[Photo story] Taiwanese historical photo collector: My ties to Singapore
28 Oct 2022
As his three-volume set of historical photographs of Singapore, Singapore Yesterday, is rolled out this year, historical photo collector Hsu Chung-mao describes his professional and personal connection to Singapore, and his impressions of Singapore, alongside a collection of old photos of Singapore.
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When I was young, I would have found it hard to believe that I would collect and curate historical photos of Singapore, and edit them into a book. I did not expect a Taiwanese like me to one day publish historical images of Singapore. But on closer thought, I had a deep connection with Singapore from early on. Perhaps this is a natural consequence of life experiences.
I first learned of Singapore from a geography textbook while in primary school in Taiwan. The book said that Singapore and Penang in Southeast Asia had a majority Chinese population — I have a deep impression of it and I recall a question about it in a primary school exam. As for what Southeast Asia was like and how the Chinese there lived, I had no idea.
Subsequently, my elder sister met a Singaporean man while he was on military training in Taiwan and married him. She later moved to Singapore, so we are linked to Singapore by marriage.
After graduating from university, a work opportunity brought me to a London film festival with a Taiwanese film director to do English interpretation, and before that, I had to go to Singapore to get a visa to the UK. So, in 1982, I went to Singapore for the first time and stayed with my brother-in-law’s family. They were living in one of the earliest HDB units, with a simple layout. My first impression of Singapore was of wide roads and many trees, and most road names were in English.
In 1984, as a China Times journalist, I was part of a delegation to Singapore. The Singapore Tourism Board (STB) received us and brought us to Singapore’s latest tourist attractions. We stayed in a hotel along Orchard Road, and at night I went out roaming. There were Western-style pubs, and some youths were skateboarding. This time, I felt more keenly Singapore’s westernised and glamorous side.
On my third trip to Singapore in 1985, I got to know a young ethnic Chinese lady from Penang working with Singapore Airlines, and we got married. That she became my life partner was not originally part of my plans, but it hearkened back to the hopes of my youth, like destiny.
A friend of Singapore
From 1986 to 1989, I was a journalist covering Southeast Asia for China Times, during which I lived in Singapore for three years and interviewed many people. I also read old newspapers at the National Library, to get a deeper understanding of Singapore’s history, politics and society.
At this point, I was no longer an ordinary visitor, but was totally immersed in Singapore’s local experiences. At the time, I bought many archive photos from the Singapore National Archives, preparing to publish a series of books on Singapore history. However, I had to abort this project due to insufficient funds.
Nevertheless, my work links with Singapore kept deepening, including planning for China Times in Taiwan and the Chinese edition of People magazine, and sending a team of journalists and photographers to Singapore to conduct exclusive interviews to produce a report on Singapore. I interviewed important people in Singapore, including Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Minister George Yeo and Ambassador Tommy Koh.
Subsequently, my work focus shifted to mainland China, and I lost contact with Singapore for over 20 years, until I reconnected with some people in Singapore in the last couple of years. The biggest difference this time is that over the past ten years, I have gained rich experience and results with my work, and collecting old photographs and producing historical books is now my forte. Naturally, once again I thought of producing a book of images featuring Singapore, to realise my aborted plan of 20 years ago.
In 2020, on the 55th anniversary of Singapore’s independence, I finally published my first book of historical photographs of Singapore, Once Upon a Time in Singapore. This year, with the support of good friends in Taiwan, we rolled out a three-volume set of historical photographs of Singapore, Singapore Yesterday. It is hard to imagine that this happened by chance. I believe it was a destined meeting of life and times. This work was not just a fulfilment of my own life, but a historical ode in images for the periods and people of Singapore.
A land of dreams
True sentiment for any land comes from an accumulation of real experiences. Singapore’s land, people and times form the basis of its experiences and sentiments, encompassing many personal stories of joy and sorrow, which are all intertwined to form collective memories. Some involve conflicts, but the majority are about common interests and efforts, which ultimately come together as a strong identity among the people.
Through images, we tried to reconstruct Singapore’s historical evolution and the formation of Singapore’s identity. The focus was not on highlighting particular incidents, but on presenting the changes in the larger environment, and the lives of Singaporeans amid those changes, and the historical choices made. It was a historical narrative through images.
Singapore started as a gathering spot for people from various places, who came here to seek a better life. Naturally, they brought the languages, religions and customs of their places of origin, and kept in regular, close contact with their relatives who were still there. Their work achievements also attracted more of their fellow townspeople to come to Singapore. They remained interested and emotionally invested in whatever happened in their places of origin.
Before World War II, Western and Japanese imperialism and colonialism determined the fate of people in the Asian region, and stirred strong resistance. The various peoples in Singapore were swept up in this historical tide, and joined in the fight against imperialism and colonialism, and went through the sufferings of the Japanese Occupation.
After WWII, despite the dissolution of Japanese imperialism, Western colonialism sought a resurgence. Anti-colonialism was not just a common sentiment in the post-war world, but a common effort for most Singaporeans.
Achieving independence and autonomy and creating a good life for Singaporeans would become a key issue in Singapore’s domestic governance. The key was how the various groups would maintain the characteristics and strengths of their place of origin, while building up Singapore’s unique social cohesion and identity. The process was complicated and painful, but also full of the hope and joy of new life.
We used a few historical chapters to present the process, including the sufferings of war, the shifting of national identity, the transformation of cultural education, the passions of social thought, political challenges and unity, the building of military strength, the consolidation of national awareness, and finally the hope of a better future.
Of course, ultimately we presented the daily life of people in Singapore through rich photographs, including colourful festivals and snippets of everyday life, which showed Singaporeans’ simplicity and vitality. These touching scenes seem ordinary, but represent the source of social and national strength. They stir memories of hard work in every Singaporean, and that they should cherish and maintain this fighting spirit. That strength is in each person, reflecting a country that chases its dreams, where people keep moving forward to a more fulfilling life, a richer culture, a safer society and a more vibrant country.