[Photo story] Taiwanese historical photo collector: My ties to Singapore

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.
Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew goes through an overnight rehearsal of a ceremony at City Hall on the eve of Singapore’s first anniversary in 1966. A large image shows Singapore’s various ethnic groups holding up the national flag, symbolising the nation coming together to forge a bright future.
Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew goes through an overnight rehearsal of a ceremony at City Hall on the eve of Singapore’s first anniversary in 1966. A large image shows Singapore’s various ethnic groups holding up the national flag, symbolising the nation coming together to forge a bright future.

(All photos courtesy of Hsu Chung-mao.)

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.

A community event to send off young men to National Service (NS), 1967. That year, the government passed a law for male Singaporeans aged 18 and second generation male permanent residents to undergo mandatory military service. They went through three months of basic training, after which they were deployed to the Singapore Armed Forces, Singapore Police Force and Singapore Civil Defence Force units for a total of two years.
An outdoor training exercise of the armed forces in the 1970s, showing the army's combat capabilities.

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.

Children on the streets, 1960s. The post-war baby boom led to a crowded society.
A hawker beside a market, 1960s. At the time, mobile hawkers were everywhere, and a means for ordinary people to make a living.
A roti prata stall in a market, 1960s. A worker is flipping a prata, something unique to Indian cuisine.
Children enjoy satay at a stall in a market, 1960s. Satay is a typical Malay dish that usually features meats like beef and chicken and mutton.
A crowded restaurant in the 1960s. The sign in Chinese advertises homemade Cantonese meats, indicating that this is a Cantonese restaurant. Cantonese-style “yum cha” or “drink tea” (usually with dim sum) is a popular breakfast in Singapore.
A Sikh on the street, 1960s. Sikhism originated in the Indian subcontinent, and is the sixth-largest religion in the world. Sikh temples and believers are found in Singapore.
Young Malay girls in beautiful dresses, 1970s. Their pretty headwear are typical of the Malay community.
A community event in the 1970s, with youths performing the latest Western pop music. Western pop culture swept the globe, and was well-liked by young people in Singapore.
A performance by a female singer, 1970s.
Haw Par Villa in the 1960s, crowded with visitors during the Chinese New Year. Many families came, and it was the most popular Chinese-style theme park of the time. Haw Par Villa in Singapore was the second such villa built by businessman Aw Boon Par (younger brother of Aw Boon Haw), the first being in Hong Kong. It was also Aw Boon Par’s residence, with figures depicting many traditional Chinese legends, such as Journey to the West, Madam White Snake, the Eight Immortals, and the 18 Levels of Hell. It brought together all these folktales for a rich ethnic flavour.
In 1987, the MRT began operations, and Singapore officially had subway transport. In 1983, Singapore Mass Rapid Transit (SMRT) was established to drive the construction of the MRT system. In 1987, the first section of the North-South Line was opened, with five stations over six kilometres of railway; 15 more stations followed. In 1988, the MRT network officially began operations and is continually adding stations and routes.
The cityscape at the mouth of the Kallang River, 1980s. The Ayer Rajah Expressway and East Coast Parkway are ahead; behind them are skyscrapers, with clean rivers, wide living spaces, convenient roadways and tall buildings all around, forming the general landscape of Singapore, and representing the effort of generations, and the continued pursuit of dreams towards a better future.

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.

Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew attracts a large crowd as he visits hawkers to find out about their situation, late 1960s. 
In 1968, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew launched the Clean and Green Campaign, and set an example by washing the floor himself.
On 12 November 1978, Deng Xiaoping, then senior vice-premier of the People’s Republic of China, made a three-day official visit to Singapore, with Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew personally meeting him at the airport. Deng was the architect of the reforms and opening-up of China. During his visit to Singapore, he exchanged views with Lee on international affairs, and saw how Singapore developed its economy. He used it as a key reference to formulate the blueprint for China’s reforms.
In 1950, Indian Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru visited Singapore, and was welcomed by the Indian community in Singapore. In 1947, India gained independence from the British empire, with Nehru as its first prime minister. Singapore’s political status was still uncertain, but after World War II, there was a general political climate among the British colonies of pursuing independence.
In 1976, Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos visited Singapore to boost military, economic and cultural exchange and cooperation among ASEAN countries.
In 1989, Britain's Queen Elizabeth II visited Singapore. Despite gaining independence in 1965, Singapore was still considered a member of the British Commonwealth, and participated in its cultural and sporting activities.
An election in 1968. Many people turned out to vote, and some hawkers set up stalls outside the voting station.

