Saturday, April 23, 2011

Operation Resurrection, 2008-2011

I find that it is the random daily occurrences that are the easiest to write about in a blog post. Those long, deep, meaningful journeys are much harder. For how does one find adequate words to express just what such journeys mean?

Operation Resurrection was taken down yesterday, albeit on short notice because the display boards are, apparently, needed for an exhibition that will be prepared in conjunction with the Chinese Premier's visit to the university next week.

Such is the irony: the exhibition that went up on Ash Wednesday (9 March) was taken down on Good Friday (22 April) and will, it is hoped, be resurrected soon enough once the E.T. itself is ready to house the works.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

* * *

Operation Resurrection is the culmination of everything that the University of Malaya has meant to me over the past three years; it is, in many ways, the summary of my life as an undergraduate.

I will not go into length about the exhibition here. Like the MPH Search win, the experience was so much more than words could ever describe, and I will probably revisit it from time to time. Like the MPH Search also, I don't think I will ever forget what it was like, to go through the preparations and see it through to its triumphant culmination.

It all began when Kaun and I 'illegally' let ourselves into the (then) out-of-bounds Experimental Theatre (E.T.) behind the Dewan Tunku Canselor (D.T.C.), in April 2008. We wore blazers (can't remember why) and carried backpacks. We were denied an audience with then Vice-Chancellor Datuk Rafiah Salim, and shoo-ed away (with a warning not to enter the E.T.) by an administrative official (an Indian man) in the reception area of the VC's office.

But upon reaching the barricades around the E.T., we found that there was an opening, and some labourers were hanging around. We asked if we could go in and have a look; they said OK. What we saw blew our minds. Armed only with Kaun's camera phone, we took a few snapshots. I can't remember if we'd ever thought we'd come back.

Over a year later, in August 2009, I was keen on doing something on Merdeka Day. What ended up as a romp through town involving myself, George, Hannah, Ruth Choy and Hyma, began as a morning exploration of the E.T. by all except Hyma. This time, I went in with the wide-angle lens and got quite a bit of decent footage.

It was really the announcement of the E.T.'s impending restoration that got us rolling out the random idea into a full-fledged project. Then Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Development, Datuk Khaw Lake Tee (above; photo by Alan Teong), issued a notice on UMISISWEB stating that restoration works would commence near the end of 2009. Knowing that the E.T. would never look the same again, we proposed a photo shoot to Datuk Khaw; George and I went to see her in person. She liked the idea, and soon enough we got the go-ahead from the (then relatively new) VC, Datuk Ghauth Jasmon.

The process of gaining access into the construction site was an arduous one. Suffice to say, the JPPHB (Department of Asset Maintenance and Development) was a thorough pain to work with, first demanding that every member of the team obtain Green Cards (standard procedure for construction site personnel), but then later changing their minds when it became obvious that we would not be able to obtain the Green Cards prior to commencement of works.

But that was not the main problem; the issue at the centre of it was that the JPPHB personnel assigned to assist us on the project, did not conduct themselves very professionally, in terms of the scheduling of meetings, efficiency in replying email, and in their general knowledge of the E.T. and enthusiasm for the project. Nonetheless, by the grace of God we got everything mvoing.

Principal shooting was on 24 October 2009, and for this we came in with models, props, musical instruments, and a primitive but nevertheless impressive lighting rig. We'd wanted to shoot through the night, but the contractor had us shoo-ed out by late evening as there was, apparently, no one to supervise our work at night.

We had the black-and-white footage developed at Eric's, and the rest done at E-Six. Scanning was at E-Six; I had then not yet known of the existence of Applied Imaging in TTDI, which is, as far as I know, the best place around for scanning.

Dr Nor Edzan, the Chief Librarian, came to know of the project through Datuk Khaw. She expressed an interest in preserving a copy of the photographs taken, and so talks with the Library commenced shortly after principal shooting. Kaun, Hannah and I went to see Dr Nor Edzan at that first meeting, and she was very supportive and enthusiastic. However, that was also the time that the Library was getting a lot of upgrading work done, and so our project was pushed aside for a while.

We jump-started it a year later, after Convocation 2010, and within a few months had the exhibition up and running. In contrast to the JPPHB, the Library was an absolute pleasure to work with. En Mahbob Yusof, the Deputy Chief Librarian assigned to oversee the project, was enthusiastic and supportive, and as a photographer himself, understood where we were coming from.

