trucks will be a brief inconvenience which will stay in the memories of by-passers longer than the old house that once stood and shone.

Collapsed Neighbour

Next door, a house has collapsed into oblivion, as had many such houses in this part of George Town. Neither the structure nor the cladding could be saved. Only the back portion of the house still stands, but this too, will soon tumble. Pots lie about shattered and bound one-to-the-other by the dry roots of now-dead plants. Here lies a past that did not endure.

Yet, there is colour and beauty in the repose of this Fallen. In its dilapidated state, it provides a green and sun-dappled place for pigeons and starlings to forage and flutter up with fronds for their nests.

Hope?

At Lorong Pulau Tikus, there may be hope still for an old house with a simple façade, symmetrical lines and stained windows. Typical of traditional Malay houses, this one has stairs with ornate tiles that reach the elevated interior. The house sits steadfast but shy opposite a well-maintained house with gleaming white walls and meticulous gold leafing.

In the right light and from a distance, this Faded looks healthy. The house has been redone by owners over many years, but lives on borrowed time. Recently sold, it had nevertheless been left empty, with its future and neighbours uncertain. Perhaps the house cannot be saved.

Here, away from Penang’s urban centre, nature offers stronger protection for the house. A welcome breeze occasionally makes its way down the street amid the mid-morning heat. There are moments of peace when tiny grey-and-white birds utter calls too powerful for their small stature. And from certain angles, the old house almost eclipses all traces of modernity.

Admiring the house, I think of past couples and families who stepped out each morning and returned in the evening, glad to be home. Those who painted and cleaned, tended the flower beds, took out the washing and watched the street trees grow from saplings. Those who peered through the louvre windows, who grew up in the house with fond memories, and who would drive past years later and say to their children: “… and over there, that old house that’s empty now, that’s where I used to live”.

The Blue House

At the junction of Jalan Irving and Lorong Susu sits a shocking blue house with the architectural elements of a traditional Malay house. The intricate designs on the roof and the balcony railing serve the function of air ventilation.

Jennifer De Souza

Based in Penang, Jennifer De Souza comes alive on the street taking photos of architecture and simple, overlooked scenes. "I often feel like I discovered something new, and I ask the viewer to think about what they see from their perspective. Abstracts are my favourite, as I can let my imagination go wild".


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