Recently, on weekend mornings, I’ve been doing a “back alley sketch-crawl” through Johor Bahru’s (Malaysia) downtown back alleys. A pink wall, heavily stained with chipped paint, mould and cracks, and a mad tangle of barbed wire, and another building with a grime-filled spiral staircase and battered corrugation were just too intriguing to pass up. This alley is in the central Kotaraya area of Johor Bahru, which is the ‘sleazy’ part of town – but on a Sunday AM it’s relatively empty and quiet.
As I’m adding the wall textures & colors on the pink wall with barbed wire, an older Chinese man stops to look at my work, and tells me that this is his building – it was once a printing press but now it is closed. His print specialty was letterpress, a classic form of printing that’s now a dinosaur in the print industry. His name is Mr. Soo, and he takes a photo of me with my sketch, in front of the shop wall. I’m fascinated by finding a traditional letterpress print shop here – but I’m also sad knowing that it’s time as a much admired craft is over.
On the morning that I sketch the spiral staircase, on a nearby balcony (but unfortunately, just out of my sketching view) a "working girl" wrapped only in a towel hangs her frilly underwear out to dry in the morning sun!
One of the main issues with sketching old dilapidated Johor structures is the knowledge that they may soon be demolished, and that their history (their ‘stories’) will be gone forever. Yet, I feel a satisfaction that my sketching ‘introduces’ me to rewarding occurrences – I learn a bit about the history of Johor Bahru, and through my drawings I can ‘preserve’ that soon-to-be-lost history.