Need to find KL's soul? Try the kopitiam

Need to find KL's soul? Try the kopitiam
Ngeow's Lok Ann 5 (2013) is a poignant shot of Tung Suk (Uncle Tung) making drinks at KL's Lok Ann Hotel and Coffeeshop on its last day in October 2013.
PHOTO: Ngeow Chow Ying

Ben Toh has a story about how he became a street photographer. A few years ago, yearning for something beyond the confines of portrait photography in the studio, the artist/graphic designer who manages The Refinery Art Gallery in KL took to the street with his camera in hand.

"I wanted to find that special something with my camera, but inspiration did not strike and my mind was blank. I did not notice that an old man pushing his wooden cart had stopped in the middle of the street. He reached for a fag and lit it. He saw I had a camera with me and he just stood there, puffing on his fag and smiling," he relates.

Why do we never pause and see what other people are doing? Why are we always so busy and full of ourselves, Toh ponders.

"I decided to capture the moment. And then I became a street photographer," he shares.

Much of this spontaneous spirit is evident at the RakanKL Walk Photography Exhibition, RakanKL's first show, featuring a selection of work compiled over the past five years.

The 28 works, presented in black and white, are taken by three hobbyist photographers who are RakanKL members: Toh, Ngeow Chow Ying and Dennis Ong.

Ong’s Chow Kit Market (2016) featuring the two Kopitiam Sisters at Pasar Jalan Raja Bot.
Photo: Dennis Ong

The exhibition, a collaboration between RakanKL and The Refinery Art Gallery, zooms in on the daily life of people in Kuala Lumpur. It is a snapshot of the everyday with occasional surprises along the way.

Here are some of the people who are the soul of the city, the people who make the city what it is.

"These photographs highlight the under-represented, yet significant, stories of ordinary people in corners of Kuala Lumpur that the general public are often unaware of or pay little attention to. It features a diverse mix of people of various backgrounds, from traders and shoppers in markets, to coffee brewers in kopitiams and passers-by on the streets. Kuala Lumpur itself is a city of diversity. As such, what is featured is naturally a representation of the city," says RakanKL group leader Ngeow.

RakanKL is a people's movement for heritage preservation of Kuala Lumpur that started out in 2012 as a gathering of concerned citizens and civil society advocates.

The works in this show are dated between 2013 till 2017, some taken during RakanKL walks and activities, and others taken during casual photowalks while exploring the city.

"One of RakanKL's missions is to document stories, and stories are best told by people. Through these photos, we hope that, just like our RakanKL walks, visitors can take home with them a realisation that there is so much more about the city, both in its past and present, which we can spend a little more time learning about," says Ngeow.

This exhibition is a milestone for RakanKL, she adds, explaining that it goes hand-in-hand with its objective to spread awareness on the rich cultural heritage and history of the city through storytelling.

With the RakanKL Walk Photography Exhibition, these stories are told through photos.

Toh captures a calm and peaceful side of KL with his Jalan Sultan (2015) work, taken in the early hours of the morning. 
Photo: Ben Toh

"With greater awareness, we hope to spark conversations that are constructive and beneficial towards understanding KL better, and kickstart initiatives that people in the city can enjoy," she says.

The RakanKL Walk Photography Exhibition also serves as a RakanKL fundraiser. Limited edition prints will be sold at RM1,000 each, with 30 per cent from the proceeds to be channelled to RakanKL's projects.

"The inhabitants of Kuala Lumpur give life to the city. We wish to deliver that each person has stories that are worth sharing and listening to. Empathy and compassion are built on an open heart and the power of listening. This is our humble objective, to highlight people's stories in every photo," she concludes.

RakanKL Walk Photography Exhibition is on at The Refinery Art Gallery, G-3A-D6, 801 Jalan Sentul in Kuala Lumpur till Sept 30.

Open: 1pm to 6pm daily. For appointments, call 012-205 0716.

In conjunction with this photography exhibition, free public talks will be held on the weekends during the exhibition period.

Visit or for more information.

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