The Singapore of my sister’s memories is a dream-dispensing city. It’s where birthday parties happen on the Ferris wheel over Marina Bay; where no desire is too big for Orchard Road’s malls. In her home of 10 years, my sister’s Type-A heart found a rare kinship in the brisk, orderly city that—like her—keeps one eye on the clock.
From 2015 I began visiting Singapore regularly, only to veer off on my own. Far from expat haunts, I made stealthy photographs of old uncles hunched over their bowls of wan tan mee at a midnight joint in Joo Chiat; and picked up colourful Singlish phrases in the hawker centres of Ang Mo Kio. I stepped into somebody else’s childhood memories in a 1970s playground in Toa Payoh, where a giant dragon sculpture flexes swings and slides (it is one of the last of Singapore’s old play areas, with rare folklore imagery). Every evening, when my sister and I reconvened over glasses of kopi-O, our Singapores sounded like siblings who hadn’t caught up in a while.
This March, days before India sealed its borders to fight the coronavirus pandemic, I was booked on a red-eye flight to Singapore for a long sabbatical. Now I was stuck, and deeply unmoored at the thought that a year would pass before I’d see my partner who too calls Singapore home. As days became a miasma of dark moods I turned to Instagram like never before—there was a photograph for everything, whether I wanted to be numbed, soothed, or inspired.
Photos Courtesy: Krish Loy
The app picked up on my state of mind (or my DMs), and soon I was mostly scrolling through accounts from the Lion City. Curiously the pictures were all shot on film cameras, carrying emphatic hashtags like #filmisnotdead and #staybrokeshootfilm. The pages didn’t belong to famous shutterbugs, and the locations were mostly old public housing estates or the metro. I wondered who these photographers were, celebrating ordinary moments in wistful cotton-candy colours: A sleepy grandpa in flip-flops peering at his laundry line, two girls sizing up a new playmate by the see-saw, aproned cooks silently sharing a smoke in a back alley. It was rare to see Singaporean life of quiet suburbs, not the downtown skyline; and everyday lives of the Chinese, Malays, and Indians, instead of partying ang mohs (Caucasians). In these pictures, a city known for its unbridled capitalism managed to look ethereal.
Photos Courtesy: Ray Lim (top left & bottom right), Kamarul & Khairul Zaman (bottom left)
When I reach out to one of the photographers, Zac Tan, he sounds cautiously surprised at my interest. A 24-year-old graphic design student, Tan began experimenting with film this May after shooting Singapore’s high-rises and colonial icons digitally for seven years. It just wasn’t the Singapore he grew up in. “I was that kid from a far-flung northern suburb, Woodlands, who took the same route between home and school for years. I knew how creepers curled up on my street, at which hour the light fell diagonally on my HDB (blocks of public housing). I became more interested in documenting how people like me occupy space in Singapore; the way they leave their shoes lying around, or how they dispose of garbage every morning,” he says.
Photos Courtesy: Krish Loy (left & bottom right), Ray Lim (top right)
Every day around 4.30 p.m. Tan pulls back the curtains to see if the light is right. “Otherwise I don’t get out of the house,” he laughs. For him, film photography is also about looking for telling moments more than people. I tell him how a lot of the analogue photographers I see on Instagram seem curiously fixated with laundry drying on clotheslines—why? “Ha! They’ve become something of a hallmark of HDB life. To be honest, Singaporeans are a pretty uptight people. Always busy-busy. Seeing someone’s wardrobe hanging out to dry reveals their quirks, and that feels strangely comforting.”
Photos Courtesy: Yu Feng (left), Jon Lee (right)
Digital photography speeds things up, but film demands slowness, Krish Loy tells me over the telephone. Understandable, given the cost of buying and developing one 35 mm film roll (36 photos) is about SGD23 (Rs1,300). “Film has made me a more deliberate photographer. I see my city through a 35 mm frame now,” smiles the 23-year-old.
Loy’s pictures carry the softness of an old photo album you discovered by accident. In them wee boys scramble up a plastic dinosaur’s spine and a girl lays spreadeagled, mid-tantrum in the mall. A man is slumped in a seat with a kerchief over his face—what could he be dreaming?
“Outsiders see Singapore as an abundant, first-world city. But that’s not true for a lot of people—they make do with what they have. I look for moments where Singaporeans let that guard down and show who they really are,” says Loy.
He isn’t alone in his existential quest. Loy is part of a fizzy, 400-member gang of analogue photography fans who swap technique, ideas, and meet up for photo walks around Singapore. He goes where his memories cast soft shadows, to suburbs like Bishan, Toa Payoh, and Bedok (where his grandparents live). For a city that moves at spinning-top speed, the quiet of the recently ended lockdown felt like a jolt. “People were warier of someone with a camera,” he remembers. “And if I saw someone without a mask or wearing it around the chin, I didn’t take their photo. Why get people into trouble?”
