Liew's lens of history

Rare photo of photographer Liew Wee Peng [holding camera]
 in an event with HRH Sultan Ismail and Sultanah Tun Aminah
EVERY day, many cars and pedestrians pass through use Jalan Ibrahim in Johor Baru, daily but perhaps just only a few would notice the Johor Heng Photo Studio, which is situated to the left of the T-junction where Jalan Trus meets Jalan Ibrahim.

The studio is one of the few professional photography shops that opened for began its business that opened as early as in the 1900s.

Named after its original owner, Heng Kok Wee, the studio is still in business today, now operated by two brothers — Alex Liew Ah Lek, 64, and Liew Kok Choy, 61, — the sons of Heng’s photographer, Liew Wee Peng.

Born in Bentong, Pahang, in 1913, the senior Liew moved to live in Johor Baru when he was about 10 years old.  He took up photography as a hobby and later in 1936 opened Peng Kwang Photo Studio in Ulu Tiram.  The hardworking Liew did not wait for customers to come to his studio but he would go out to find business, riding his bicycle to places as far as Tampoi, Plentong, Masai, Skudai and Kulai.  Over the next six years, he developed a thriving business but when World War II broke out, Liew had to close his studio.

Alex Liew or Ah Lek, at ground floor entrance
to Johor Heng Photo Studio on Jalan Ibrahim
The Japanese soon discovered Liew’s photography skills and ordered him to report to the their military headquarters to work on the production of their print items. shooting photos for them.  They issued him a permit which gave him the right to travel around to take photos for them.  Liew put his skills to good use and gained much experience but was glad when the war was over and so he could return to civilian life.

Liew moved to Johor Baru in 1946 and found a job as a photographer with Johor Heng Photo Studio. The collection of old photos now displayed in at the studio now is a legacy of Liew’s work. Wall-to-wall mounted photos from on the ground floor wall, , along the staircase and the landing upstairs are a rare anthology of Johor’s early development and history.

Some of the priceless photos taken including those of streets and buildings, include portraits and the portrait of Sultan Ibrahim Abu Bakar, who was the Sultan of Johor from 1895 to 1959.  Many black and white, and special colour shots captured happy scenes of the Sultan and his wife, Lady Marcella, with their daughter, Tunku Miriam.

Brothers, Ah Lek [Right] and Kok Choy [Left]
often posed for their father
Rarer still was a photo of Liew the photographer, in — a candid shot taken by someone else at an event with Sultan Ismail Ibrahim and his wife, Sultanah Tun Aminah.

Ah Lek and Kok Choy inherited his interest in photography probably because they were continually exposed to the to their father’s excitement of in capturing precious moments.  Very often the boys went out with Liew on assignments and they were sometimes the models in their father’s photos.

When Heng passed away, the senior Liew took over the business and retained maintained the studio’s established name and reputation.  In 1964, Ah Lek joined his father to work with in the studio and younger brother, Kok Choy also joined the business.

They learnt the ropes from Liew and are skilled in operating the ancient old shutter camera. Around the 1960's 60s, the flash-bulb camera was introduced, but it was expensive to use because the bulb could only be used once, and after which it had to be thrown away.  When their father died, Ah Lek and Kok Choy inherited the business and now the studio is kept open for heritage hunters to explore and enjoy the nostalgia of a by-gone era.

Old camera in Johor Heng Photo Studio

The double doors of the entrance leading to the studio upstairs are panelled with mirrors and the sign above the door them boasts of an air-conditioned building.  It was the early days of air-conditioning, you see, and it was considered posh for a shop to have an air-conditioner.

The studio has an interesting wall designed plastered with a landscape poster and mock-up a mock-up of a series of Moorish arches that customers once found used to find fashionable to pose for in front of for photos.

This wooden rattle must have coaxed countless smiles!
There is also a fascinating collection of old cameras that ranged from the wooden made-in-Shangai Seagull brand shutter camera from 1950 to an older model without identification details.

Do not miss the gigantic rattle created out of wood wooden rattle that must have coaxed smiles from countless children whose for photos were successfully taken in this studio throughout generations.

Johor Heng Photo Studio at is at 61-A Jalan Ibrahim, Johor Baru.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 7 December 2010

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