I started documenting the passing of time, in fits and starts, about eight years ago. As a documentary photographer, capturing the decisive moment is one of my mantras. But I wanted to show more than one moment in a single photograph. Shooting during the golden hours at dawn and dusk, at first I used long exposures and time-striped composites. Later I experimented with time-lapse photography.

Transitions brings these concepts together and uses still images to show changes in light, movement and people. It is a change measured in hours, one we often don’t notice because we rarely stand still long enough to observe it.

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Bryan, the title of your TwentyFifteen.sg series is Transitions. What is the biggest and most drastic transition you have witnessed in Singapore?

I think Singapore has changed a great deal since I left for my studies in the USA 18 years ago. It started with the proliferation of new buildings and the landscape changing (and still changing) every few months. I’ve been disturbed at how we’ve gone from being a welcoming society to a more xenophobic one. I’m heartened by the modernisation but disappointed with the cavalier way we’ve been discarding our heritage. Things are always in a state of flux here. I guess for this project, I’m starting by trying to document the most basic of changes in our local landscapes.

What is it about the “passing of time”, which you mentioned in your introduction, that intrigues you as a photographer?

Photography has traditionally been about a single moment. That split second when things come together and a picture tells a story, has a good emotion and strong composition. This was one of the main pillars in my formative years as a photographer, when documentary photography and photojournalism was all I really concentrated on in the broader framework of photography

However, I’ve always been intrigued by time-lapse photography and I’m constantly amazed at how different the environment becomes when you see it over time. I guess I’m used to shooting in the now, and when you shoot that way, all that is important are the things that are happening at that moment. When you work on a time-lapse shot, you shoot multiple moments, and the accumulation of many variables inevitably shows you changes that you don’t notice until you put them all together. I guess you could say I’m experimenting with trying to show time passing in a single picture.

In your own words, Transitions is a mix of concepts; time-lapse, composites, long exposures etc. Why did you attempt a mixture instead of keeping to a ‘consistent’ style?

Change is never consistent. Those familiar with my earlier work know that this project is a pretty huge departure for me. I’ve been used to more documentary/photojournalism projects and as mentioned above, this body of work is derived more from experimentation than a highly stylised concept. The base method is the same for all the images, but the approach I chose for each one is done to best showcase each particular scenario.

Which image took the longest to make?

Well, the earlier pictures took longer as I was trying out different timings to see how the pictures would end up. For the Esplanade picture, I shot from 10 a.m. in the morning to 10 p.m. at night to see the different sorts of pictures I would get throughout the day. Once I learnt to streamline the process and choose the time windows, the shots averaged three to four hours per image.

On the topic of transitions, what was the most difficult part of making the move from being a full-time photojournalist for the dailies to being a freelance photographer?

he move from an “iron rice bowl” to the uncertainty of being a photographer who only gets paid for what he shoots. Running your own business is terrifying sometimes. No matter how good a month (or months) you’re having, you’re always thinking ahead and worrying about what’s going to happen down the road. You spend time cultivating good working relationships with clients and you constantly have to be on top of your game.

I think every newspaper photographer has, at some point or other, dialled in an assignment when they were tired. You can’t even think of doing that when you work for yourself. “You’re only as good as your last picture” is one of the lines that I tell budding photographers, and the same is true for people who have been doing this for awhile. If you are content to rest on your laurels, your work will start to stagnate. So a professional photographer needs to be constantly pushing the boundaries and trying new things.

How do you juggle your time as a freelance photographer with having three children?

That’s a good question! I used to worry about not having time to do personal projects now that I had to balance kids and work. Parents out there know how time-consuming this is. Then I realised that my personal project, for now at least, is my kids. I’m pretty sure they’ll have some nice childhood pictures to show at their wedding dinners!

From the photos, it appears that family plays a crucial role in your photography. How do you hope these images to be kept for future generations?

I guess it’s not hard to keep shooting them as they are almost always around! Keeping the images for the future generation – that is an ongoing headache. Unlike the film days, where you have prints and negatives, these days everything is on a computer or in a hard drive. I really need to get on with printing pictures! But who knows … maybe a book is in the cards.

Who are your influences in photography?

Where do I start? Sebastião Salgado for showing dignity in the poorest of subjects, James Nachtwey for never shying away from showing us how ugly we humans can be, Alex Webb for his patience and insane ability to see light, Garry Winogrand for showing how free photography can be. Of course there’s a whole slew of photographers and friends I’ve had the greatest fortune to know (including all of the folks at PLATFORM) who have shaped me by showing me that life is not just about documentary photography!

You have a love for motorbikes. How do you think you can interweave photography into this other love of yours?

I’m still working on that. Mixing shooting and riding is kinda like mixing music and reading. If you are concentrating on reading, the music fades into the background, and if you are listening to music intently, the works on the page in front of you tend to fade away. I’ve done a couple of bike rides in Japan and there were so many times I wanted to stop and take pictures, but that would have killed the riding experience. I settled for shooting at rest stops, and to me that was just a fraction of the whole experience.

That said, I’m actually working on a series of portraits of riders and their rides. It’s all for fun at this point, but who knows where it will go!

What would you have been if you were not a photographer?

Fwah … tough question. I think I would probably be selling something or other. I seem to have a knack for doing that. Or something that involves talking (I seem to have a knack for that too).

