It started in 1976. Photojournalist Eric Peris was travelling around Kuala Lumpur during his off-hours on the job and, having come from Singapore, Malaysia’s capital was new to him. So, he decided to capture it on film.
It was 20 years after Merdeka and KL was growing rapidly, turning into a modern city. Peris took pictures from the popular Revolving Restaurant at the top of Federal Hotel. It offered him marvellous views of the city as he captured images of the shopping centres along Batu Road (now Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman), and the famous Benteng (Embankment) food stretch that was nearby Central Market.
“It never occurred to me at that time that this series would be an exhibition,” Peris, 78, said about his photo exhibition Revisiting Kuala Lumpur, now showing at Sutra Gallery in KL. “It was just to have some record of the city.”
Peris was taking a walk around the city in January last year, and at Dataran Merdeka, he saw how much things had changed and how the landscape of the area was unrecognisable from his perspective.
“I tried to re-imagine the (Selangor Club) padang, all the sports activities that took place there,” he says. “But now I noticed tourist buses and no one playing on the field. Let’s not forget the changes to Masjid Jamek nearby, and across at KL Sentral, the whole railway yard is gone.”
“I just saw a different KL with every step,” Peris says. “I decided to look at the pictures I had taken in 1976 and realised KL had grown more than one would have imagined. I made prints of the 1976 pictures and decided to select 20 images that would bring a sharp contrast to what KL is today.”
Peris then teamed up with friends, photographer Lee Hong Leng and hotelier KF Choy, both of whom loved the idea of a photo exhibition of contrasting Kuala Lumpurs, then and now. “I told them I already have 20 images that I took 41 years ago,” says Peris. “KL today is what they had to record.”
All three men had the same view in realising the gallery show. “When Eric proposed the shoot, I was quite taken aback because in 1976 I had just come down to KL from Penang,” says Lee, 62, who shot the new images of the railway station and Federal Hotel’s new Bintang Revolving Restaurant.
“That was a time I was quite familiar with the surroundings. So, when he suggested we do a shoot of now’pictures, I was quite gung-ho about it and I had a very good time taking the photos,” Lee adds.
Choy, 65, photographed the Masjid Jamek vicinity and says, “I think a lot of people miss a lot of things about the places we shot for the exhibition. A lot of people take things for granted. They just go around KL without really noticing what’s around them.”
Peris wants the show to raise questions about the impact of over-development in the city. “It’s important to record, to help people understand the massive amount of development KL has been through. They should ask themselves, is this desirable or not? That’s up to each individual’s perception,” he says.
Peris adds that the exhibition is a result of team effort and good understanding. “Each session was discussed, and I would express what is missing as compared to the past. This exchange of picture ideas has resulted in a very good visual presentation of KL, past and present.”
Seeing differences between the pictures is amazing. In Peris’ 1976 photo taken from Federal Hotel’s revolving restaurant, you can spot the central range of mountains (Banjaran Titiwangsa) from the city. That view is no longer visible in 2018. In its place, landmarks like KLCC and KL Tower rise into the skyline.
The other images on display include Klang Bus Station, Benteng, and the former railway yard.
Peris says he misses old Kuala Lumpur, particularly the padang (Dataran Merdeka) and the Benteng. “Perhaps with better facilities for the stalls, proper lighting and laid out pavements, we could have kept Benteng as a much-loved food haunt today as it was back then,” he says.
“It is difficult for me to highlight a special image, from the past to the present,” he concludes. “To me all the images taken in 2017 tell the story of change, the story of growth, something that I would not have been able to imagine.”