Hoo Fan Chon is a Malaysian visual art practitioner based in George Town, Penang. By reframing everyday life with irony and wry humour, his works observe the oscillations and toggles between social classes, the official and the informal, the highbrow and the lowbrow.

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Hoo Fan Chon (b. 1982) is a Malaysian visual art practitioner based in George Town, Penang. By reframing everyday life with irony and wry humour, his works observe oscillations and assimilations between social classes, the official and the informal, the highbrow and the lowbrow.

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The Mistress, the Sex Worker
and the Nyonya of George Town

This writing was based on a oral history documentation project on the history of Chulia Street during the postwar period of 1945 –1970, produced by George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI).

First published in Bayangnya Itu Timbul Tenggelam: Photographic Cultures in Malaysia, exhibition catalogue by Ilham Gallery in 2020.

It is also featured on Writing Foto, a photography blog managed by Zhuang Wubin (Singapore); and No Man’s Land (NML, Taiwan) in both English and Chinese, the Chinese version was translated and edited by NML.  

Wah Fong photo studio was a household name in George Town, Penang in the 1960s–1970s among local urban dwellers, and received the occasional patronage from regional celebrities. Much of its fame was due to Mr Yip Wai Kong (1928–2014), who took over the business from his father, Mr Yip Ho Nam.

Like many Chinese migrants who left home due to hardship, Mr Yip’s father came to Malaya from Nanhai district, Guangdong province of China at the age of 13 to work as a photo studio apprentice. He eventually acquired Wah Fong’s business in the late 1930s and settled down in George Town. Before the business was handed over to his son in the 1960s, Wah Fong was mainly servicing social organisations such as the clan and hawker associations, in addition to the usual individual and family portrait photography commissions. As a young adult, Mr Yip showed natural talent in the studio and later developed his skills as a retoucher, hand-colourist and photographer. In addition to being an accomplished photographer, Mr Yip was also a gifted wedding gown designer, make-up artist and occasional impresario for bridal fashion shows. His multi-talented skills and sociable demeanour helped to expand the clientele base, which made him one of the most sought-after photographers in town. To stay competitive in the industry, Wah Fong introduced longer business hours from 9 am to 9 pm daily, terming it as ‘day’ and ‘night’ services. Photos in the day service were usually taken with diffused sunlight as the primary light source, which has a natural tone and fewer shadows, while photos taken in the evening used flash photography to deliver dramatic shots with harsher shadows. A typical day at Wah Fong would commence with customers coming in to have their portraits taken for official documentation, followed by individual and family portraits, and would finally end with the clients who required more privacy.

In 2013, George Town World Heritage Incorporated initiated an oral history documentation project on the history of Chulia Street during the postwar period of 1945 –1970. As one of the residents, Mr Yip was interviewed and apart from describing various occasions when his photo studio was swamped with fans who tried to catch a glimpse of itinerant celebrities, he also discussed the political changes and social happenings during this period. These included his recollections of how the whole city was under a lockdown during the Japanese Occupation, the inflation of goods, the tension over the distribution of territory for protection money collection among the secret societies, how the census was conducted, his experience of witnessing people being beaten up during the May 13 1969 riots from his upstairs shop window, as well as watching the various processions that passed through his street during festive celebrations.

More interestingly, the interview also revealed Mr Yip’s observations on lesser-known photographic practices by the outliers of society such as the sex workers and mistresses. He also explained how the Nyonya ladies subsumed photographic technology into their daily life experiences.

Back in the 50s, the walls of Wah Fong photo studio’s reception area were decorated with charming portraits of women before they were replaced by celebrity portraits. These half-body portraits that featured splendid dresses belonged to the sex workers from the hotels or brothels along Chulia Street. Two of the more popular hotels were Yeng Keng and Nam Wah, which were known for their courtesan quartet line-up. The top four most requested sex workers had a ‘stage name’ that incorporated part of the hotel name as a way to direct customers to the right place. There was a Madam at Yeng Keng who recruited girls for sex work, while those at Nam Wah were freelancers. In the same way that celebrities produced portraits for fan memorabilia to help expand their fan bases, sex workers made portraits to increase their clientele, which doubled as tart cards. Instead of distributing the portraits freely on the street, these sex workers found an ingenious way of advertising their services without alarming the law enforcement: rickshaw pullers became their agents. While ferrying customers around town, the rickshaw pullers distributed their portraits to customers who may have been in need of an intimate connection. This incentivised the rickshaw puller as he earned a commission for every successful match.