What do you hope to see happen the most in the Singapore photography scene?

I think the growth spurt in the Singapore photography scene has already happened, and we’ve seen an amazing number of photographers emerge from this. I’d like to see less sniping and photographers overly possessive about their “unique ideas”. More collaborations and fewer cliques.

Looking back at your work, how do you think you have grown as a photographer?

I have no idea, I tend to be very self-deprecating about my work, but people seem to like it so I’ll leave it to them to decide. I think that I still have fun shooting. I know it doesn’t sound like growth, but keeping oneself enthused after shooting for so long isn’t always an easy thing.

The portrait of Bryan van der Beek was drawn by Flee Circus; and Leonard Goh, who anchors all the interviews in this series, is a co-founder of Platform.

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11791046_10152850712266076_1021232411_oBryan van der Beek is an award-winning commercial and editorial photographer based in Singapore. His images cover Asia, North America and Europe. A former executive photojournalist with The Straits Times, he has also worked with newspapers in the United States. His photographs have appeared in international publications such as TIME, TIME Asia, Newsweek and the Washington Post. Bryan’s photographs can be found in the permanent collection of the National Museum of Singapore. A graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism, he has lectured at Nanyang Technological University, Temasek Polytechnic and the Objectifs Centre for Photography and Filmmaking.


The portrait of Bryan van der Beek was drawn by Flee Circus.

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Sim Chi Yin is a documentary photographer based in Beijing. She is one of 20 photographers around the world represented by the New York-based VII Photo Agency.

She has a particular interest in migration and works on social issues in the region. She has won grants for her projects from the Asia Society (New York), Open Society Foundations and the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting. In 2010, she was awarded a Magnum Foundation Photography and Human Rights fellowship at New York University.

In 2013, Chi Yin was named one of Photo District News’ top 30 emerging photographers, and she was a finalist for the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography for her personal project on Chinese gold miners. In 2014, she was included in the British Journal of Photography’s “Ones to Watch” list of photographers.

She has created photo, multimedia and short film projects commissioned by international clients such as TIME, the New York Times, the New Yorker, National Geographic, Le Monde, Newsweek, Vogue (USA), GQ (France), Financial Times Magazine, New York Times Magazine and Stern. Her work has also been exhibited and collected by photo festivals, art galleries, auction houses and foundations in Paris, Arles, Oslo, Hannover, New York and China.

A fourth-generation overseas Chinese, Chi Yin was born and grew up in Singapore. She did history and international relations degrees at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Before becoming a full-time photographer, she was a journalist and foreign correspondent for The Straits Times, Singapore’s national English language daily, for nine years.

Chi Yin sometimes dreams in mute, black-and-white mode, but in real life she is fascinated by colour and light, and is at home in both English and Mandarin Chinese.

She has been living and working in China since 2007.


The portrait of Sim Chi Yin was drawn by Flee Circus.

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Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 4.44.27 pm
In the yellowed photograph, a tanned man with a high forehead and thick lips wore
a white shirt and trousers – and a twin-lens camera around his neck.

I was intrigued.

The man was my paternal grandfather, Shen Huansheng (沈焕盛) – the only other
photographer and journalist in the family, as I later found out. Relatives had rarely
spoken about him since his death in 1949.

All I had heard, vaguely, was that he had died in China, where there was
a monument to him. What had he done to have that, I wondered? How, in this
family so staunchly apolitical, did I have a granddad who was a Communist martyr?
The topic, though, was taboo in our family. No one wanted to reopen this old
chapter of history. The years passed.

It wasn’t until 2011 that I travelled back to our village and back in time, to start
piecing his story together.

A generation earlier, at the turn of the twentieth century, my great-grandfather, like
so many Hakkas and other southern Chinese, left the impoverished mountains of
east Guangdong to set sail for Southeast Asia or farther, becoming part of the
growing Chinese diaspora. (The Hakkas are now Singapore’s fourth-largest dialect
group, numbering 200,000.)

Granddad, who then grew up and spent most of his life in British Malaya, sailed
back in the opposite direction in early 1949. He faced a stark choice: be tried as
a Communist sympathiser in Malaya or be deported. He chose the latter after being
arrested and imprisoned by the British in Perak in late 1948, in the early months
of the Malayan Emergency. The exact circumstances of his arrest are not clear,
but from information I have been able to piece together, it was either for
having written anti-colonial editorials as the chief editor of the leftist Ipoh Daily
newspaper or on suspicion of channelling funds to the Malayan Communist Party’s
armed insurgency.

Soon after returning to China, he went up the hills near our ancestral village in
Meixian (梅县) to join a Chinese Communist guerrilla army unit. In mid-1949,
he ran into rival Kuomintang (KMT) soldiers when he was coming downhill. He was
imprisoned by them and later shot in a mass execution of prisoners-of-war as the
KMT retreated towards Taiwan. Granddad was killed in July 1949, just two months
shy of the Communist victory over most of China. He was 38.

The fate of our family turned on his death.

My grandmother, left to raise their five young children in Malaya, banned them
from talking about their father and China, and from being interested in politics.
She never seemed to really recover from his departure, believing that he chose
politics over family.