Although the budget was slashed heavily from what was initially suggested by Dr Nor Edzan herself, we were able to find a fantastic printer at a reasonable price in the Ng family of Photo Media, SS2. Boon and Winnie of Aidea Art & Frame in Hock Choon, Jalan Ampang, did the framing for us. The black-and-whites were hand-printed by Eric himself, as a fitting closure to our work on this project, as well as the last major project he would undertake before going on hiatus.

* * *

There is so much more to be said, but I shall let the following do the talking for me.

The Star ran an article on our exhibition. Written by Allan Koay, you can find the online version here.

But for the original article as it appeared in print, click here. There is one very telling difference: the title was changed from "Witness to a Resurrection" to "Witness to Revival of UM's Experimental Theatre". Someone must've felt the Christian references were a little too overt!

Sivin's comment to that was, "From resurrection to revival? :-) Well done."

A lot more resources and information can be found on the project's blog, here.

Among other things, there's a video of the set-up, pictures of the launch and profiles of the team members. Coming soon, updates and snapshots of some of the first few shows at the E.T., and a transcription of an exclusive interview with the architect, Mustapha Kamal.

* * *

I would like to dedicate this exhibition to Kaun and Yen, two people who made every moment of my life in U.M. worth living.

Yen remains, as SooT has aptly described, my favourite model. A personal highlight of the whole process was the making of the concept shots; the girl in the changing room, the Staircase Cinderella, the girl who traipsed in, and many others that did not make the final selection.

In retrospect, I told Yen, the one photograph that probably best summarises how I feel about the whole thing (the shoot as well as the E.T. itself), is the one in the dressing room (published in the Star article, linked above). Somehow, I'd wanted, more than any other shot, to get that one right. Which may explain why I blew nearly a third of the roll of Velvia on that same angle, same scene. After a whole morning of shooting, it felt as though we'd finally settled upon something special, something different from all the earlier shots.

And so it turned out to be, at least in my opinion, a picture that had 'timeless' written all over it.

* * *

I would also like to thank Tim, George, Fit and Adila.

Tim, for enduring everything from that first meeting with Datuk Ghauth, for all the work on the hardware and logistics, and for sorting through all the nitty-gritty of actually putting up an exhibition.

George, for August 2009; for giving me hope that my third and final year could be the best of my undergraduate life. And indeed it was.

Fit, for sticking through all the admin work, for accompanying us throughout the entire project.

Adila, for being the best Library liaison we never knew we could have.

Friday, April 08, 2011

LAB Tour, December 2010

The LAB Tour was undertaken in the company of Suit Lin, Adelene, Jia Hui, George and Tim, from 9-13 December last year. Ask any of us and we'll tell you what 'LAB' stands for; I would like, however, to remain off the record on this blog.

George, Adelene and I travelled northwards on Thursday night, picking Jia Hui up from Ipoh en route, arriving in Arau on a drizzly Friday morning. George and I spent the day exploring the smallest state in Malaysia (at 821 square kilometres still bigger than the 710-square-kilometre Singapore), and we concluded the day with a brilliant sunset at Kuala Perlis, where Tim joined us for dinner, having flown into Langkawi that evening.

The next couple of days were spent on Langkawi. Tim returned to KL Sunday night, while the rest of us headed back to Arau on Monday. It was an unfortunately overcast and rainy trip, but thoroughly enjoyable nevertheless. Ironically, the best weather was to be had in Perlis instead of Langkawi; whether the sun goes on holiday over the weekend, or whether Perlis is just sunny, I don't know for sure.

We had three film SLRs, two DSLRs and an iPhone on the trip.

This was our adventure.

* * *

Fare forward, travellers! not escaping from the past
Into different lives, or into any future;
You are not the same people who left that station
Or who will arrive at any terminus,
While the narrowing rails slide together behind you;

-- T.S. Eliot, from 'The Dry Salvages'

I think Eliot had this in mind when he wrote of the 'narrowing rails' sliding behind the train. We were fortunate enough to ride in the last car, and so had a first-class view to the world we were leaving behind as we travelled north.

Being a night train, this was only possible once we were near Alor Setar, but what a view it was, witnessing the transformation of night into day!