Photos Courtesy: Krish Loy (left), Syafiq Rafid (right)
A photograph, a vignette, and a poem—Syafiq Rafid’s Instagram posts are part love notes, part breadcrumb trail to his complex relationship with Singapore. As half-Malay, half-Indian, he essays his minority experience as evocatively as he captures the “humid haze we call afternoons,” the loneliness of latchkey kids, or the way forgotten elderly seek friendship on the benches of void decks.
“I was in the police force during National Service, and work took me to areas like Pasir Ris and Tampines (two large estates in East Singapore). That really opened my eyes to their histories,” says Rafid. “For how closely we live, Singaporeans lead extremely segregated lives and can be pretty private. We might not even look at each other in the elevator. Photography helps me see how human we actually are; it helps me connect. And to me, that too is a very Singaporean thing to do,” he smiles.
Photos Courtesy: (Clockwise from top left) Krish Loy (1,3,4,5,8), Zac Tan (2), Jon Lee (6) & Ray Lim (7)
To an outsider, Singapore’s housing estates look like islands of identical buildings, copy-pasted as far as the eye can see. Rafid breathes life into them when he documents “the memory of the day you discovered you can suck nectar out of the ixora flower” and “the way you copied out your favourite poems in cheap notebooks.”
Singapore’s metro, or MRT, is another recurring location in Rafid’s pictures because “they are communal yet spaces where deeply private moments play out.” He loves taking the Green Line which covers the entire breadth of the city-state, above ground.
In 2018, one of Rafid’s regular haunts vanished. The Sungei Road Thieves Market was Singapore’s oldest flea market since the 1930s. Willowy old uncles sold second-hand goods under jaunty beach umbrellas and tarps, without having to pay rent. Foreign labourers and domestic workers could afford small luxuries there. And Rafid bought three of his 10 film cameras at the market.
“Thankfully, other places remain. There’s Tekka Market in Little India with its lines of biryani and dosa joints. And some days I just follow a river, like the Kallang, which takes me through some of Singapore’s loveliest parks.”
Jon Lee knew Singapore was a keeper when he met the love of his life on his first trip to the city. “I met her at a church in 2017,” he smiles. A year later Lee, a Malaysian who had lived in New Zealand for a decade, made Singapore home. And film photography has played trusty guide since.
When Lee loads his camera with a fresh reel of film, the city shows up in her best popsicle hues. “I feel like a journalist or historian archiving the city’s architecture because I feel like we’re on the brink of losing it.” A bungalow in bustling Novena that looks right out of an old Chinese film, an old house front in Balestier with a red letterbox reminiscent of his grandparents’ home in Kuala Lumpur. On some days, Lee says the city wears a whiff of home.
Photos Courtesy: Jon Lee (left), Krish Loy (right).
“I am colour-blind,” he tells me, “and film is such a forgiving medium.” Someday, when Lee compiles his pictures into a book, it’s likely to be filled with structures that he finds endlessly fascinating. Like the hulking, green-yellow building of the People’s Park Complex in Chinatown, whose Soviet-block-like facade frankly looks like a gigantic shutter spritzed with AC units. The 1970s structure is a rare example of Brutalist architecture in Singapore; inside it’s a jumble of travel agencies, mobile shops and massage parlours. “It makes me feel like I’ve gone back in time—and the old gold jewellery shops are still there!”
Photos Courtesy: Syafiq Rafid (top left), Jon Lee (bottom left), Kamarul & Khairul Zaman (right).
Ray Lim’s photographs faintly remind me of Nguan, a prolific photographer with Banksy-esque mystery, known for his fairy-tale-ish pictures of Singapore. Drawn to normal people doing normal things—those shuffling around in mama shops (provision stores), mulling over their order in a hawker centre—Lim’s pictures are timed to capture moments of unconscious grace.
“I started shooting with film eight years ago when I came to Singapore for my education. To me, digital photography is a tool for documentation. But I prefer film as I find it more expressive for my work.”
Like Lee, Lim too seeks places that remind him of his childhood in Kedah, Malaysia, where paddy stalks nodded to the breeze.
“I chased it down to this dairy farm in Lim Chu Kang, where you can commune with goats and other animals,” he laughs. On some evenings, Lim heads to Balam Road just to explore buildings that remind him of a Mondrian painting. “In these places no one’s dressed up; no one wants to be seen.”
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is Commissioning Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.
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