Culture / Art Republik

Lui Hock Seng: “I’ve lost the city I used to shoot”

Lui Hock Seng, an 81-year-old photographer, is nostalgic for the long-vanished Singapore he used to capture.

May 08, 2018 | By LUXUO

An 81-year-old photographer who has been taking photographs of Singapore for more than 50 years, Hui Hock Seng is nothing like the typical photographer you’ll expect at professional studios and working on projects.

Lui Hock Seng, 81, who has been documenting Singapore for more than 50 years, from black and white to colour.

With a keen eye for photography, Mr Lui has documented perhaps the most transformative years of Singapore with his lens.

Images of kampung life and of Chinatown’s snake-meat vendors and letter-writers for the illiterate, these are scenes that has now disappeared from Singapore.

Since his teenage years in the 1950s, he has picked up photography, and managed to hone his skills when he joined the South-east Asia Photographic Society for a few years. When he started work, he will bring his trusty camera along with him everyday, capturing any moment that caught his attention. Despite his full-time job, Mr Lui also took up part time stints as a photographer at weddings and funerals.

“I never thought that some places would change so fast.”

Mr Lui has carried his photography to various places from festivals, wildlife to portraits – but his favourite muse was the kampung – especially the three that used to be at Tanah Merah, Tai Seng and Potong Pasir.

“There was a lot to see in kampungs – people washing clothes, as well as cows, goats and chickens. The best light is between 7am and 9am, especially when the sunlight shows through the clouds,” Mr Lui reccounts in Mandarin.

Another one of his favourite spot was the Merdeka Bridge in the 1960s and 1970s that spanned across the Kallang Basin. As he was still working at the soft-drinks factory at River Valley then, he will wake up an hour earlier every morning to take photos at the bridge, before cycling to work.

Mr Lui Hock Seng, with the Rolleiflex camera that his brother bought him 56 years ago. PHOTO: WANG HUIFEN

Mr Lui’s photography journey has not been all smooth sailing. Born into a working class family with 5 other siblings, cameras were exorbitant to him and dark rooms were too exclusive to gain access to. A work accident in his early 40s also resulted in a partial loss of vision in his right eye.

Yet all these setbacks did not deter Mr Lui, as he saved and improvised to produce his precious films. Now, he puts his left eye to the camera instead. Having won quite a sum of money from photography competitions, his finances for his hobby has also improved. Despite his age, he has even kept up with the times and technology, even dabbling with Photoshop. Mr Lui still holds a job as a cleaner at night, but dedicates his day time to photography.

Last year at former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s wake, Mr Lui was among the thousands on the streets, drenched in the rain. Yet he was moved and determined to stay in the crowd, seeking to capture images of individuals who stand out.

“I’m looking for the weird and wonderful.”


Mr Lui Hock Seng and Objectifs manager Ryan Chua, who is a fan of his work. PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Thanks to two men, Mr Nicolas Genty and Mr Ryan Chua, Mr Lui has managed to hold his first solo exhibition at Objectifs earlier this year. Mr Genty, a Frenchman who works as an engineer in the petrochemical industry, was struck by Mr Lui’s photographs and decided to help preserve his work along with Mr Chua, the manager of the museum Objectifs.

Watch BBC’s cover of this amazing man and the rich stories behind his lens below.

Lui Hock Seng has also released his collection of some 80 photographs in his first book – Passing Time. The book is currently available for purchase here.

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