A view of the rolling Kedahan countryside from one of the doors on the train. Another reason why I love the old train so much; it doesn't seal you up as in planes and buses. Of course, you can wind the window down on cars, but then roads don't take you into the heart of the country; rails do.

Arrival in Arau, around seven or eight o'clock.

It started to drizzle and the rest of the morning was somewhat wet. We had a decent enough breakfast at one of the coffee shops in town, before checking into the MLC Motel near the Perlis Matriculation College (Kolej Matrikulasi Perlis), where Suit Lin teaches.

While Adelene and Jia Hui opted to stay in and rest in the afternoon, George and I set out to explore the state in Suit Lin's Viva, with him on the wheel and me (as usual) on map and compass. (Yes, the traditional navigational tools; I don't quite believe in GPS, and always take Google Maps with a pinch of salt.)

First stop was the Timah Tasoh lake, which is actually a large dam, reflected in its Malay name, Empangan Timah Tasoh. At a whopping 1300 hectares, it is only 700 hectares shy of Singapore's 2000-hectare Central Catchment Nature Reserve, and the latter has to provide for a population 25 times larger than that of Perlis.

The largest Mimosa leaves George and I had ever seen.

We travelled right up to the Malaysia-Thailand border, and the signboards along the way started hinting that we were drawing near.

South of the border, we found ourselves in Chuping, home of Malaysia's largest sugar cane plantation. Apparently it also holds the national title for hottest temperature ever recorded.

Near the flag roundabout in the previous picture, was this corn gerai. Pretty good stuff, and a most welcome tea for two hungry young men who had not lunched!

Naturally, a cob of corn wasn't going to be enough, and so when we got back we took a walk around the block and landed in this corner shop which served, among other things, nasi ayam wongges. It turned out to be something of a rather tasty chicken rice-chop hybrid.

That evening, we drove to Kuala Perlis on the coast. The sunset was, as Suit Lin predicted, marvellous.

Another take on the sunset. I wanted to deviate from the typical sunset composition, which is, among other things, usually a horizontal picture with lots of clouds. Here, I wanted to explore, a little more exclusively, the textures of light and water.

We had dinner at a seafood restaurant which had hosted, among other guests, the Raja of Perlis.

The next morning, we took a ferry across to Langkawi. Upon arrival, we checked into the Grand Beach Motel on Pantai Cenang, and set out for lunch.

It was an overcast day, and it drizzled most of the way. Nevertheless, we were able to get out of the chilly rain and into the (relative) warmth of the Red Tomato, where we had a hearty lunch of pizza, said by Lonely Planet to be 'some of the best on the island'.

Jesus Christ was there, too. ;-)

Humans, papayas and chickens. The kind of scene you would expect only at a tropical beach. For the grey day that it was, the evening brought slivers of sun and warmth.

Later that night, we had dinner at an Arabic food establishment, and had drinks on the beach at the Babylon Bar near the motel.

Sunday morning was spent hiking up and around the Seven Wells (Telaga Tujuh) in the northwestern part of the island, albeit in the rain. It was no mean feat climbing the steps to the 'wells', which are actually a series of connected pools; we really learnt the meaning of 'we get to carry each other'.

Tim, George and I went further on and further up into the hills above the wells. We didn't reach the highest point, but the views from up here were good enough.

I seem to realise, after many hills climbed, that the peak rarely offers the best views of the surrounding landscape. Often, the 'peak' is an isolated enclave surrounded by impenetrable vegetation. The more enjoyable parts of the hike are almost always along the way.

River, near Telaga Tujuh.

The Mat Salleh and the macaque, Telaga Tujuh.

We went cycling that evening; well, Jia Hui and Adelene mostly, anyway. There were only two bikes available, so George, Suit Lin and I took a leisurely walk to the southern end of Pantai Cenang while Tim stayed behind to munch on chocolate (he developed an obsession with Ritter Sport's yoghurt milk chocolate).

When the trip was first mooted (as early as Ipoh, I think), Adele expressed interest and said we might be able to stay at Bank Negara's accommodation on the island. It certainly looked quite grand!

In contrast to the first evening on the island, Sunday evening brought us overcast skies. Still, it made for a pleasant walk and some soft, muted photographs.

The sunset was nothing like the one in Kuala Perlis. Still, it had its charms; the great ball of fire struggling against the low-lying clouds. In fact, the day before, George made some dramatic shots of the sea, using the inclement weather to his advantage.

