Victor’s art activism — The new way of promoting social causes – Breaking Barriers – The Borneo Post – 27 September, 2014

Victor’s art activism — The new way of promoting social causes
by Peter Tan. Posted on September 27, 2014, Saturday

MY first brush with appreciating art was in 1999. I had just move into an apartment and thought it a brilliant idea to adorn the bare walls with framed watercolour postcards of old building facades. Those I thought would give the place I call home an ambience of a time long past when life was simpler.

Victor (right) is seen with Kampung Hakka Mantin residents committee chairman Chong Tze Yaw at the photographic exhibition in Kuala Lumpur.

Six years after that in 2005, I was invited to an exhibition of photographs depicting disabled people from Malaysia and Thailand.

Unfortunately, I could not make it although I very much wanted to see how disability was depicted in the mainstream.

Fast forward to 2008. A friend invited me to the second instalment of the exhibition of photographs of Malaysian Paralympians called ‘In the Face of Disability’. At that time, I was deep into working on disability rights advocacy. I did not want to miss the opportunity again to learn more about the message and purpose behind those images.

That was where I met Victor Chin, the photographer for both series of exhibitions. I later discovered he was also the painter of the images in the postcards that had so captivated me nearly 10 years before that.

In that second series, Victor displayed images of the athletes in action and at rest in unpretentious poses. He illustrated that beyond the impairments are regular people with dignity, hopes and aspirations and that, in a world that values ‘perfection’, people deemed imperfect can still excel over and above expectations.

It is hard to believe the serendipitous build-up that led to our first meeting and what happened afterwards was not pre-destined. We became fast friends discovering that we shared mutual interests in photography and advocating on social issues. Despite his busy schedule, we often got together to catch up over hearty meals and discuss projects that we could work together on.

Victor, my wife Wuan and I have since held a joint exhibition on a macabre topic yet one that was close to our hearts. We each contributed 20 photographs respectively on the death of my mother and his. Aptly titled ‘Exits – The Mystery of Death’, the exhibition ran for four weeks at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre.

Victor is a great mentor who is always generous in sharing his knowledge. He taught us the finer points of organising an exhibition and to curate the photographs that tell a strong and meaningful story. We were heartened by the responses from visitors to the exhibition who found meaning in the images we shared.

As I got to know him better, I learnt that he is more than a renowned painter, photographer and writer. Among the other hats that he actively wears are historian, heritage conservationist and activist for oppressed communities.

At the Kuala Lumpur Photography Festival last week, Victor gave a talk and displayed a series of black and white photographs of Kampung Attap in Mantin, Negeri Sembilan, in what he named ‘Photography: An act of resistance’.

The village is also known as Kampung Hakka, owing to the fact that the majority of the population are descendants of Hakka immigrants who came to work in the tin mines and settled in the area more than 100 years ago.

The land the village stood on is slated for development. The villagers have been asked to vacate the houses they have lived in for generations. According to Victor, there used to be 300 families in its heyday but now only 30 families are still living there — adamant to stay on and fight the eviction that they feel is unjust and improper.

Ten houses were forcefully demolished by the developer last year — four of which were still occupied at that time. Villagers and activists who stood shoulder to shoulder to prevent the destruction were arrested by the police.

“This is the situation that attracted me to Mantin. I am not from there. I am not in any way related to any of the people in the village,” Victor shared about how he got involved in the issue.

“When I saw this on social media, in the newspapers and on television one year ago, I visited the village and then again with some friends.”

Together with the villagers, Victor and friends formed the Rakan Mantin Facebook Group. The group describes itself as “a community initiative to promote and to protect historical and cultural landscape from indiscriminate destruction”.

“Photography can do many things. It depends on what you want your photographs to do,” Victor told the audience listening attentively at the talk.

“I am using photography as a tool to express resistance, to express opposition, to express the feelings of the people in Mantin that they are not happy with what is happening and they want to change it.”

He spends most of his weekends in the village organising and overseeing events to document and introduce a fast fading village lifestyle to urbanites and those who have never had the chance to experience it.

Visitors and participants of various event organised by Rakan Mantin are encouraged to preserve the village for posterity with their cameras and through other media. They can then contribute their works to the Interpretative Centre set up in one of the houses in the village where stories, artefacts and other materials are collated and chronicled as joint narratives for the benefit of future generations.