For most of us who grew up during or after the Cold War, Communism is a tainted
word – especially in what became present-day Singapore and Malaysia. But in the
times that Granddad lived, global politics and the personal were deeply intertwined,
and many, like him, made choices that might have seemed most natural to them.
He was part of a wave of overseas Chinese who went back to the mainland in the
late 1940s into the 1950s, eager to help build “New China” (新中国).

Two generations later, I unwittingly became interested in modern Chinese history
and spent much of my time at university focused on Mao’s policies. Without
knowing our family’s past, I became a journalist, and a foreign correspondent
and photographer based in Beijing, documenting a slice of the China that has
emerged from the ideological struggle that Granddad – and so many others –
died in, died for.

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11774452_10153013087057045_250720554_nWe know it was a photograph that started it all. Who kept the photo and how did you come to see it?

My mum showed it to me one day. Our family had virtually never spoken about him. I knew I had a grandfather who died in China, and I’d heard that some kind of monument was built for him – but it was all very vague. None of us had been interested to find out what it was about.
In my memory, it was when my mum showed me the photo that I got really interested. I was about to move to China at the time [2007], I think. My parents had only a few photos of my granddad. There were many of him at my uncle’s and aunt’s, but this was the one my mum dug out to show me.

Would you have been interested in the story if the photo didn’t show him with a camera around his neck?

I think I still would have been. I was curious about what he had done to deserve a monument, especially since I come from such an extremely apolitical family. I wondered about the past and what led us to be so apolitical, and why my parents, especially my dad, were always ultra-conservative about life choices. Even without the photo, I think I still would have gone on to find out why there was a monument.

Just perhaps not at that moment?

I always berate myself for not having acted earlier. I started the project only after I quit my job at The Straits Times. If I had done so when I first moved to China, which was eight years ago now, I would have learned so much more. The typesetter at the Ipoh Daily who worked with my granddad was still alive then.

One other key person, my 姑婆 Gu Po (grandfather’s half-sister), also died before I got to interview her. She lived in Singapore for many years, but at the time I wasn’t sensitised to the need to quickly record history. She had spent over 30 years with my granddad – she could have told me so much about him! But I didn’t ask her anything. My uncle asked her some questions but not in detail.

Your uncle completed a 50-page history of your family.

He finished it in May this year. What we know of my granddad’s life came from there: how he was born in Hong Kong, was taken to Malaya by his mother to join his father when he was still very young, then grew up mostly in what is now northern Malaysia, in Perak. He was educated in Malaya and Xiamen, and graduated with a degree in politics and law from a university in Shanghai.

My uncle’s account was of course written from his perspective as a son, but in speaking to both him and my aunt in Penang – the two who were the closest to my Ye Ye 爷爷 (grandfather), of all his children – they speak very highly of their father. Their impression was of a virtuous, thrifty, socially engaged and honourable person. He was prepared to speak for his community, offering to negotiate with the Japanese himself during the war when the Japanese turned up at the village.

He was conscientious about everything. They do say he was not a very good father, though, in that he was always busy. But, in his community and in the school, he was a man whom everybody looked up to.

In the way you’ve had to piece the story together, this is probably no different than your other projects. But of course this concerns your family.

This is very personal and it cuts very close. There are some things I discovered that I don’t think the family wants to talk about. For example, my granddad had a tong yang xi 童养媳, a girl who was matchmade to him in our ancestral village in Guangdong, China when he was a child.

However, in searching for his story, I’ve been in much closer contact with my own family members. From the time I was a child, the family had never been very close. But because of the project, I’ve initiated a lot of contact with my eldest uncle. There was baggage between him and my parents that I don’t have, and that they have since put aside. My mum told me it was because I reached out to him.

This story is deeply personal, but every story is different, and others are moving too.

So how is this different from your other stories? You’re emotionally invested too – perhaps it isn’t that different?

It’s different. This one is very much in the past, so the emotions are not present-day emotions. The one part that has been difficult is my relationships with the relatives in the village in Meixian (in Meizhou, Guangdong), which are extremely complicated. We are such different people. Their expectations of my behaviour are cast in stone, so it becomes difficult when I defy these categories.

It also made me emotional and angry to see how they treat the memory of my grandfather. When my family and I went back in 2011, we asked the relatives for one room in the house in which to put up a charcoal drawing of my grandfather. They agreed to keep the room locked and clear of furniture. But when I went back to visit last summer, I found that someone else had taken the room. The portrait had been taken out and put in the so-called living room, which was really where they put their trash. I was very angry.

So it’s very complicated. There’s a lot of this ma fan (troublesome) stuff. Sometimes it’s difficult to extract myself and just be an observer, when all I want to do – all I need to do, for the purposes of the story – is to write and record.

The project has also been quite fun. I don’t want to come across as clichéd or pretentious, but I feel a spiritual connection with my grandfather. He died at 38 and I am coming up to that age. By all accounts, he was a man with a sense of social justice, who wanted to do something for his community. He was interested in politics and was definitely left of centre – what they called “progressive” in those days. I like this guy! I think I would have liked him. If only he had lived, I think he might have been the one person in the family who would not have discouraged me from what I do, with whom I could have conversations and to whom I could relate.

But, of course, if he had lived I wouldn’t be here in the first place. His death was the turning point for the family. If he had lived, he would likely have become some kind of official in Meizhou – the nearest big city to our ancestral village – and he would have brought the family there. My father would not have met my mother, then.

Would you have taken such an interest in him, if he had not been someone you liked?

Probably not. He seems to have been a really interesting guy! He had done a lot by the time he was 38. I’m in admiration of a man who had conviction, as far as I can tell. Because my family had been frowning on not just my career choices, but also my interest in social and political issues and my involvement in Singapore civil society, I feel a sense of vindication and that’s part of the meaning in this search for my granddad’s story.

People have asked me during interviews, when they look at my work, where my sense of social justice come from. A lot of it came from school – my secondary school teachers sensitised me to a lot of stuff, that shaped me and helped me find my purpose in life very early on. But having discovered my grandfather, I almost wonder if it comes from a deeper well. It’s a bit kooky to say so, but my relatives are convinced that the genes skipped a generation.

So if he had turned out to be a boring guy without all this history, I would have probably found his grave, paid my respects and that would have been it. But because he was this interesting, multi-layered person, and the only other journalist and photographer in the family, I am quite fascinated by him and his story.

You’re a fangirl.

I’m not a fangirl, I’m just fascinated that out of this apolitical family, there was someone who was so interesting, who stood up for his beliefs and acted on his convictions.

Someone like you.

It resonates with me. It makes me feel it is okay to be like this in this family, because someone had done it before – and he was my grandfather.

Let’s come back to the family. To tell the story, you had to rally the family for support. It became a family journey. How did that affect family relations?

Overall family relationships have been improving over the years, as I’ve gotten older and they’ve mellowed. Of course we still yell at each other when we spend a lot of time together. Because of my interest in my grandfather, I’ve taken the whole family back to Meizhou twice. So we’ve gone on trips together, which we didn’t use to do.

I think my father is quietly heartened that I’ve taken such an interest in this, but at the same time he kept saying to me, “This is all in the past, don’t spend so much time on this”. My eldest uncle and I have certainly bonded over this project. We used to see each other once every couple of years; now he emails me every week because of the project. He comes over for meals when I come back to Singapore for visits.

And the first trip we went back to Meizhou, in 2011, was very emotional for them. Especially on the day we went to my granddad’s monument and grave to pay respects, for the first time after 62 years. When they saw how run-down it has become, with the urn popping out of the ground because of erosion, they teared. Everybody cried on the trip, whether when they saw the urn, or when I interviewed them on the train ride back to Guangzhou from our village.

It was very emotional, my eldest uncle cried telling the story, especially when he recalled how my grandfather died quickly – he was executed soon after he was taken by the Kuomintang – but my grandmother suffered for the rest of her life. She never remarried and she had a very difficult relationship with her mother-in-law. She fell into dementia in her final years and died when I was 15. But the heartbreak she must have felt, and the loneliness she must have carried with her for the rest of her life, was something that my uncle was very upset by. My youngest uncle also started crying non-stop when we talked about this, because he had been the closest to his mother.

Was it the first time you saw them cry?

I’ve seen my eldest uncle tear up once before. It was in 2011, Chinese New Year. On an earlier trip to Meixian, I had collected all these videos and oral histories. I went from place to place to show them – to my eldest uncle’s place in Singapore, to Penang to show my aunt, to Kuala Lumpur to show my youngest uncle.

When I showed the material to my eldest uncle, I made a video of him and my dad. My uncle described how the British intelligence officers and policemen came to the provision shop to arrest my grandfather. He described the whole scene in very vivid detail, how the officers came and surrounded the house, how my father was just coming back from a haircut, and he saw my grandfather being handcuffed. That was the last time they saw his father. When he talked about this, he teared up, although that happened in 1948, a very long time ago.

How did it make you feel? Many of us rarely see our parents and uncles and aunts cry.

Ya … I don’t know, I’m a hardened journalist (laughs), I make a lot of people cry with my questions. It was a bit awkward, but I was relieved in a way, because I have always felt our family is kind of unemotional, very unexpressive, and the relations are cold. We’re not close, there’s no touch, it’s almost as if there’s no emotional investment in one another.

It’s a funny thing to say about a family. But my family is distant too, in a way.

My family is super distant. My mum and dad have not been close to their own families, either, and I feel a sense of regret that we’re not close to our extended family. That’s the change in me, I suppose, because when I was younger I didn’t think about the importance of family. In some ways I’m still rather neglectful of a lot of things about the family, but this story has helped me to reconnect and start to feel some sense of emotional investment and connection with some of the family. I never thought it was important to spend time with family before, but as I get older, and as I work on this project, I am valuing the relations and our time together a lot more.

The other dimension of this is my exploration of my relationship with China. Discovering that I have a grandfather who died in China for the Chinese revolution is a strange yet important thing for me, because I’ve been in China for eight years now and I have a love-hate relationship with the country and with my life there. I am fascinated by it, but at the same time, living there wears me down. So to have a link as close as my own Ye Ye, to the land, the country, and to the idea of the country, and the idea of communism in the country, is an important link for me to explore.

You were trained to be a historian, and have long been fascinated by Chinese history. Now you find a personal story that seems made for your professional interest.

Ya, it’s a confluence of things. That’s why I was really excited to discover him. It’s not just that I am a fangirl, it’s that it’s China, it’s my academic interest. It calls on all my training as a history student – archival work and looking up source material, piecing things together and doing different interpretations of things. Our home village is also quite a beautiful place to photograph. So it’s an exciting confluence of things.

