Snapshots of our past | A List
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but what stories do they tell?
The latest photo exhibition at Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall, From Brush to Lens: Early Chinese Photography Studios in Singapore, presents a captivating story about the lives of Singapore’s pioneers through old photos. From the clothing of the subjects in the photos to the environment they are snapped in, the pictures capture the zeitgeist of a multicultural Singapore.
Ms Jermaine Chua, curator at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall says: “Photographs are an enduring medium that have withstood the test of time and are one of the most powerful ways in which our past is remembered, understood and appreciated. No matter the medium, the captured snippets of everyday life are an important visual documentation of our history.”
Many of the photographs on display were taken at Chinese photography shops, which thrived in Singapore in the 19th– and 20th-century and were more popular than studios set up by their Japanese and European counterparts. The early Chinese photographers who worked at these studios were in fact portrait painters who likely saw photography as an extension of their trade.
Here are our three favourite images from the exhibition, and the stories they tell.
Portrait of rickshaw puller with his European passenger (1905)
This posed photograph of a European gentleman and a Chinese rickshaw puller captures the stark power dynamics in colonial Singapore among immigrants of different cultural backgrounds. The photograph is also a witness to Singapore’s cultural diversity, even in its early days, with the picture taken by a Japanese, J. Fujisaki.
Group photograph at the wedding of Ena Lim Guat Kheng and Teh Say Koo (1933)
This group photograph was taken during the wedding reception of Ena Lim Guat Kheng, daughter of Dr. Lim Boon Keng, a highly-respected Chinese leader in Singapore. The photo offers a glimpse into life of leading Chinese families in early Singapore. Many prominent members of the Chinese and Straits Chinese communities were present at the wedding, including Tan Kah Kee and Lee Kong Chian.
Studio portrait of a Chinese lady with young children (c.1920s)
The children in this studio portrait are dressed in western-style outfits. The difference in the attire between the Chinese mother and her children reflect the local community’s gradual acceptance of modernity and westernisation. While the photo was not dated, historians were able to estimate when it was snapped, judging by the style of the mother’s attire. It would have been harder to date the photo if women were not in it, because men’s fashion, unlike women’s, did not go through distinct style changes in the early-1900s.
(Photos by: Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall, National Museum of Singapore, Mr Loo Say Chong, Lee Brothers Studio and the National Archives of Singapore)