During a lull of visitors at the exhibition booth where his photographs were being displayed, I remarked to Victor that he is a man on a crusade fighting for the downtrodden. In response he said, “No, I am not on a crusade but an artist with a conscience.”

That he undoubtedly is, doing it at his own expense unconditionally most of the time for the common good and for safeguarding the historical and cultural values that many of us have little inkling of until then. Along the way, he has made allies of strangers and roped friends into causes we would otherwise not get involved in.

From promoting the understanding of disabled people, to preserving urban heritage buildings, to helping villagers on the brink of losing their homes, he has never shirked from doing what he believes is morally and ethically right. Victor’s application of art activism has certainly given fresh perspectives to social issues with the use of alternative approaches in promoting and supporting those causes.

Comments can reach the writer via

Read more:

Craving for a bite of home – Breaking Barriers – The Borneo Post – 20 September, 2014

Craving for a bite of home
by Peter Tan. Posted on September 20, 2014, Saturday

IF there are two things that we Penangites are known for, they must be our independent mindedness in politics and the love for our food.

Let’s leave politics to the pundits and talk about food instead.

Yes, we are fiercely opinionated and proud when it comes to our hawker fares and rightly so.
CNN Travel ranked Penang asam laksa seventh in the World’s 50 best foods in 2011 and dubbed George Town Asia’s greatest street food city in 2013.

More recently, popular travel guide Lonely Planet picked Penang as the top food destination for 2014, singling out char koay teow, Hokkien mee and laksa as must-trys.

The rich and diverse flavours we have today were influenced by Malay, Middle Easterners, Chinese, Indian and European cuisines from communities that settled in the island at various times since the 18th century.

A discussion of Penang food is never complete without bringing up Peranakan and Hainanese cuisines.

The former is a distinct fusion of Malay and Chinese recipes that evolved over a few centuries when Chinese traders inter-married with local Malay women.

The latter draws from the kitchens of colonial British households infused with touches of Hainanese flavours.

Both are unique to Malaysia and Singapore up to this day. Both cuisines also share some similar recipes like roti babi (deep fried bread with minced pork filling) and choon pneah (deep fried spring roll).

The tastes of hawker food display hints of Peranakan influence to some extent as is evident with the generous utilisation of chilli and other spices.

Being an island and surrounded by the sea is a plus point. Bounties from the ocean are plenty. Seafood are used to great advantage as main ingredients or in stocks to enhance tastes of most, if not all, of the hawker food. These include cockles, crabs, prawns and fish.

In the early days, immigrants were brought in to work at the port and plantations. These manual labourers needed meals that gave them energy, were cheap, and could be served and eaten quickly.

The nasi kandar was one such simple meal consisting of steamed rice served with aromatic curries of meats and vegetables.

It was popular with port workers who were predominantly from India.

Chinese immigrants too had their non-spicy rice dishes and noodles to keep them going.

Local ingredients and flavours were gradually assimilated to become tastes that were uniquely Penang.

From those days when food was purely nourishment for the body to pull through another day of toiling, it has become indulgences to tantalise taste buds.

We are now spoilt for choice with the plethora of mouth-watering fares available throughout the day at the many food courts, coffee shops and even restaurants.

There is a saying that one cannot die of hunger living in Penang as there is a hawker at every turn of the corner.

Tourists on food adventures should take the list of highly recommended food and stalls widely available in the Internet with a pinch of salt.

I have eaten at stalls that were given good reviews only to be disappointed time and again. Perhaps as a Penangite, my taste buds are more discerning.

As much as I love char koay teow, nasi kandar and Hokkien mee, I must say many, if not all, of the popular stalls are over-rated and expensive.

It is difficult to justify paying RM7.50 for a plate of char koay teow with three large prawns when I can get a similar sized portion with smaller prawns for only RM3.70 or RM4.50 elsewhere.

The queue during meal times is also hard to fathom. Besides being expensive, these hawkers can be aloof and rude, and waiting time to be served can take as long as 45 minutes to one hour.

I do not know about other people but I certainly do not fancy paying a premium only to be treated badly and waste one hour of my life waiting for food. It is just not worth it.

I have had the privilege to sample some of the best and the worst my hometown has to offer, and finally found one place where many of the hawkers selling my favourite food converge.

The Batu Lanchang market food court is the usual haunt each time I make a trip back to the island.

The place is clean. Food is delicious and reasonably priced. Parking is ample. And most of all, it is accessible by wheelchair. Whenever friends from out of town asked for recommendations to eating places, I never hesitated in pointing them that way.