As a journalist, you’re exposed to the negative side a lot, you’re always critical of the current political situation and critical of the government. Then to discover that my own granddad died for this government, this party, and died fighting for the ideals that this party purports to aspire to, it’s fascinating. And it’s something that I come back to when I’m fed up about being and working in China, dealing with the system. I tell myself I shouldn’t give up so easily because I have a personal link to this place. I want to try and dig deeper.

By sharing what you’ve documented, you’ve taken an intensely personal story into the public domain. What motivated you to do that?

I think this story is many things to many people. I have spoken about the project in a few places, including Asia Society in New York and the National Museum of Singapore, and I usually present it at the end of my body of work. It’s usually this story that fascinates people.

It has many layers. On the one hand, it is the story of how individuals were forced to make stark choices with grave consequences during the Cold War and they made sacrifices for their political ideology. It is also a story of the Chinese diaspora – the Hakka diaspora in this case – their departure for Malaya and what became of their lives. (Hakkas are Singapore’s fourth-largest dialect group, numbering 200,000.) Diaspora communities anywhere can relate to this.

On yet another level, it is a story of how families get caught up in politics. I think many families in Southeast Asia can relate to this. Many Southeast Asian Chinese of our generation had grandfathers, granduncles or people of that generation return to China in the 1940s and 1950s. Some even went back during the Cultural Revolution because they were taken with this search for leftism and Maoism. People met different fates – some stayed on, some were killed.

I know the project’s not finished yet, but do you think it has changed you in some ways?

I am certainly more aware of where I come from. I feel a sense of comfort knowing that I have a grandfather who did all these things and had a sense of conviction and sense of social justice. I feel comforted by that.

It has helped me in some ways to come to terms with my relationship with China, because I ask myself why I am still there after so long. My grandfather died for this new China, and by some strange coincidence, I am back in China trying to document what that revolution has become. It gives that additional layer of meaning to what I am doing.

I’m in a bit of a strange position. As a foreign journalist, I am in a privileged position – I speak Chinese and look Chinese, and get access to some stories that some other people don’t. I am officially an expat, but when I go to our town and village, they say, “You’ve come back” or “You’ve come home.” But is it really my home? It’s not really my home. I feel like something of an in-between. Obviously I am not mainland Chinese, I think very differently, and I see things differently. But neither am I a full-fledged expat with no familial ties to the place. I’m in between.

Chan Tse Chueen is a Singaporean journalist based in Hong Kong. She was with Chi Yin on her first trip to Meixian.

The portrait of Sim Chi Yin was drawn by Flee Circus;

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Points of View
Yu-Mei Balasingamchow

In John Clang’s image “Dragon playground”, from his series The Land of My Heart for TwentyFifteen.sg, five women dressed in Singapore Airlines (SIA) stewardess uniforms are staged on and around a dragon playground structure in a Housing and Development Board (HDB) estate. Clang’s series is calculated to provoke and subvert the lush visual language of the SIA’s iconic advertisements, and this particular image seems to summon up the question: what is Singapore? Is it the promise of Oriental submission conjured by the SIA girls (who have in fact retired from the airline)? The safe, unthreatening nostalgia for “uniquely Singaporean” landmarks like the dragon playground? The anonymous HDB block that has become a synecdoche for the Singapore everyman experience?

Or is Singapore the land of the migrant workers and passers-by, looking on from the edge of the photo? Then there are the trees, looming over the playground and the people, the garden city grown to maturity alongside the HDB flats. Finally there is the pencilled-in statement, “No, Singapore is not China.”—a refutation Clang and many Singaporeans have had to make to foreigners, and one that is destabilised, in this photograph, by the dominant Chinese imagery of the dragon motif and the neatly swept long hair and demure posture of the Chinese SIA girls.

Another TwentyFifteen.sg series, Senseless Spaces by Chow Chee Yong, takes as its subject the residue or traces of urban structures—drains, paths, fences and barriers—that were left behind after rebuilding or redevelopment. Steps lead purposefully up to an impassable wall, drains and walkways compete in irreverent (and redundant) zigzags, ghostly walls and barriers protrude out of newer constructions. This, too, is Singapore—a landscape pared down to a vivid black-and-white meditation on the national obsession with upgrading and urban renewal. There are no sympathetic human figures in these barren images, yet Chow’s unswerving focus on man-made concrete and metal structures paradoxically reinforces the human presence in every scene.

Dissimilar as they are, Clang’s and Chow’s series both capture the absurd poignancy of Singapore in the mid-2010s. While the nation has been instructed to celebrate what it has achieved in the last 50 years, on an everyday basis contradictions abound. Singapore today is an idea still being fought over, from the most top-secret Cabinet rooms to the ceaseless fray of the internet: who or what counts as Singaporean, what does Singapore stand for, what kind of society should it be? Put the Chinese SIA girl and the South Asian migrant worker into the same tableau (or in the same room), and some people’s heads explode.

TwentyFifteen.sg did not set out to explode myth, challenge history or define “national” identity. Its starting point was simple (some might even say, simplistic): PLATFORM would publish the work of 20 Singaporean photographers, presenting 15 images each on the subject of Singapore, in the months leading up to August 2015. What constitutes “Singapore” as a subject was left to the individual photographer’s imagination. There was no ambition to represent “all” of Singapore, or to respond to the assumptions underpinning Singapore’s putative 50-year history.