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.

The groundbreaking ceremony for Nanyang University, 1953. Many important people in the Chinese community attended; the Chinese community poured its heart and hope into this university.
A political rally by the Workers’ Party (WP), 1960. The Chinese slogans call for defeating authoritarianism and fighting colonialism, eliminating corruption and achieving independence. While the WP used to hold a majority of seats, it got caught up amid strong leftism and anti-colonial movements.
The Speak Mandarin Campaign initiated by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in 1979 was to encourage the ethnic Chinese community to speak Mandarin as a communication tool among themselves. As the Chinese community in Singapore came from various provinces in China, they used different dialects, which was not conducive to the unity of the community, and so the Speak Mandarin Campaign was aimed at encouraging the use of a common language. The campaign was focused on the Chinese community and was not extended to other ethnic communities.

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.

On 15 February 1942, Lt. Gen. Arthur Ernest Percival, general officer commanding Malaya for the British army, went to the Ford Motor Factory off Bukit Timah Road to surrender to the Japanese army. For the British Empire, this was a moment of shame. Facing a despondent Percival, Lt. Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita of the Imperial Japanese Army demanded the unconditional surrender of the British army.
As soon as Tan Kah Kee arrived in Chongqing, he was surrounded by a welcoming crowd. The trip symbolised the unity of overseas Chinese with China’s war efforts, and boosted the morale of the Chinese. As Tan clearly showed that he stood with China’s war efforts, when the Japanese took Singapore in February 1942 and engaged in retaliatory killing of Chinese, Tan fled to Indonesia, where he hid for three years until the final victory.
After the Japanese army occupied Singapore in 1942, it organised an Indian volunteer army, in an effort to break up the Allied camp in the name of helping the people of India to break away from British colonial rule.
After surrendering, former Japanese army general Tomoyuki Yamashita was arrested by the British army and listed as a B-Class war criminal. The photo shows him in February 1946, on trial before an Allied war crimes tribunal in Manila. He was sentenced to death for killing POWs and civilians.
A public memorial for Major-General Lim Bo Seng in front of City Hall, 13 January 1946. Lim was born in Quanzhou, Fujian province, and came to Singapore in his youth to study at Raffles Institution. After Japan occupied Singapore, Lim led the resistance Force 136 under the Allied army and gathered intelligence from India. He was arrested after a failed operation and died as a war hero. In 1956, the Singapore government named a lane off Whitley Road as Bo Seng Avenue to commemorate Lim’s bravery.
Singapore’s first Cabinet following self-government, 1959, including Finance Minister Goh Keng Swee (second from left), Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (fourth from left), and Home Affairs Minister Ong Pang Boon (second from right).

 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.

On 9 August 1965, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew announced Singapore’s separation from Malaysia at a press conference held at Radio and Television Singapore.
A celebratory parade in Singapore, 1961. The next step was to push for merger with Malaya, with its political objective of a complete break from British colonial rule.
A float in 1970s depicts the story of Singapore’s history as the ancient Malay kingdom of Temasek, lending it a rich historical flavour.
A float in the 1970s depicts the opera The Butterfly Lovers, a famous folktale of the tragedy of two star-crossed lovers Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, with its beautiful and moving music.
Singapore’s National Day celebration, 1968. The students on the field are holding a banner with the slogan “Be Loyal to Our State” in four languages.
A charity organisation distributing supplies in the early 1950s, with many elderly women in the collection queue. The community gradually picked itself up from post-war chaos and poverty.

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.

A collection of historical photographs of Singapore, published in 2020.
Volume 1 of a historical photo book collection of Singapore, published 2022.
Volume 2 of a historical photo book collection of Singapore, published 2022.
Volume 3 of a historical photo book collection of Singapore, published 2022.

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