The five of us are cast as shadows across the sand, while Tim gazes out at the sea and a trio of of people walk into the distance. I like how the scene seems divided into two zones differentiated by the colour of light.

Exposure was one second at f/3.5.

Tim parted ways with us after dinner at the Thai restaurant a couple of lots away from the motel. Later, George and I cycled further south towards Pantai Tengah (never actually arriving as the road was very dark and wound uphill) before returning the bikes.

We came across this building under construction. Reminded us of the E.T. and other architectural landmarks, well-known and obscure, around town.

This was a two-second exposure. Exceptionally sharp for a hand-held effort if I do say so myself!

We spent the night at the 1812 Bar, which received glowing reviews in Lonely Planet. The place is simple, but it's worth visiting for the host/owner/barman alone, an Englishman from Bolton named Joe. We found ourselves in the company of some Irish (or was it French?) tourists.

The sign outside the bar read, "Our chef worked on the titanic, our food goes down great." Apparently this was a response to Debbie's Irish Pub, which boasted of Debbie's ex-husband's experience on the Queen Elizabeth II.

The bar had just been reopened after some renovations, and so the girl who usually helped with the cocktails and food wasn't around, and the decorations weren't up yet. Still, the laid-back atmosphere was very welcoming, and Joe made us feel at home with a robust supply of beer, wine and simple mixers.

That night, Bolton was playing Blackburn at home, and Bolton won, 2-1, for the first time since 2000. Joe served up butterscotch-vodka shots all round, on the house.

Midnight brought an experience that could not be captured on photographs, images we will never see; a storm we will never forget.

We'd set up deck-chairs on the beach and wanted to do some stargazing. But the clouds rolled in and without notice the heaviest storm since our arrival was upon us. The girls managed to get back to the chalets in time, but George and I had to hide under the meagre cover of my poncho for nearly 40 minutes.

When the worst was over, we ran for it during a drizzly respite, and found ourselves in drier conditions by 2.00 a.m.

It has, I think, been said that the darkest night heralds the brightest day. And the next morning's sun was nothing short of glorious; something for which we (or at least, I) had been waiting four consecutive mornings since our arrival in Arau.

I finally got the shot of the surfboards the way I'd imagined them, along with the pro-environment message ('Hargai Alam Sekitar' means 'Value the Environment').

And then there was the hippie VW van with the word 'Babylon' emblazoned across its side. This was parked at the entrance of the pathway leading to the Babylon Bar.

One of the best spots Lonely Planet did not cover was the Melati Café which serves, among other items in an extensive menu, delightful breakfast sets. I fell in love with their eggs benedict the first morning, and we had breakfast here on Monday, too.

It's on Pantai Cenang, about a third of the way from Grand Beach to The Zon, and is open throughout most of the day. This includes late-night supper, when most other restaurants are already closed.

Construction site, Pantai Cenang.

(I think I really like photographing subjects like this.)

Back in Arau, we decided to have a slow afternoon/evening visiting the paddy fields in Simpang Empat, in the southwestern part of the state. This was the only area George and I did not cover during our two-hour whirlwind tour on Friday.

On our way out of Arau, I noticed this billboard. I find it somewhat amusing (and maybe in some ways telling) that while five of our Prime Ministers are looking at the viewer, the Tunku is looking somewhere else.

And in that gaze of his I seem to sense a visionary spark, a certain 'looking ahead'. After all these years, perhaps it would do the country good if we could somehow recapture a bit of the Tunku's zeal and spirit.

Street scene near Kampung Sungai Baharu, near the coast, west of Simpang Empat.

Fishing boats along the river at Kampung Sungai Baharu.

Cat on the docks, with nets and Perlis-coloured fishing boats in the background.

We noticed that the people of Perlis seem to take their colours very seriously; almost everything is blue and yellow!

View of paddy fields and sugar cane plantations near Simpang Empat. The sun was virtually perfect, and the skies an impeccable pastel-blue, that evening.

Detail, sugar cane plantation.

A trough of water runs through the paddy field.

The mosque near the Arau train station. Another example of Perlis colours worn with pride.

View of the Arau KTM station at sunset, from the nearby pedestrian/bike bridge.

Mr Alagasan looks down at the railway tracks from the bridge.