That is not to say that the resulting work has been ahistorical or dehistoricised. Indeed, the first folio in the series, For My Son by Darren Soh, is a gentle evocation of past, present and future: the past, in that almost all the buildings and structures in his images have been demolished; the present, in that this is Singapore, the endless cycle of building, demolishing and rebuilding that animates the city; and the future, in dedicating the book to his son, which inevitably conjures the question of what Singapore the younger Soh will inherit in the decades to come.

In a different way, past, present and future intersect in Robert Zhao’s series Singapore 1925–2025. His carefully constructed images of speculative Singapore landscapes reflect the formality of the 19th-century tourist gaze, as well as present-day concerns about rampant urbanisation and the marginalisation of nature. These landscapes do not literally exist, yet they summon up enough realism to hover on the edge of existence, as if they might shimmer into being in the next instant. In that respect, they appear to be more vivid and authentic than reality itself (“View of Marina Bay Sands” is particularly compelling).

That line between fact and fiction, preconceived notion and imaginative possibility, zigzags with varying intensity through the TwentyFifteen.sg projects. The family is reimagined in Sean Lee’s Two People and Ore Huiying’s We Are Farmers. Zinkie Aw’s Singaporelang attempts to turn the distinctive sounds of Singlish into studied images. Lim Weixiang’s Our Coastline and Kevin WY Lee’s Bay of Dreams interrogate the shoreline and Marina Bay Sands respectively, finding intimate, less-than-obvious moments on a human scale. Ernest Goh’s The Gift Book zooms in on the delicate beauty of local nature with his close-up portraits of insects, while Sit Weng San and Columba Cruz Elton’s Drawing Triangle ranges abroad to explore migratory connections between Sit’s home in Singapore, Elton’s in Chile and their common home in Los Angeles.

The documentary works, too, open up new possibilities for looking at ourselves. While most of them adopt a realistic mode of representation, they do not merely reinforce the status quo but posit the worlds beyond it, turning the lens on MRT commuters (Edwin Koo’s Transit), migrant workers (Tay Kay Chin’s Made in Singapore), artists and art-makers (Tan Ngiap Heng’s ARTiculate), industrial estate workers (Sam&Sam’s DEFU), HDB dwellers (Nicky Loh’s Common Wealth), at-risk families (Bernice Wong’s School of Hard Knocks), and the photographer himself (the self-portraits in Matthew Teo’s A Little Bit of Me from Everything Else). The works operate differently: some rely on the spontaneity of the moment, others emerge from a long engagement with the subjects; some are meant to be read visually on their own, others are accompanied by extensive photojournalistic profiles that add personal and social context. Seen as a whole, these documentary works present an important range of views from the margins, while also acknowledging each photographer’s privilege and complicity in his or her project.

The 20 photographic series in TwentyFifteen.sg provide a composite—but not comprehensive—portrait of Singapore at this moment in time. It is a portrait that provokes as much as it aestheticises, an endeavour that is more interested in asking questions than in defining what Singapore “is”. In Bernice Wong’s School of Hard Knocks, there is an image of a boy standing on the second-storey high roof on the side of an HDB block, his arms outstretched to either side, as if he’s about to strike a dancer’s pose or leap gracefully off the roof. There is a fuller story behind this boy and this particular block of flats, one that Wong has recorded in her project and that viewers likewise shouldn’t ignore.

But the photograph also captures a moment in time, of a micro-individual playfully transgressing the iconically rigid HDB landscape with a posture both lissome (like the SIA girls in Clang’s series) and insouciant. He hangs like an apparition, hovering on the edge of believability. Possibilities abound. He looks at the camera and we look at him. What will he do next?

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Picturing Home, Wherever We May Be
Justin Zhuang​

Wherever we go, we carry pictures of home.

Framed up, wedged in a wallet, on a phone, shared online, etched in our minds—we hang on to these references that remind us of where we’ve come from.

It’s been almost two years since I’ve last seen Singapore. Away from home, all I’ve had apart from my own pictures are those from the news and what friends and family share online—snapshots of how home has grown through the lenses of my fellow citizens.

Marina Bay with its iconic “integrated resort” has overshadowed the Singapore River’s line of shophouses and skyscrapers as the shorthand for the nation’s success. Our list of old places has matured beyond colonial relics to include modernist complexes and even the iconic dragon playground. The index for the city’s pace of development is no longer the skyline of towering cranes, but how crowded our trains and streets have become.

The frames Singaporeans use to look at their home are changing. It shows in the subjects we picture, but also in what photography means to us today. Is picturing a Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian still the quintessential portrait of Singapore society? When did photographing and shaming online become our way of handling outrageous acts we encounter in public? Should photos of our nation’s late founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew be restricted from public use?

These questions capture some of the issues Singapore faces today. Pictures of home are not just illustrations but also reflections of who we are, projections of how we see the world, and symbols of our community. A photograph’s flat surface belies its third dimension: as a platform for discussions on the people, places and things that matter to each one of us.

This social element is what defines contemporary photography. Making a picture is not just framing a subject and pressing the camera shutter (or in today’s case, tapping a screen), but also sharing it with others—a process that envelopes pictures with meanings beyond just the photographer’s point of view.

This is how our pictures of home are made: through the conversations we share about what we see, what we remember seeing, and even what we hope to see. While the realities depicted in pictures will one day fade or even be challenged, the meanings they hold for each one of us is what helps us see home clearly, wherever we may be.

Justin Zhuang, who received his Master’s degree from the School of Visual Arts in New York City recently, has worked with the PLATFORM team on various projects. The contest administrator of The Big Picture, also a PLATFORM initiative, is now back in Singapore, and is ready to write the next few chapters in his life.

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jetty steps


Edition of three, plus one artist’s proof
S$1200 per print*


These steps at the jetty in Songkou town, east Guangdong, are the ones my paternal great-grandfather — and many Hakkas from nearby impoverished mountains – walked down to get onto small boats to set sail for Shantou (Swatow) at the turn of the 20th century. From Shantou, they boarded larger ocean-going ships headed for Southeast Asia (known as Nanyang or the Southern Seas at the time), the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, as part of a broader wave of Chinese emigrants escaping poverty and civil war at home to become coolies, labourers and small businessmen abroad.

My paternal great-grandfather, Shen Shuixiang 沈水祥 left his ancestral village — about a day’s walk from this jetty (a mere 30 minute motorbike ride today) — as a poor peasant and settled in the small town of Selama, Perak, northern Malaya, setting up a small shop in a plantation there.

A generation later, in early 1949, his son, my grandfather, Shen Huansheng 沈焕盛 took those same jetty steps – back to our ancestral homeland. He had sailed back there after being deported by the British in Malaya for leftist activities during the Malayan Emergency which started in 1948. He joined a Chinese Communist guerrilla army unit near our ancestral village and in 1949 was arrested and imprisoned by the rival Kuomintang in Songkou, before being executed by them in July that year – two months shy of the Communist victory.

Today, this jetty and the town of Songkou has been spruced up for tourism. The local government wants to attract visitors especially among members of the Chinese diaspora, specifically the Hakkas who left from here. When I visited the jetty and Songkou in August 2014, workers were busy repairing and renovating the century-old steps leading down to the Meijiang River 梅江that our ancestors sailed down.

Roots is a project by China-based Singaporean photographer Sim Chi Yin to piece together the story of her grandfather who died a Communist martyr and her family history. A first-generation Singaporean born to Malaysian parents, she unwittingly did degrees in Chinese history and became a journalist and photographer like the grandfather that virtually no one in the family spoke about for six decades since his death. In 2011, she was the first in the family overseas to return in 62 years to visit her ancestral village, where a 3-metre high monument to her grandfather stands.

Many of the 200,000 Hakkas in Singapore – the fourth-largest dialect group after the Hokkiens, Teochews and Cantonese – were originally from the same part of southern China as Chi Yin’s family. In her on-going journey to make this work, she grapples with her family history, which turned on her grandfather’s death, but also her ethnic roots, and identity as a Singaporean Chinese and overseas Chinese living in China.

* By purchasing a print, you are making a direct and important contribution to the publications of twentyfifteen books. Without your generous support, the financial burden of self-publishing them will be significantly higher for us.

About the print:
– Paper size: 17″ x 22″
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Since you are so fond of it, tell us what you know about about Zhup Lao.

Zhup Lao (十楼 or ‘ten floors’ in Teochew or Hokkien) is a nickname given to the iconic ten-storey HDB blocks in the Commonwealth Drive neighbourhood. If you’re taking a taxi here, just say Zhup Lao and any older taxi driver will know exactly where you want to go. To younger taxi drivers, you have to say Tanglin Halt, which is the name of the street around the Zhup Lao blocks in the Commonwealth area.

There are many interesting facts about Zhup Lao. First, it’s one of the oldest surviving HDB estates in Singapore that was built in the 1960s. The ten-storey blocks were so popular that they were featured on the back of the Singapore one-dollar note in the ‘orchid’ series (issued in 1967).

Second, this is the area where the old KTM trains from Kuala Lumpur used to pass by. I believe it’s the only HDB estate in Singapore where the train tracks were just 50 metres away from the blocks. The flat where I used to live was in that very block near the tracks. At first it was bloody noisy, but gradually I found the sound very comforting.

Also, I do not know how true this is, but my aunties told me that a lot of drug addicts lived in the area in the 1970s and 1980s. They were staying in the affordable one-room flats.

Now that you are older and know that many of the earlier HDB estates such as Circuit Road were also referred to as Zhup Lao, what do you think is so different about your Zhup Lao?

The distinction is not so much physical but emotional. It’s the soul of the estate, the people and the stories that have already happened that make the Commonwealth Zhup Lao unique. The people whom I have gotten to know inadvertently became my friends and part of my life. This cannot be replicated elsewhere for me.

You could have probably chosen to live anywhere in Singapore when it came time to buy your own place, yet you chose to stay in the same place you grew up in. So you don’t believe in upgrading or changing your environment?

I grew up in Margaret Drive, which is nearby but not exactly the same area. My dad’s business was hit badly during the 1997 financial crisis and he had to sell our house to pay his debts, so we were staying in rented places for a long time. When I finally started working, I always dreamed of having a place we could call our own.

