The Continuing Saga of Preserving Community Values

It’s always exciting to see one’s photos acknowledged and published. Who doesn’t revel in that?! In this case, the most recent publication of my photos is doubly rewarding because it validates an idea that has been a constant throughout my adult life. Back in university days, or maybe even before, I was active in what I called “community values preservation.” I steered away from the traditional heritage preservationists because their battles were often about blocking change. I preferred to prioritize preserving the personal and communal relationships that people have with their spaces.

Both those values, and the spaces in which they exist, are not static. So the battle becomes keeping the values of those who are intrinsically at the heart of the change, relevant to what is happening. Spaces and ideas are palimpsests – layers of history and geography. Romanticizing is one way to grapple with understanding someone else’s traditions and to invite what is “foreign” into our hearts. As much as that aspect is critical, it is not the full answer.

Twenty five years ago, I produced a map of KL’s Chinatown with my friend, Victor Chin. Still today, it stands as an appreciation of the people who have layered that space with their presence. The map continues to demand a recognition of the community’s role in adapting that space to meet the future. Last year at Georgetown Festival 2013, my photography exhibit “Worshipping the Sky Gods” pumped some drama onto a relatively unknown city street and helped a small community gain some recognition for their very alive and very current traditions. Collaborating with PUSAKA this past year has allowed my photography to better reflect an appreciation for Malaysia’s traditions and how those traditions can remain alive and relevant under so many pressures.  This article by Pauline Fan, illustrated with the photos, has added a layer to the palimpsest of Main Puteri in Kelantan and given just prominence to the “Master of Many Arts”, our Pak Mat.  For all of this, I am grateful and hopeful.

Respect for the values of the community remains at the core of what I do. It isn’t just about seeing the images in last Sunday’s New Straits Times (as exciting as that is!). It’s about keeping an idea alive and relevant to what happens next.