Motorcyclists and pedestrians use it to cross the tracks. While I was taking photos of the railway tracks from the bridge, a Malay man stopped by on his bike and asked if I were from the media or something. He said that he wanted to air a complaint, a protest against the proposed demolition of the bridge because it was important to the local community.

A family prepares to board the train.

Sleeping berths for the journey home. Jia Hui would get off at Ipoh, while Adelene, George and I were bound for K.L. We would all finish, fittingly, where we began.

* * *

Film used (for pictures above):

Kodak Ektar 100 for the first day in Arau, the Telaga Tujuh hike, and the last day in Arau.

Fujichrome Velvia 50 for Kuala Perlis and the first day in Langkawi.

Kodak Portra 160VC for the second evening and last morning in Langkawi.

Kodak Tri-X 400 for the black-and-white shots.

(A polarising filter was used for the Monday evening paddy field, mosque and train station shots.)

What I love about film is that so little post-shoot editing is required. The caveat is that one must get everything right pre-shoot, which is the hard part. Nevertheless for the shots that I did get right, pre-blogging workflow was a breeze. In contrast, even great digital photos need a good deal of lighting, contrast and, sometimes, colour correction.

With film, you just shoot, develop, scan from negative, and enjoy.

None of the pictures above were corrected for colour, except the last shot (in the train coach). You choose a certain film stock because of the colour it gives you; and there is a good variety to choose from.

* * *

I shocked myself the other day when I realised I'd shot seven rolls of film during the LAB Tour last year. This comes after a one-roll weekend each at The Dusun and in Singapore. When I told Fit this, she said it was because LAB was specifically a photo trip, while the others weren't. There's some truth in that, but still, SEVEN!

Anyway, as I was putting together the pictures for the post, I had a rather hard time deciding which to include, and which to omit. I had the 200+ photos whittled down to a lean 40; any less and it would be difficult to do the trip justice. In the end, I decided to go with photographs that did not just show what we did on the trip, but which also mirrored technical photographic breakthroughs; for instance, things like succeeding in hand-holding a long exposure.

I'd like to think that a photographer does not merely grow in making nicer and nicer pictures, but also in pushing the boundaries of the medium.

We appreciate Ansel Adams for his breathtaking pictures of the American wilderness, but his greatest legacy is perhaps his mastery of all aspects of the craft -- from the camera, to the negative, to the print -- demonstrated in his ability to capture incredible tonal and dynamic range with the arguably primitive hardware and materials of his day.

Monday, April 04, 2011

The Fruit of Your Labour

I wrote this for Datin Maimun's farewell last year. After 20-odd years at the V.I., she finally retired last year. It has been a fruitful two decades, I daresay.

I didn't publish it here earlier because it always felt incomplete. But when time passes, poems lose their urgency and, for lack of a better word, solidify. As lime water changes into stalactites and stalagmites, so are poems glimpses of spontaneity frozen in time.

* * *

The Fruit of Your Labour

The fruit of your labour
Lies in the vessels you have helped shape
Not merely in what you have filled these vessels with,
But how you taught them to be filled.
The chipping and the knocking, the scraping and the firing;
The times we resisted, the times you persisted.

The roots of your labour
Anchored in 23 years between these walls
On fertile ground you found us, and we found you.
And this is God’s favour,
That after all that has come and gone
When the sands of time and waves of the world
Have chiselled away and eroded the things we do and say,
When our castles are shown to be but castles in the air
(These fortresses are no longer there.)

You will not be remembered for board or for beam,
If you fought alone or in a team,
If you were as you are, or much more than you seemed.
In all these men will differ, and argue to their hearts discontent.
But what remains—the kernel of your intent
To see boys grow, to know the heart of the gentleman

The storm may sink the vessel
And the sun bring it to float,
No longer to sail the seas;
But the crew of men it carried—
The sailors and rookies with which it tarried in darkest night
Continue to ply the ends of the earth,
Carrying your light and all
Your life here had been worth:
Each kind gesture,
The debates in patience and courage,
Never to back down;
Each year, each new wrinkle on the face
Each new burst of faith to run this race.

So, teacher,
Fare not well,
But fare well above and beyond the thoroughfare,
Beyond what is expected of one at the end of life at school.

You know us well, you know we live to break the rules;
So you, too, teacher, break this rule—
That having been wound to the end of the spool
Carry on with purpose and zeal
Till the paths of life reveal
The fruit of your labour borne in us and you.