Nanyang Nostalgia of Singaporean Photographer Lui Hock Seng

NANYANG NOSTALGIA

Discovering Old Singapore In Frames of “Singaporean Ho Fan” Lui Hock Seng

 

“The true paradises are the paradises that we have lost.”
Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time 

 

“沒有以前的東西拍,我覺得有點失望.
I’ve lost the places I used to shoot. Now I feel somewhat disappointed.”
– Mr Lui Hock Seng, 81, Singaporean photographer 

 

 

In April 2018, BBC featured a video article entitled Singaporean Photographer: “I’ve lost the city I used to shoot.” The photographer is Mr Lui Hock Seng 雷福胜, now 81 years old, a cleaning staff by profession and photographer by vocation. He has been taking photographs of Singapore for more than 50 years and held his first solo exhibition in February-March 2018, showcasing around 40 works that capture and chronologise Singapore in the 1960s and 1970s – scenes, locations, and professions that have long disappeared in the wake of the new metropolis. Little is known about Mr Lui’s photographic career except for a handful of newspaper articles, yet a closer look into his life and his works conjure up a resemblance to those of the renowned Hong Kong photographer Ho Fan 何藩 (1937-2016). Using Ho Fan and his photographs of Hong Kong as the reference point for comparison and contrast, this essay will search for the lost Singapore in the frames of Lui Hock Seng, the Singaporean Ho Fan. 

In picture: young Lui Hock Seng (left) and old Mr Lui (right)

Ho Fan and Lui Hock Seng bring Hong Kong and Singapore closer together to meet at their personal particulars, their photographic works, and the detailed contents of their photographs. 

Lui’s initiation into photography is very much similar to Ho Fan. Both started out as handsome teenagers going around photographing street life, vehicles, architectures, and the working people; both shot in black and white medium with a Rolleiflex camera, developed their own films, and won prizes for their photographs. Coincidentally, their most notable photographs were taken in the period of 1950-1970s – the transformative years of Hong Kong and Singapore. Though amateurish at the time taken, their works display an amazing command of techniques, a high aesthetic quality, and a deep respect for factuality and humanity. Thus, their photos of Hong Kong and Singapore are not merely vintage collectibles but are historical documentaries that accurately portray the life of citizens, the changing cityscapes, and the spirit of the whole society in the socio-economic transition. Abbas in “Photographing Disappearance” argues that once the attention is shifted from the photographs that embody wealth, power, and the exoticness of Hong Kong to those that portray the ordinary, the viewers will have a chance to look again and look deeper into this normality and discover in it a new perspective of Hong Kong. This argument can be extended to the case of Singapore. Both Hong Kong and Singapore joined the ranks of the Asian Tigers in the 1980s, and witnessed rapid development in infrastructure, the economy and social orders. The display of economic prowess is often emphasised and the human side largely ignored. It is in this context that  the photographs of Ho and Lui help to introduce a more complete and insightful narrative of the Hong Kong story and the Singapore miracle: the disappeared cityscape and urban experience, the records of old pace and ways of life, and the celebration of the working class and immigrants who lived in poverty and worked hard to make these cities rich and powerful. 

While Ho Fan went on to pursue and achieve a critically acclaimed cinematic career, Lui Hock Seng led a peaceful life as a worker and a father of three, until The Strait Times brought him and his photographic career to public. To call Lui Hock Seng the Singaporean counterpart of Ho Fan is not simply to compare their lives, but more importantly, the discover the shared themes, techniques and beauty of these photos, then learn how these photos are interpreted in relation to the historical and social contexts. In the scope of this essay, some of the most notable works of Ho and Lui will be studied and compared through a series of juxtaposed analyses: Afternoon Chat – Teochew Market, Evening in Aberdeen – Seen From Merdeka Bridge[1], and Approaching Shadow – The walking boy[2]. 

  

Afternoon Chat (1959), by Ho Fan        

 

  Teochew Market (cc.1960-1965), Lui Hock Seng 

Afternoon Chat and Teochew Market (also known as Ellenborough Market, Clarke Quay) share the theme and location of “market”, a place where sellers and buyers come together to make purchases and exchange money for products. “Afternoon Chat” was taken at the Central Market in Central Hong Kong, Ho Fan’s favourite location to shoot, yet it does not depict the activities that take place in the market. Instead, the central subject matter is the well-lit staircase, another favourite of Ho. In the photo, people are walking around, towards, and up and down the staircase. Some are empty-handed, some are carrying bags, and almost all of them are wearing traditional Chinese clothing. The title does not refer to a specific conversation taking place between two people, rather, it encompasses all the human relationships established and interactions taking place in the physical realms of the market basking in the afternoon light. Ho Fan had cleverly chosen the golden hours of the afternoon when the sun is at is brightest and strongest to light up the whole scene, sharply contrasting with the dark colours of the people’s clothing and the unlighted spaces. As the people are photographed with their backside facing the lens, the audience do not see their faces clearly. We can only assume that they are at Central Market on a stroll or a shopping trip. 

Compared to the Central Market that is fortunately still located in Central Hong Kong, the Teochew Pasar (“Market” in the Bahasa language) has been demolished and in its place stands The Central and Swissotel Merchant Court at Clarke Quay, a famous tourist attraction in Singapore. Lui Hock Seng expressed deep sadness at the disappearance of the market, the sight of which is detailed in his most famous photographs of the same name. Unlike Ho’s piece, Lui’s work depicts the busy activities taking place inside the market. The marketplace is crowded and packed with indoor stalls, shoppers, and vendors, the floor and shelves brimming with storage boxes. The atmosphere must be hot and humid, as evident from the short-sleeved shirts and shorts worn by the vendors and the sunshine pouring down from above. According to Mr Lui, it was the sunshine combined with the evaporated water (from the Singapore River) that created the beautiful sight of the rays of vapour. The range of the sunlight in this photo is larger than that of “Afternoon Chat”, yet the hues are much softer, and the dark shadows are less intense. Unlike the former piece, in which the audience can only look at the backside of commuters and speculate their actions, here the audience are able to look at the different facial expressions and mid-activity poses of the people in the photographs. Our curiosity is aroused: who are they, where do they come from, where are they now? The human presence is closely tied and innate to a place, and once a place is gone the human presence is dislocated, the people disappear. The viewers’ curiosity is thus intensified by the disappearance of the Teochew market: where have the people in the photographs gone? The busy marketplace becomes a poignant past. 

 

 Evening in Aberdeen (1958), Ho Fan    

 

        Seen From Merdeka Bridge (cc.1960s), Lui Hock Seng 

As Hong Kong and Singapore are islands, Ho Fan and Lui Hock Seng both explore the theme of waterscape and human activities at sea. Evening in Aberdeen and Seen From Merdeka Bridge are both constructed by photographic rules, using forms, lights, shadow and smoke to highlights the relationship between human and vehicle, human and nature, and the large against the small. The rules of thumb in photography are crucial in delivering the messages in both cases. The composition of “Evening in Aberdeen” is largely based on the rule of halves: the photograph is divided into two horizontal halves and two vertical sides, then the small boat is placed in the lowest left one third corner of the photograph, signifying its location as nearer to the eye. The presence of the small boat with human being magnifies the scale of the nearby big ship, turning it into a larger than life figure on par with the Titanic or the whale-hunting vessel in Moby Dick. The symmetrically divided sections highlight the major contrasts of light and shadow, the stand-off between the solid boats and the ethereal smoke, between the large structures and the small figures, and  between the vast sea and the human beings. The smoke, retouched by Ho Fan, envelopes the scene in an overall dreamlike, mythical and dramatic feel, while the positions of the three human figures standing and sitting facing the big ship adds in a calming effect. Hence, the evening is not a normal one: it is a tug-of-war between the forces, yet at the same time a celebration of humanity living in balance with the elements. 

Lui’s Seen From Merdeka Bridge offers an altogether different representation of the same themes. Here, the rule of thirds come into play, creating a striking image of the large ship that immediately captures the viewers’ attention. The mast pole divides the frame vertically into one third on the left and two thirds on the right, while the boat divides the frame horizontally into one third at the bottom and two thirds above. The pole and the boat form a large space taking up two thirds of the frame dedicated to the ship. What’s most noticeable is that these boundaries are not mathematically straight but elegantly curved, creating an illusion that the ship is rocking up and down, back and forth to the movements of the sea waves. But whether the ship is really moving or not, no one knows for sure. Light and shadow are also prominent in the photo but the tone is considerably more subdued, and there is no dramatic smoke effect as in “Evening in Aberdeen”. The time is different – it is morning: the sun shines brightly on the top right of the photo in a clear sky, blending into the clouds that layer the lower half of the horizon, which then gradually move down to meet the water and the ship. The mast towers over the lithe figures of the three moving people on board, each is bent at a different pose – sitting or in the middle of moving or picking up something. This human presence adds to the liveliness of the photos and sharply contrasts with the stationary status of the ship. In all of its glory, nature is peaceful and unthreatening, the large enduring ship support the human beings, and vulnerable humans are grounded onto this vehicle. Such scenes can no longer be viewed from the Merdeka Bridge, as the uninhabited land has transformed into a concrete jungle, and old-styled ships are now replaced by modern yachts and vessels. 

Approaching Shadows (1954), Ho Fan    

The Walking Boy (cc.1960s), Lui Hock Seng  

Last but not least, a comparison between Ho Fan and Lui Hock Seng will not be complete without touching upon Ho Fan’s most famous image “Approaching Shadow”. In Lui’s large body of works, there exists one image that proves to be the counterpart of Ho’s piece; and while it remains relatively unknown, it is an ideal image to compare with “Approaching Shadow” to discover how these two photographers are alike yet different. These two photographs will then be interpreted based on the historical timeline and socio-economic contexts of Hong Kong and Singapore respectively. 

Created in 1954, Approaching Shadow is one of Ho Fan’s most renowned works to date. The image depicts a young woman dressed in the typical cheongsam with her head bowed, standing in a corner against a wall, facing the shadow on the spacious background. She is placed in profile, so the viewers do not see clearly her facial attributes and expression. Her placement, her clothes colour, and her action sharply contrast with the background, highlighting her state of smallness, fragility and loneliness. In turn, the viewers become curious to know who she is, where she comes from, what she is thinking about, or who she is waiting for. Ho Fan skilfully used Western photographic composition to deliver his aesthetic effect. The orientation is perfectly straight at vertical framing, the angle wide and expansive. The photo is framed by geometric shapes: the 90-degree angle form by the vertical wall and the horizontal ground, the 45-degree angle formed by the diagonal line separating light and shadow, and the subject placed in the one-third left corner of the frame. The separate shapes and sections are linked together by the woman who is placed in the intersections of lines, almost all of her body belonging to the light but her feet planted in the shadows. This calculation does not make the photograph look formulated; rather, it creates an overall tone of well-balancedness. The result presents a space of dichotomy between black and white, light and shadow, human and cityscape, simple representation and complex interpretations, inviting the onlookers to look closely into the content and come up with their own interpretation, regardless of the backstory. 

From the historical aspect, the photograph offers a glimpse into Hong Kong’s past, derived from clothing (cheongsam) and architecture (the wall of the Queen’s College). From a sociology point of view, it can be read as an allegory to Hong Kong. With its perfect blend of Western logical composition and local aesthetics, this is an example of hybridity created in the colonial environment. More importantly, like the content, Hong Kong was a young woman coming of age in the 1950s, burdened with inner issues of post-WWII social unrest, migrants, housing problems, and the outer conflict between the Mainland and the Colonial masters. Hong Kong was also emerging as a developing economy, waiting in anticipation for the changes in the economy to make an impact on each individual and the colony as a whole. Like the girl placed in a corner of the wall, Hong Kong was placed marginally to both the Mainland and the British government in their discourses, slowly approaching its future as if “approaching shadow”. 

Lui Hock Seng’s The walking boy (circa 1960s) can be seen as the reverse mirror image of Ho Fan’s “Approaching Shadow”. The subject matter is also dressed in dark-colour clothing and is set against a spacious wall, but it is a child boy – “Ah Boy” in the colloquial Singlish, not a young woman. He is wearing a cap, a short-sleeved T-shirt, and shorts like all typical young boys playing in the sun. He is placed on the right side of the photograph, under a window but the shadow from the window cannot touch the boy, nor is he bounded in any intersection of lights and shadows. He is free and completely belongs to the light space against the white wall. What’s more, the young boy is not bowing his head in thoughts or waiting, he is walking to the left, nearing another window that is casting shadow down, but even when he reaches it the shadow will barely touches his head, and he will soon move out of the shadow and continue to be on the way. Like “Approaching Shadows”, the composition of this photograph is basic and simplistic, giving the image a thoroughly contemporary feel. There is the presence of the rule of thirds, with each window taking up one third of the image vertically, leaving the wall on the right blank, and the ground divided into three equal parts. The young boy is also placed in a one third corner, quickly capturing the attention of the audience. The audience, curious as always, wonder who the boy is and where he is going to. Unlike Ho Fan who staged the piece and offered a detailed explanation and backstory, Lui did not say a thing about the boy, the place, or how he took the photograph. It is all up to the audience to come up with his name, his background, his life story and the destination he’s heading to. One theory is to place the two photos together and imagine that the girl and the boy are related to each other and he is on her way to visit her all the way from Singapore to Hong Kong. 