I was working in Taiwan when my sister told me about the Selective En bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) project happening in Zhup Lao and said that a young family was willing to sell their flat because they wanted to move elsewhere. Even though we had to fork out $50,000 cash over valuation, we bought the flat for our dad because it was time that he had a stable home. Five years later, when the new flats were ready, we moved into the new blocks right in front of Zhup Lao.

I did another photo series documenting my neighbours moving to the new flats. Despite the nostalgia I feel for the old Zhup Lao flats, they were really getting very run-down. So in a sense, it was really a nice gesture by HDB to give a brand new flat with a fresh 99-year lease, to people who had lived here for almost 50 years.

Why are young people your age so sentimental and nostalgic?

Because everything is changing so fast in Singapore and people in their 30s like me find it very hard to recall what our childhood was like. That’s why we try to preserve every memory that we can hold on too. The sand pit playgrounds and the mamak shops where I would spend a day contemplating how to spend my 50 cents – they are all gone. Even the same haw flakes that I enjoyed when I was young taste different now.

Then again, this nostalgia is probably a phenomenon every generation goes through.

All things being the same, would you choose to stay put in this neighbourhood?

I love the kampung spirit in this area. My wife says I’m like the unofficial MP here because I always start waving at the different shop owners when I walk by. Last week, I asked for permission from one of the old shop owners if I could do a fashion shoot for a magazine, and he said, ‘别人不可以, 只有你可以.’ (‘Others can’t, but you can.’) That really touched me.

If you read some of the quotes in this book, you’ll find that really, everyone knows everyone here and they are willing to help their neighbours out. There’s a lot of good food here too!

Are you actually trying to convince us that it’s nicer to shop in one of those old shops than to browse at ION Orchard?

Shopping centres all follow a certain template now in Singapore. Every mall has a Uniqlo or H&M and definitely a G2000 with god-awful clothes. It’s really boring and I only go to malls out of necessity.

I urge everyone to take a walk around Zhup Lao if they ever have the chance. Call me and I’ll gladly show you around too!

Which is your favourite shop and why?

Chin Hin Eating House, a kopitiam at block 75, Commonwealth Drive. It was legendary with taxi drivers because of its quality and affordable kopi and teh that was served in traditional white cups and saucers. The place also had the cheapest mixed vegetable rice you could find in Singapore. I would go there to hang out for a cup of tea before or after shoots, to de-stress.

I’ve asked the boss Francis if he would consider reopening the place, but he wants to take a break because he’s been making coffee and tea for 20-over years. I think he deserves a break too.

Where have you moved to and how is the new place different?

My family and I have moved to the new blocks right in front of the Zhup Lao blocks. I still see the old blocks every day and reminisce about my favourite kopitiam and old flat. There are still many things to shoot and tons of stories to tell, so I’m focusing on getting as much done as I can before it all goes.

Do you think you will stay in touch with your former neighbours?

I still do, with a family I shot for the living room series. It’s an old Malay couple who used to live on the ninth floor. Last year, I did a family portrait for them in their new flat and gladly got paid with curry puffs! I also see my former next-door neighbour every now and then at the market, and we’ll stop and chat for quite a while.

Back in the old blocks, you could say I was very kaypoh because I would peek inside every living room I passed along the corridor on my way to my unit, which was at the end. I was more curious than anything about what their lives were like and the stories they had to tell. So the best way to get them to open up was to make friends with them.

How do you approach your subjects for this project?

During the first phase, I emotionally blackmailed them by saying, ‘Auntie, it’s my birthday leh, can let me take a picture please?’ The other thing about these shop owners is that they are actually quite media-savvy. The Straits Times, Lianhe Zaobao and Channel NewsAsia have all taken their pictures a hundred times, so it was not that difficult to talk to them too.

That said, what made the difference was that unlike the media, I returned on a separate day with a printed copy of their portraits to give to them as a present. This paved the way for other shop owners to be more receptive to me taking their pictures because they could tell that I was interested in building a relationship with them, not just ‘using’ them to take photographs.

Okay, now confess: which neighbourhood gang did you belong to?

I was once asked by someone in secondary school to join a local gang but no, of course, I didn’t join any. I was more into girls and basketball.

How did a Zhup Lao Boy become a famous photographer?

I’m not quite sure if I’m famous, but I am definitely indebted to people who have guided me and given me enough trust to let me do the work I want to do. I think knowing your photography fundamentals is just as important as having your voice.

Fifty years down the road, people looking at this series by Nicky Loh will say …

‘What kind of place is this?’ or ‘Retro siah!’

Imagine yourself a scriptwriter, tell us the movie you would want to make about Commonwealth Drive.

A love story about a jobless, compulsive-gambler uncle and the auntie in the 4D booth beside the Econ Minimart (a lot of people buy 4D from there because it has a high success rate). The gambler is completely enchanted by her, but feels that he’s only worthy of asking her out when he has struck 4D. He buys from her everyday but refuses to say a word to her. When he has finally struck 4D, alas, the auntie has passed away from cancer and his money is worthless. He then decides to take on the job of selling 4D to make an honest living.

What is photography to you?

A way to preserve the memories of things I love.

The portrait of Nicky Loh was drawn by Flee Circus; and Leonard Goh, who anchors all the interviews in this series, is a co-founder of Platform.

To purchase a copy of Common Wealth by Nicky Loh, please visit:

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