The future could mean many things to many people. Its vocabularies are tossed and transformed with time as they shift within the spaces we occupy.
Just before 7 AM, I stood amid the waking city of Rifle Range Flats, where ideas about the future is cursed and contained within concrete. Here, blocks of lives remain unaware of one another; the struggles they encounter nor the aspirations they breathe.
In the open, residents meander and frolic in the food court, indistinct chatter grows as the sun lifts its veil. However, it is within the blocks themselves where everything grows quieter. Rubbish are found on Astro dishes, a lady lay sleeping on the sidewalk, and children pace around the stairs like robbers— quiet lest they get caught.
The government first thought of the Rifle Range Flats as one of the grandest, most modern housing plans in the 70s. As the first pre-cast concrete cluster in Penang, they represented a governmental desire to prosper economically by providing low-cost housing to the poor, inadvertently concealing the facade of poverty from the face of Malaysia’s national identity.
While private companies and the government alike are finding ways to generate more wealth, the people in Rifle Range together with their aspirations become forgotten, chucked in a dusty corner, enveloped in despair.
However, concealment is only a deception waiting to uncovered.
While deracination breeds new forms of immobility and deeper problems of poverty, new meanings of hope can be found if you look hard enough. With a camera in hand, I roamed from floor to floor and block to block in search of narratives– dispirited ones, or hopeful ones– and found that there was a little of both behind every enclosure.
At home, Srideran sits at a far side of a couch because he can no longer walk. He had broken his leg from a fall down the stairs and it is journeying a very slow recovery. He sits quietly as his grand daughter, barely 3 years old, runs around the four-walled flat with her diapers on.
Srideran and his wife, Kalimmal have seven children. They talk fervently of a son, Genesan who is paralysed waist down due to his involvement in a gang fight. He was only 22 then. I met him later near the market, realising he was begging for money.
With all of them out of a job, they live off on Ganesan’s welfare providence of RM 300 a month and a little allowance from a daughter who works at a hospital.
“Are you happy?” we asked. Kalimmal laughed almost mockingly and said there’s no such thing as happiness when one is barely surviving with little money.
Surrounded by large altars dedicated to money gods, 72-year old Ooi Sui Huat lives alone. He talks about his riches— a Mercedes, Volvo and a Honda Accord, and 2 houses which now goes on the market for nearly RM 1 million each.
Out of his six children however, only 2 comes back to visit, giving him RM 100 to spend. This is the future he now knows, he says, where even his death will come and go unannounced and uncelebrated.
“Children are ungrateful. All they care about is money.”
Madam Chong lives with her twin grand daughters— Esther and Estie. They have lived their whole lives in Java– where their parents are at– until two months ago to pursue their studies in Mechanical Engineering in Segi College. Esther is the quieter one from the two, but she told me that she wanted to build aircrafts.
I creased my forehead when they said they wanted their future to begin in Malaysia, with a brand new home and a brand new life. They wondered at my surprise as the cynic in me wished to tell them to look elsewhere.
Popo smiles at our conversation. She herself have moved from Singapore to Penang– to a life she is not accustomed to, one that to her is irreplaceable. Here, she looks after her twins, and guards the house they now live in. She sits near the balcony, knitting a maroon scarf to keep herself busy.
From the outside in, we project bleak vocabularies onto decrepit buildings and the people inside it. In fact, we don’t think about the them much at all. However, beyond negative perceptions of poverty and inabilities are these lives eager to leave their nests at the Rifle Range– a deeply symbolic move to break free from the impenetrable rhythms of poverty: aspirations that seem to us a normalcy– one rife with possibilities that we are lost instead in indecision and impetuousness.
As the night draws, I am ready to leave. The van takes us back to our hotel in the city where we can finally take a warm shower and rest our heads on decadent beds. We come and go like daffodils, and the people we have left behind weave garlands of the future as they wait in the dark.
This photo essay was first presented at Think City’s Urban Regeneration Camp for journalists on 24th August 2015. Founded in Penang, Think City is a wholly owned subsidiary of Khazanah National Berhad with the aim to increase the wellbeing of communities by creating more sustainable and liveable cities.
The stories here are merely glimpses into the lives of the people I’ve met, inadequate attempts to capture emotions and observations that if I were to write them down, would transpire into an essay 10 times as long as this. If you wish to find out more about my experience, you could always give me a buzz or drop me an email. firstname.lastname@example.org