Tuesday, November 29, 2011

‘Lieng Eiu’ by Manit Sriwanichpoom

‘Lieng Eiu’  by Manit Sriwanichpoom, 5 – 11 Aug, 2011
in Siamrath Weekly News (yr.58, vol.46)

If I ask Phuket residents if they know a photographer by the name of Ari Korcharoen, the answer will be ‘no’.

And if I ask the same question, using the Chinese name, Kor Eng Li, only the elders and senior people (not so very many) will say they know him.

But if one asks again if they know Lieng Eiu’s photographer’s shop, just about everyone on the island will point to Rachada Rd., at the traffic circle in the center of the city.  They guarantee you’ll find it.

Therefore, for convenience sake, and for ease of remembering, I’d like to refer to Ari Korcharoen as Lieng Eiu (the name translates as ‘most excellent friend’). That was the name of his photography shop which operated from 1933 to 1987.  His children [finally] asked him to stop taking photos and take a rest. In 1992 he passed away peacefully in his sleep at the age of 81 (1911– 1992).

Manote Korcharoen, one of his sons and one among eight children, said that his father was a Hokkien Chinese born in Thailand.  He was born on Phuket Island.  But he studied on Penang Island till he was able to speak and read three languages – Thai, Chinese and English.

He learned on his own how to do photography.  He bought a foreign textbook to read.  As for the film, chemicals and darkroom equipment, he ordered them from Bangkok.  He opened what was only the second photographer’s shop on the island, eventually becoming the premier shop in the city, the only enduring one.  The first shop, ‘Nai Sawang,’ lasted only a short time before it went out of business.

I had a chance to see some of the works of Lieng Eiu in Bangkok.  Bik-Min Darkroom brought them out to show.  Mostly, they were photos of children from a few months to a few years old.  The pictures were taken with film on glass plate. These works were donated by the Korcharoen family.

I was only able to see a few pieces, but I knew immediately that this photographer was out of the ordinary.  Even taking photos of children, without technique or method of shooting, it is very difficult to manage very little children who are still little more than infants.  Getting a good photo, charming and striking, presents great difficulty.  The film could be used up very quickly.  But Lieng Eiu was able to get each shot using a single plate. 

So I wanted to see his work, the work of this skilled and masterful photographer, who did more than make pictures of children.  A few months later, Kietipon Rijranuwatr, a noteworthy young man from Phuket who was taken with photography and developing and enlarging pictures using film and a darkroom as they did in the old days,  came to meet me by introduction from a mutual friend.

Kietipon was in charge of much of the estate, taking care of very many of Lieng Eiu’s images on glass plates.  There were more than 20,000 pieces which a former foreign consul had bought from relatives of the photographer.  That foreigner appeared to have been very well disposed and kind, because he bought the works but did not carry them away when he left Thailand.  Instead, he presented all the film to Kietipon to take care of and to disseminate as cultural heritage.  These works were a gift to the people of Phuket and interested tourists.

Kietipon arranged for me to meet Manote (about age 59) at the Lieng Eiu Photo Gallery and Color Lab.  The place had been modernized from the B&W film era. At that time, it was called the Lieng Eiu Gallery and Pictures.  It was a unit in a group of old, two-story, cement and wood row houses, quite run down after 50 or more years.

Manote admired the dark-room where the color and B&W film was processed.  It was quite decayed because it had been closed up for many years.  The second floor was a studio for picture-taking.  It was a large studio, very wide, lit by lamps rather than modern flash bulbs.  The chairs from England were still there where Lieng Eiu had the children and adults sit.  They had not been lost.  The painted backdrops with arches and climbing vines were rolled up and kept in the back of the dressing room.  In one corner was a place for touching up film.  Shelves for the glass film plates stretch from floor to ceiling.  The two tables where the pictures were touched up had completely fallen apart.  The room was filled with dust.  