When I was staying in Penang, I never thought much about hawker food. They were just means to fill a hungry stomach.

Now that I have uprooted to Kuala Lumpur, the cravings strike each time I see images of those glorious food posted in Facebook.

Sometimes, the hankerings got so bad that I had to settle for substitutes that did not taste quite the same although the signboard on the stalls claimed to be Penang this and that.

Well, beggars cannot be choosers.

That is why I always look forward to going back, if not to soak in the scenes and scents of familiarity, then to satiate those cravings for a taste of home.

Read more:

Complaining for the better – Breaking Barriers – The Borneo Post – 13 September, 2014

Complaining for the better
by Peter Tan. Posted on September 13, 2014, Saturday

THE first complaint letter I ever wrote was to a large foreign bank.

I had gone to the Immigration Department with my cousin to collect my passport. We then went over to the bank to sort out a newly-implemented Internet banking procedure for my account.

The only way to get into the banking hall was up a short flight of steps. I waited outside in my wheelchair while my cousin went in with the documents.

He explained my predicament to a customer service officer and informed her that I was just outside.

Instead of coming out to help me with the transaction like what I experienced with other banks, the officer told him to either get me into the banking hall to complete the process personally or write a letter authorising him to represent me and act on my behalf.

When my cousin requested that she explain the procedure to me personally, she told him that she could not leave her counter to talk to me.

It was only after my cousin demanded to see the branch manager that another customer service officer came out to serve me.

I was still upset when I got home. What I went through was ridiculous. I wrote a long letter to the bank’s headquarters to complain about the arrogance of the officer.

Three managers from the bank visited me at home subsequently with a fruit basket to offer apologies for the ‘slip-up’ in service and that the bank was looking to address the problem of accessibility in the near future.

I told the managers the visit and apologies would have been unnecessary had the staff in question been courteous and helpful.

Since then, the encouraging outcome spurred me to write many more letters to complain about issues of inaccessibility in public premises and the poor customer service I had the misfortune to experience. They include airlines, large corporations, local authorities, and government ministries and departments.

Complaining works, to a certain extent. A small number garnered positive responses and were resolved to my satisfaction, especially major corporations that accepted them as feedback for improvement and also to nip potential bad publicity in the bud.

For every complaint that I lodged, three others never got any reply. I either dropped it if it was a minor issue or followed up with an enquiry on the status of the complaint if the problem involved wider implications to the community.

I have escalated some of my complaints all the way to the top of the organisation and the government which will suddenly garner instant actions to resolve the matters concerned.

Knowing people in high place can be a boon but I try to minimise using these contacts to the minimum. I prefer the matter to be resolved through the proper channels in the hierarchy.

The mass media has also successfully helped with stickier issues in piling pressure for speedier resolutions.

Other than writing letters, I have also published them on my blog as a record for all to see. I was especially critical of public infrastructure by the government and government-linked companies, believing they should lead by example in providing facilities and services of an acceptable standard.

It got to a point where I was not enjoying my time out any more. There was always something wrong somewhere and I was the self-appointed
police pointing out the errors.

It was then that I realised the relentless pursuits for faults was the cause of my misery and frustration.

There was never a rose without the prick. I was missing out on the good by nit-picking only on the bad.

I began writing letters, emails and blog posts to compliment establishments whenever a staff went out of the way to serve me or when I came across excellent facilities for disabled people in their premises.

Going out became less stressful. I became more tolerant of the deficiencies, accepting the fact that there will always be problems no matter what. Effecting change need not be a nerve-wracking endeavour.

I still complain though but giving credit where credit is due is another form of providing feedback to let the establishments and their dedicated staff know that their efforts are appreciated and as encouragement to continue with the good practices.

Over the years, I have developed a standard tone and format when writing a letter to complain or compliment.

Be polite. Never shoot off a complaint in anger. Words once said cannot be retracted. Cool down before penning your thoughts.
Include all relevant information like place, time and names of persons involved. That will make investigating the case easier.

Focus on the issue. Do not get personal.

Where possible, provide reasonable and practical solutions.

Follow up with a compliment after problem is resolved. If there is no reply for an issue that you feel is important, follow up with a polite enquiry and then to the higher ups in the management if there is still no response.

The culture of complaint is important. So is the culture of praising a job well done. We should keep these two practices alive, not only for issues that affect us personally but for those that can improve society as a whole for the better.

Comments can reach the writer via

Read more: