The Lost Photographs of Penang
Sometimes the mystery is more interesting than solving it.
Years ago, just a few months after 9/11, I found myself in Kabul, Afghanistan, talking with a soft-spoken Hazara man who had lived through the worst decades of his country’s conflicts. I asked him about his family.
“I never saw the face of my father,” he told me. “He died when I was 2.”
“Don’t you have a photograph?” I asked him.
He gazed at me with the patient, affable smile of someone contemplating a pleasant idiot from a far-off land. Which, of course, I was.
“We were too poor to afford photographs,” he told me. Then he was quiet for a moment.
“I wonder if somewhere, out there, a photograph of him exists,” he said softly. “That way, even if no one knows who’s in the photo, it would mean that he is not completely gone.”
Tucked along a Chinatown street in Penang’s sun-worn George Town quarter, it shouted to us immediately — a cool, dark refuge from a blistering Southeast Asian afternoon.
It was one of those overflowing curiosity shops that, much as I hate such comparisons, seemed straight out of a movie set. It was called Ban Hin, a word that, in the Hokkien dialect spoken by so many Penang Chinese, means, roughly, “ten thousand prosperities.”
As we approached, my curio-loving adolescent son and I, any number of aging delicacies caught our eye. Ornate lamps with enough accumulated rust to dissuade anyone from trying to plug them in. Costume jewelry, worn long ago by women long forgotten. Rusty cigarette tins with World War II-era graphics that were made to be disposable but somehow survived the decades to end up as totems of a world not entirely unlike ours but also, in many respects, a distant mirror.
Smack in front of the store — just outside it, on what passed for its stoop — sat a basket made of mint-green metal mesh. Each of its three levels brimmed with piles of old snapshots and portraits depicting members of Penang’s Chinese community — all taken, apparently, between the mid-1950s and the early 1970s.
Age and tropical heat had curled and cracked some of the images. Others featured the crimped corners that, a couple generations ago, were thought to add an element of class to common drug-store prints.
We had tapped into a vein of glorious miscellany — unsorted but significant, as my father used to say. But here, in this basket, the unsorted had overrun the significant and all but stomped it out.
None of the images contained any direct identification. Only a few bore the logos of the local portrait studios that had produced them. The snapshots had become unanchored from their context, and the moments — significant moments, many of them, from the looks of them — had been lost to time.
I realized: These were photographs of ghosts, of souls set to wander.
As I began to inspect the mostly palm-sized images, thumbing through them with instinctive hand motions I’d perfected by sorting thousands of Topps baseball cards during a 1970s American childhood, the distant echoes of nearby lives began to emerge. They were, largely, the lives of middle-class Chinese Penangers of a certain age — a combination of the Eisenhower era and the 1960s, with just a hint of the early 1970s at the edges.
Some were clearly more formal — portraits from photo studios around town. In one shot, a young Chinese couple stands for their wedding, obscured by an enormous bouquet. They look happy but tentative, ready to begin their lives together. Did they last? Did they have children? How long were they married? In another wedding shot, this one more snapshot-like, a couple is congratulated as they stand under an enormous “double happiness” Chinese character. Who is that Malay-looking man in the corner?
One shot shows a man at a microphone, speaking to an auditorium partially full of people who are paying differing degrees of attention. What was he saying? Was it momentous? One — this one featuring crimped edges — showcases two young girls of Chinese origin in matching dresses. They look quite alike, but one is just a smidge taller than the other. Were they twins, growing at different rates? Or sisters who simply appeared to be identical? A young woman tilts her head and looks off camera as she sports a beehive hairdo larger than her head itself. What does her hair look like today?
Later shots reflect societal changes and the creeping informality that the 1960s introduced to much of the world, including Malaya (which was in the process of becoming independent Malaysia). A woman in flared jeans and a fashionable early-70s haircut leans casually against a tree with her foot and looks off into the distance. Did her boyfriend take this? Did they end up getting married? A group of young people — appearing in the lone color print in the batch — poses together on the steps of a building. Do they still know each other? Were any of them still around here, maybe even on this very block at this very moment?
The multiple mysteries tantalized me. Some of the subjects surely were still living, but there was really no way to know.
I asked the proprietor, Mr. Zhuang, how he came by these photos. He told me the images came from Penang houses that were left behind and torn down. The photos were found and sold to him in odd lots. “I just get phone calls, and people say, there are old photos that have been abandoned,” he told me.
I let that sink in. As an unrepentant archivist from a family of archivists, I find the notion of leaving family photos abandoned to be unfathomable and melancholy. And yet for much of my adult life, I have found, in flea markets and garage sales, piles of old images that leave me with a sense of vague, undefined longing about the people depicted in them and the journeys the images (and their subjects) have taken.
