Sampan Boat Man (80s Singapore)

SINGAPORE 1980
Sampan Boat ManSAMPAN BOAT MAN SINGAPORE© Michael Chua Photography
Circa 1983~84 – Sampan Boat Man (80s Singapore)
This image brings back bittersweet memories. It came about because of an assignment by the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board for pictures depicting vanishing trades. One of the items in the shoot list was a Sampan Boat Man.

A sampan is an Asian row boat that was common in the old days but by the 80s, they were largely replaced by motorized crafts. Sampans were getting scarce, hence “vanishing”.

On the day of the shoot, I rented a sampan. It was evening and getting dark fast. I had the boat man casually row along the banks of the Esplanade while I tried to figure out how to shoot the scene. As he was rowing, the Merlion, which is symbol of modern Singapore, appeared in the background. All I had was a Vivitar 285 for lighting. I pulled the the zoom attachment to wide angle and frantically fired off a few frames before I lose the scene.

For the exposure, I went for about 1/4~1/8 sec. I deliberating used a slow speed so that the Merlion will be recorded with some motion whereas the boat man will be frozen sharp by the flash. Aperture was F/8 on my Nikkor 35mm f/1.4 lens. Film was Kodak EPR 64.

After the transparencies were developed, I was very pleased with the images. There weren’t that many, maybe about 10 frames in total. However, they came out exactly the way I wanted. The boat man with his oars jumped out of the scene. His white T-shirt and pajama like shorts contrasted with the deep blue night sky and the golden Merlion in the distance had some motion blurness. I thought it’s an apt depiction of the new and the old.

It didn’t take me long to realize that what I recorded was more than just a photo to promote tourism. The more I looked at it, the greater my sadness. Here is an elderly guy with a weather-beaten face eking out a meager living while the rest of the population is prospering as the nation modernized. This is the forgotten generation. Discarded because they have lost their economic value. The unfairness and inequalities in life suddenly struck me. It was never my intention to do any social documentary to address such issues. Is governing a nation all about economic progress? GDP numbers? Or is it about the citizens? That was the awakening of my social consciousness.

Singapore Banks

SINGAPORE BANKS© Michael Chua Photography
Circa 1983~84 – Singapore Banks (80s Singapore)

Amidst the relentless pursuit for economic progress that was leaving the poor further behind, the Singapore economy and the banking industry were experiencing fantastic growth. Singapore was to become one of the four Asian Tigers admired by the Western world. Year after year with almost double digit growth.

The image above shows the big banks in the Singapore Business District. Everyone of them with their massive skyscrapers projecting their wealth and power. One such bank, OCBC, was designed by the world renowned architect, I.M.Pei. And fronting their building is a huge sculpture by the famous British artist, Henry Moore. Their opulence was in full public display.

The Prophecy

SIR STAMFORD RAFFLES SINGAPORE© Michael Chua Photography
Circa 1985 – Sir Stamford Raffles (80s Singapore)

A couple of years later, as I was taking a stroll along the banks of the Singapore River, the sky suddenly darkened. I looked around for cover and as I turned, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was as though an oracle was sending me a message.

There stood the statue of Sir Stamford Raffles and towering over him in the background was the OCBC Center. Against that backdrop is a bright afternoon sky overshadowed by dark thunderous clouds. It sent a chill down my spine. The signs were ominous. With all the economic progress gained, the nation will face tremendous challenges in the future.

Fast forward 35 years, the prophecy came true. The irony of it all is I was standing right outside the gates of Parliament Building when I took the photo.

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