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Once upon a time in Chinatown, as seen through its elderly residents’ lenses

Once upon a time in Chinatown, as seen through its elderly residents’ lenses

Published on

08 May 2023

Published by

The Straits Times

SINGAPORE – The morning wet market and makeshift roadside stalls at night. Martial arts and puppetry street performances. An umbrella repairman surrounded by patiently waiting customers.


These are all bygone scenes of Chinatown, immortalised in photographs taken by two of its elderly residents.


Mr Lee Wong, 90, and Mr Quek Tiong Swee, 75, are not trained historians or famous photographers. But both men from the Pioneer Generation have tried to document the changing landscapes and lifestyles in Chinatown where they live.


Their ambition is modest: They wish only to share their memories and photographs with the younger generation.


With the help of the community, about 30 of their photographs are being featured on a 9m-long panel at Maxwell MRT station for a year. Their art will take everyone on a journey through time, from the 1970s to the 2010s, depicting the rapid development of Chinatown.


The photo mural is part of SMRT’s Communities in Station programme, in partnership with the Kreta Ayer Residents’ Committee, Fairfield Methodist Church and Yong-en Care Centre.


Mr Seah Moon Ming, chairman of SMRT Corporation, said: “Through these nostalgic photos, we hope to share a glimpse of the once-familiar sights and livelihoods in Chinatown, remind residents of the rich history and culture of the area, and ultimately, help to build a stronger sense of identity and ownership within the local community.”


The mural was launched by Minister for Communications and Information Josephine Teo, who is also an MP for Jalan Besar GRC, at the MRT station on Sunday. Speaking in a mix of English, Mandarin and Cantonese, she said the photos are a reminder of the hardship the pioneers faced, and will encourage the thousands of commuters passing by the station that they can overcome their challenges, and help build a better foundation for the next generation.


Mr Lee, who used to sell garments at People’s Park Complex, was a prolific freelance photographer who also helped local Chinese media snap shots of visiting celebrities in the 1970s. 


Patrick Tse, Chan Po-chu and Fung Bo Bo were just some of the veteran Hong Kong stars he captured in his black-and-white photographs.


The self-taught photographer gifted his over 200 hand-developed photos to Yong-en Care Centre, where he has been receiving befriending services and monthly food rations since 2016. 


It was his way of giving back to the charity, he told The Straits Times in Cantonese.


“I give them the photos to help them raise funds,” he said. “It’s a waste if (the photos) stay with me.”


As for Mr Quek, he began his photography journey in his early 30s, capturing unique scenes of Singapore which were fading away amid the Republic’s rapid development. He attended classes at Kreta Ayer Community Club and spent much time and money on his hobby.


“People said I was a fool to invest and indulge in photography, which would not give me any returns,” he said. “But we recognise the value of something only after it is gone. Someone has to record these disappearing images before they go into history.”


Mr Quek’s vast collection also includes photographs of Little India, Geylang Serai and Malay kampungs in places like Pulau Tekong. 


The retired civil servant, who lives in a four-room Housing Board flat in Kreta Ayer with his wife and son, donated about 8,000 of his photographs to the National Heritage Board 10 years ago.


For Mr Lee, the mural helps lift his spirits, especially after his wife died in 2020. 


He lives alone in a three-room HDB flat in Smith Street, and receives a $600 monthly public assistance payout. He cooks his own meals, and boils onions in water to drink as his secret recipe to staying healthy.


In 2022, Yong-en joined hands with seven businesses in Chinatown to showcase Mr Lee’s photographs at their outlets for about three months, as part of the charity’s fund-raising campaign, Pioneering Dreams. The exhibition partners included Rough Guys Coffee in South Bridge Road and dessert shop Hup Ka Foon in Sago Street. Mr Lee’s photographs were also printed on postcards, and placed at these eateries for patrons to take home with a minimum donation of $10. 


Yong-en’s executive director Nicholas Lai said such projects help seniors use their talent to give back to the community, which is in line with the charity’s mission of “improving lives and impacting communities”. 


“There is great joy in helping our seniors age meaningfully and see their dreams come to life,” he added. “Purpose drives meaning and improves the quality of life of seniors.”



Source: The Straits Times © SPH Media Limited. Reproduced with permission.



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