Where once they were cradled in hands that valued them deeply as talismans of life’s important intersections, now they are unanchored, orphans, floating in the massive pool of miscellany that moves around the planet. As they inched through time in slow motion, they became untethered from the sentiments that produced them, the events that motivated someone to capture a moment and hold onto it. Significant, but now unsorted.
Unsurprisingly, there’s a market for this kind of stuff. Some people have taken to calling such photos “instant ancestors” — people whose images you can put on your wall and pretend they’re your own relatives. Forget “Modern Family”; here’s “Postmodern Family.” In an odd way, it makes a lot of sense; there is some — what? — symmetry to the notion that an image, a person, a moment, can resurface in a different context entirely. It is, I suppose, a form of photographic reincarnation. Your soul comes back, but you are floating, separated from your past life, with only certain echoes remaining.
I ask Mr. Zhuang if he expects more such photos to come in. He nods. Many of Georgetown’s older Chinese houses are being torn down, he says, and others are undergoing a historic-preservation process that means they will be emptied of the ephemera that has occupied them for many decades.
“Come back,” he says. “I know I’ll have a lot more.”
More lost souls of chemical and paper and light, each a sliver of a moment of a life, each awaiting rediscovery.
… AND FOUND
I felt vaguely predatory, but I had to have some of these images, to take them home with me. I have occasionally been told that I overthink things — a fair accusation, I suppose — but I was wrestling with the ethics of two competing notions.
The first was this: Would removing these images from their natural habitat be the best thing for them? They are of Penang, from Penang, by Penang — shouldn’t they stay in Penang?
The second was this: Shouldn’t they be with someone who’d appreciate them and gaze upon them daily and think of them — i.e., me?
Overlaying this was the sense that our little curio shop had a bit of that sci-fi, out-of-sync-with-the-universe feel to it, like the Zoltar machine in “Big,” as if it might be gone the next time I came to Penang and tried to go back. Indeed, my attempts to find it a couple months later on Google Maps — in English, Mandarin and Hokkien — proved fruitless.
So from the big piles, I selected 25 images that jumped out at me (with a bit of input from the boy). I handed over some Malaysian ringgit, and we were on our way.
This is what I did next: I returned to my home in Bangkok. I bought an enormous wooden clipboard and some decoupage paste, and I made a collage — the one you see at the top of this essay. In it are the lost souls of Penang, unmoored from their contexts, deconstructed, then recombined into a piece of — no getting around this one — hipster art sitting on a shelf in a high-rise Bangkok apartment. Ugh, right?
And yet something about this seems exactly right. Instead of buying a duty-free trinket to symbolize our trip to Penang, instead of procuring a fragment of antique that was harvested from someplace it shouldn’t have been, I have brought home something that will make me think about the town, the society, its history. It is something that will perhaps make my children watch and wonder and be curious about this culture.
I thought fleetingly, when I bought these photos, that I would try to track some of the subjects down, to reunite them with their long-ago images. I abandoned that notion. First, sadly, I didn’t have the time. But there was something more to it, too.
The historian Will Durant explained history like this, in one of my favorite thoughts I’ve ever encountered:
“Civilization is a stream with banks. The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting and doing things historians usually record; while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry and even whittle statues. The story of civilization is the story of what happened on the banks.”
I want to know who these people of Penang are. Of course I do. What writer wouldn’t? But I realize something — something that violates my own inner workings, the personal mythology that I have spent my entire adult life constructing brick by brick: More than wanting to know, I want to not know.
I want to think of them collectively, a sliver of the Chinese diaspora, there on the banks of their Penang stream, living out their days. I want to hold in my hand the unanswered questions about these lives, to imagine how they played out. I want to hope for the best for all of these folks whose images wandered astray, though not very far afield. I want to be encircled with the potential of what their paths might have been. I want to look into their faces and wonder.
The mystery of my lost photographs of Penang, it turns out, means more to me than any of the answers ever could.
And yet somewhere distant, at the back of my mind, something is still tugging. I can’t help but think of my melancholy friend in Kabul all those years ago, and his hope that, somehow, an image of his father’s face endures, even if he will never see it.
“I wonder if somewhere, out there, a photograph of him exists. That way, even if no one knows who’s in the photo, it would mean that he is not completely gone.”
- Moon Shot: Gazing into a long-ago Polaroid taken by my father, and finding multitudes, a meditation on a single, informal photograph from four decades ago.
- The Mysterious Melissa: A Comparison. Who is the woman in that old family photograph?
- ‘Napalm Girl’ photographer returns, with iPhone and Instagram. Following one of the world’s most famous photographers back to where he made one of the world’s most famous images.
Ted Anthony, a Pittsburgher living in Thailand, is a Baby Boomer by generation and a Gen-Xer by age. He has been dissecting and musing about American culture since Guns N’ Roses was on the charts and “Rain Man” was in the theaters. He is the author of Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song. He tweets here, Instagrams here and collects various fragmentary images and thoughts on Tumblr here.
©2016 | Ted Anthony