The complete package of wedding photos these days consists of pre wedding and wedding ceremony photos. The former, usually taken before the wedding ceremony, may feature a selection of scenic locations or lavish hotels, while the latter, taken during the actual event, feature snapshots of candid moments through a photojournalistic lens. However, from the 50s–70s, wedding photos during Mr Yip’s time were regarded as supporting documents to the official wedding certificate. Unlike the increasing popularity of pre-wedding photography in recent times, a couple could only have their wedding portrait done at a photo studio after they had exchanged vows. Typical formal wedding photos usually featured full-body shots of the newly-wedded standing adjacent to each other with minimal body contact. Their eyes seem to look placid as they focused their gaze into the camera with an air of ceremonial importance. The photo would then be printed in bulk and distributed during the wedding ceremony to family and friends for remembrance and to testify that the couple was officially engaged in a matrimonial relationship. Mr Yip also highlighted unconventional wedding photos, such as the ‘Fake Wedding Photo’, in which the mistress would pose as a bride. These portraits were normally taken at night to avoid being discovered by the wife. It is unclear whether these were just portraits of a lone ‘bride’ or those taken alongside the ‘husband’. In the same manner that wedding portraits were used as ‘evidence’ of a marriage by the wife to prevent possible disputes over the estate or property of the husband, these portraits taken by the mistresses were a way to leverage on the informal social control for future financial security. However, the wedding photo, fake or authentic, was not only useful to wives and mistresses. There have been incidents where when a wife decided to take refuge with her parents after problems with her in-laws, her husband used the wedding photo as a way to ‘claim’ back his runaway wife.

Apart from the highly-valued solemn family portraits of the Peranakan community one would find in the local flea market and antique shop, there was also the illusionary Nyonya portrait called the Luck Changing portrait, another ritual highlighted by Mr Yip. In the 50s and 60s, during the Chongyang Festival, on the ninth day of the ninth month in the Chinese calendar, affluent Nyonyas would go to photo studios to have their portraits taken. According to the I Ching (an ancient Chinese divination text), the combination of the date and the month (both are ‘9’) is a potentially unstable number pairing, hence some chose to follow certain customary rites to prevent unnecessary mishaps. On the day itself, the Nyonyas dressed up in their kebaya costumes and opted for pulled rickshaws as their mode of transport to avoid car accidents. In order to stay away from the prying eyes of the public, they would only put on their kerongsang and other finery once they had arrived at the photo studio. What makes this portrait making session unique is the lack of a negative or photographic print. For the Nyonyas, it was about the process of being photographed rather than the outcome of the photo. As they sat poised and looked straight into the camera lens, they waited for the sharp burst of light generated by the flashbulb once the camera shutter was released. This moment concluded the luck-changing ritual, which is believed to eliminate any ill-fortune, and perhaps, simultaneously recharge the gemstones they wore with a renewed energy. This could be seen as a transmutation of a customary ritual that was influenced by the photographic technology of the time. For example, it is similar to the ‘Chinese stove fire crossing ritual’, normally performed when one is being discharged from hospital, released from prison or returning home from a cemetery visit, as a way to get rid of evil spirits and bad luck. Instead of using the light generated by the fire used to burn material for the stove fire crossing ritual, the ‘Luck Changing portrait’ was achieved using the light released by electronic heat through a flashbulb.

As George Town transitioned from a formal colonial entrepot to a modern town in the early 20th century, the photo studios adapted their services to cater to the increasingly sophisticated needs of its clientele. The different clients who patronised Wah Fong reflected how the city transformed from a bustling town to a place to unwind after work by offering various forms of entertainment and pleasure. This dynamic change of the city from a business district to leisure town is exemplified by the spatial design of a typical two-storey colonial shophouse like the Wah Fong studio, which served both as a commercial business and private residence. The long business hours of Wah Fong allowed George Town residents of different backgrounds to get their portraits taken during the ‘day’ and ‘night’. From the sex workers’ enterprising way of promoting their businesses, the official and informal use of wedding photos as well as the invisible portraits of Nyonya ladies, these stories complicate the narrative of photographs of the past. Without knowing the intention and motivation, these seemingly straightforward portraits of beguiling women and lone brides can be as deceiving as the narrow front of the shophouse in George Town. Only by venturing in, can one truly experience the labyrinthine depth of its interior make-up.

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© Hoo Fan Chon