Portraits of Penang: Little India

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Photographs by Ooi Cheng Ghee
Text by Gareth Richards and Himanshu Bhatt

2011. Areca Books.

Hardcover with dust jacket. 27.3cm x 30cm, 212 pages
160 black and white images
ISBN 9789675719059


Portraits of Penang: Little India by Ooi Cheng Ghee

In 1979 Ooi Cheng Ghee spent a year exploring the streets of Little India, Penang with a particular way of seeing and his trusted Leica camera. It was not only a journey of discovery but a kind a conversation with the diverse community that inhabited the enclave. Juxtaposing people and streetscapes, his images capture the essence and dynamism of a singular place. With accompanying essays and commentaries on the photographs, this beautifully designed volume both documents and celebrates Little India with affection and humanity. Portraits of Penang: Little India is destined to become one of the classics of social documentary photography.

In an in-depth review by Sunil S. Amrith for the New York Times entitled Snapshots of Globalization’s First Wave, the writer summed up what the other reviews already alluded to, that “the photographs chronicle a vanishing world. You can see it in the sad but defiant eyes of an old man hauling jute sacks of betel nuts, an ancient trade that was fading away … Modernization had eclipsed the commercial and social patterns of earlier waves of globalization.”

Editorial Reviews

“It’s a revivalism mostly for tourist consumption, but it has also spawned an unprecedented interest in family history among locals. Small community-led museums have opened in Penang, Singapore and elsewhere in the region, and more are planned. They tap memories long kept dormant because the assertion of ethnic identities, particularly migrant origins, raises uncomfortable questions about relations between peoples, and entitlements such as citizenship.” Sunil S. Amrith, Birkbeck College, London

“Portraits of Penang: Little India is an important book. There is no comparable visual record of a working-class ethnic community in Malaysia. The images are stunning as art and evoke empathy, and are equally valuable as historical documentation.” Raymond Lum, Harvard University 

“The book showcases the colourful street life of a Little India that once existed.” AllMalaysia

“Little India is a deceptively austere photobook. It is when we sift carefully through the pages that we discover intimate and insightful images that echo stories from a bygone generation.” Nantha Kumar, The Star

‘This is not only a work of art; it is a personal statement by an observant and intuitive artist, perceptive of the moods and sensitivities of a culture that is living.” Andrew Sheng

Penang has an uncanny knack for being able to constantly surprise – both in art and Politics – and in Ismail Hashim and Dr Ooi Cheng Ghee, has thrown up two photographers par excellence. Cecil Rajendra

About the Photographer

“The Malaysian education system is such that people read to understand words, but nobody teaches us how to see. Seeing is a skill in itself.” – The photographer, in an interview with Mary Schneider

Ooi Cheng Ghee was born in Penang, Malaysia in 1944. He began photographing at the age of twenty-five after completing his studies in medicine at the University of Singapore. After an early association with the Photographic Society of Penang he turned his attention to exploring the technical and expresive possibilities of social documentary photography. Two major photo essays followed: Little India and Koay Jetty. In 1978 he was elected as an Associate of the Royal Photographic Society, United Kingdom, and has held solo exhibitions at Galeri Seni Mutiara, Penang. He continues to live in Penang where he practises as a doctor.

Table of Contents

Forward by Andrew Sheng



Capturing the Twilight of Penang’s Indian Quarter  Himanshu Bhatt

Power in Image: Ooi Cheng Ghee’s Bigger Picture  Gareth Richards

The Photographs

i places

ii betel nut workers

iii portraits

iv collectors and vendors

v trades

vi wheels

vii tea break

viii food

ix worship

x where i live

xi moments

xii street life

Ooi Cheng Ghee: Biographical Note

Catalogue of the photographs

Weight 1800 g
Dimensions 27.3 × 30 × 2.3 cm


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