Abhi Chinniah shares the personal story behind creating a collaborative photographic exhibition touring Aotearoa.
Words and photos: Abhi Chinniah
I was sitting in the front passenger seat of my papa’s maroon Fiat Tempra. We’d just come off a long flight. I was amazed by the car’s air conditioning unit because in Christchurch we had a fireplace to keep warm, but in Malaysia, we were trying to keep cool. “Where is the snow?” Papa found my question funny. We were moving to Kuantan, on the East Coast of Malaysia. Back then, on the cusp of a new millennium, Kuantan was a remote town with little to do. I would stick out like a sore thumb because of my Kiwi accent and natural talkativeness, none of which were accepted when I embarked into Malaysia’s public school system. This feeling of not belonging didn’t quite fit with my family's history in Malaysia.
My paternal grandfather, Vaithalingam Chinniah, left Jaffna, Sri Lanka for British Malaya (now Malaysia) in September 1919. In 1930 he was placed in the development of a then-new estate, a virgin jungle that he had to transform into a flourishing oil palm plantation. His primary responsibility was the cleaning of the jungles for the cultivation of rubber and oil palm trees. It took a severe toll on pioneers like my grandfather who worked under horrendous conditions. My father’s older brother would continue the legacy; both father and son spent a total of 72 years with the plantation. When my father came along, the youngest of eight siblings, the family wanted to give him opportunities they never had.
Many moons later, in 1973 my papa came to New Zealand seeking opportunities Malaysia wouldn’t give him. He often told me about how he arrived with nothing but...
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