And as with “Approaching Shadow”, this piece also invites the viewers to come up with multiple readings and interpretations. The boy and the surrounding environment can be seen as an allegory to the nation-city of Singapore. While Hong Kong suffered through a long and tumultuous 20th century being dependent on the discourses and treaties of both the colonial masters and Mainland China, Singapore in the 1960s is a young boy breaking away from its colonial past and running away from the unhappy reunification with its neighbour. The shadows cast by two windows can be compared to the (past) influence of the British Empire and Malaysia. Even if they can touch the boy, he is never engulfed in or bounded by any light and shadow for long, and will soon move past them and continue on his development. Moreover, unlike Hong Kong the young woman who is waiting in anticipation for the changes to take place and affect the life of her citizens, Singapore the boy is a new nation brimming with hope and determination to build the country and catch up with developed nations by introducing new policies, new urban planning schemes, and imposing stricter laws and regulations to ensure public order.

From the analyses of photographs, it can be concluded that although Ho Fan and Lui Hock Seng are alike in their chosen themes and subject matters, there exists a difference in their personal styles as evident through the compositions, tones, and detailed contents. Ho’s photographs are more dramatic and expressive, using contrasting lights and shadows and pronounced smoke to give the daily scenes of Hong Kong a poetic, romantic and theatrical feel. On the other hand, Lui’s photographs are more subdued in tones and compositions, emphasising the movements of the subject matters while retaining a reticent yet loving appreciation for the now-vanished scenes of Singapore. In addition, the interpretations of their works also vary as they are influenced by the historical and socio-economic contexts of Hong Kong and Singapore. Nevertheless, just as how Ho Fan’s photographs are mention first and foremost when it comes to Hong Kong photography, Lui Hock Seng’s works are crucial in understanding and appreciating a critical historical period of Singapore and the old Singaporean experience, and the old photographer deserves praise and compliments like those given for Ho Fan. 

Therefore, it is important that Lui’s photographic works be given more attention and coverage in Singapore and abroad. For instance, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noticed the BBC article and offered his thoughts and praise for the photographer, acknowledging Lui’s point that Singapore has changed over the years, but has hopes to retain “a sense of its history” and that Mr Lui would continue to find inspiration in photographing Singapore. This is a great sign that Lui’s photography is not only recognised by arts professionals but also by political figures. His nostalgia of a vanished Singapore has been beautiful and lively, and now at 81 he is still taking photos of new slices of life. After all, if there is “photographing disappearance”, there is also “photographing appearance”. 

 

Note:

[1], [2]: Lui Hock Seng does not name his photographs, only later did he name the photos on display at Passing Time exhibition in Singapore as well as the ones in his photobook. As I am not in possession of the photobook, I can only make do by naming the photos for the convenience of writing this paper. 

 

Bibliography: 

11/03/2018, HIGHLIGHT 08/02/2018 -. “PASSING TIME.” OBJECTIFS, 17 Apr. 2018, www.objectifs.com.sg/passing-time/.

Abbas, M. A. Hong Kong : Culture and the Politics of Disappearance. Hong Kong University Press, 1997.

“Artists.” Blue Lotus Gallery, www.bluelotus-gallery.com/#/ho-fan-1/.

“Fan Ho, Master Photographer’s Gear #1.” Leica Liker, 12 Jan. 2013, leicaliker.com/2013/01/11/fan-ho-master-photographers-gear-1/.

Lee, Venessa. “Office Cleaner with a Passion for Photography.” The Straits Times, 13 Dec. 2016, www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/office-cleaner-with-a-passion-for-photography.

Lee, Venessa. “80-Year-Old Photographer Holds First Solo Exhibition.” The Straits Times, 19 Dec. 2017, www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/80-and-holding-a-solo-photo-exhibition.

“Lui Hock Seng: The Past and Passing.” Arts Equator, 9 Apr. 2018, artsequator.com/lui-hock-seng-passing-time/.

“PM Lee Hopes Amateur Photographer, 81, Will Continue Taking Beautiful Photos of S’pore.” Mothership.sg, mothership.sg/2018/04/lui-hock-seng-photographer-singapore/.

“Singapore Photographer: ‘I’ve Lost the City I Used to Shoot’.” BBC News, BBC, 16 Apr. 2018, www.bbc.com/news/av/world-asia-43565395/singapore-photographer-i-ve-lost-the-city-i-used-to-shoot.

 

From the Fragrant Harbour to the Lion City, with lots of love, nostalgia, and longing.

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