What we saw before us was the past, once bright and flourishing.  Today, however, Lieng Eiu color lab has almost no trade at all.  It is a scene that makes one feel sad. The father who was so skilled is gone, and the changing world of photo technology has moved into the digital age where photography is at everyone’s fingertips.  Because of this, photo shops round the world, not just in Phuket or Thailand, had to completely change their business strategy.  The world leaves behind those who do not adapt quickly enough.

In any case, the works created by Lieng Eiu were appropriate for the world he was working from 1932 to 1978.  The works have become a priceless social, artistic and cultural heritage.  That period was one in which the mines were booming and growing at a fantastic pace and declined along with the passing of that master photographer.  Phuket’s mining operations closed down around 1992 -93 and business moved in the direction of tourism.

Nowadays, the works of Lieng Eiu which have been surveyed and discussed most of all are his glass plate images, a method he used from the early days when he first opened the shop in 1933 until 1969.  After that, acetate film was being produced. In this later period, photos were produced both in color and in B&W.  These works have not been investigated at all.

Kietipon and friend have scanned some of the glass plate images they have in hand, separating the plates into groups.  Almost all the pictures in the studio were of individuals.  Some were taken outside the studio – groups of students or marriage parties.

The pictures of persons in the studio include infants, toddlers, primary school children, teenagers, old people, monks, merchants, and civil servants.  If one is interested in the way of life of society and politics, a variety of races, ethnicities and beliefs are expressed in these photos.

If the men in the pictures wear Chinese attire, Muslim hats, or Sikh turbans, it seems uncertain that they are residents of Phuket.  But the island had a lot of mining interest for hundreds of years, and fortune hunters didn’t include only local Thai country folk.  People from many countries and of many races came to this island and mingled harmoniously with the locals.  The culture became mixed.  So, if one asks which of these pictured individuals are residents of Phuket, the answer will be – all of them.

But if one is interested in fashion and how people dress, there are pictures of charming, chic young women from the boom years of the mining industry, like starlets in early Thai movies.  They wear blouses with short sleeves and ‘flower-basket’ rounded necklines.  Their hair is cut short, above the shoulders with curls on the top or back of the head. They toss their heads or lean this way or that, with bright, fresh smiles.

We can see the seam in the culture where old people are still attired in traditional fashion, Baba women or Peranakan*, people in Chinese dress from China, or wearing the ‘jong krabane’ tucked-up sarong from the era of the 5th king.

[*Note: Baba women' and 'Peranakan'  are ethnic terms referring to members of a mixed Chinese (mostly Hokkien) and Malay racial population. They're sort of a creolized people within their own culture which is distinct from both Chinese and Malay culture. They don't assimilate, either, a very strange and interesting situation, which does not seem to happen much in central Thailand.  You only find them in the South in Thailand, but they are widely spread across Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia.]

The group of pictures of weddings is another beautiful set.  They reflect not a little an era and the taste of the people of Phuket.  The groom looks very smart and in fashion wearing a tuxedo instead of a suit and necktie.  The bride’s long white skirt has lace which also ornaments her head in angelic fashion.  Some couples choose to wear traditional dress in Thai style, Indian, or as Baba women and Peranakan

The works I have mentioned are only a tiny fraction, but very marvelous, of the works by Lieng Eiu.  He made it his role and function to record the essential life and culture of Phuket people in portrait photos during the latter years of Phuket’s mining boom era.

Unfortunately, his negatives are beginning to be scattered.  Some are sold; others are given away.  One thing I would like to suggest to the family, to the city of Phuket and to private and public tourism organizations is that they turn the old studio into a Lieng Eiu photography museum – but it should be a living museum. 
They should fix up the building, returning it to proper condition and atmosphere. Selections should be made from among the old negatives for recording and developing for display.  Some of the works can be enlarged and sold inexpensively to tourists.  The enterprise should remain in the hands of the photographer’s family.  Public relations should turn the site into a tourism attraction in that province.

This is one way of preserving artistic and cultural heritage upcountry in a place like Phuket.  It is a way of learning about the way of life in the past on this island.

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