In Conversation With Sha Ying

For his new book CHINATOWN, to be released in May 2019, photographer Sha Ying speaks to book editor Tay Kay Chin about his images, his approach, and what it means to live in his adopted country – Singapore.

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Tay Kay Chin(TKC): You have lived in Japan and Hong Kong before Singapore. Did you also photograph your other two adopted countries in the same way you did in Singapore?

Sha Ying(SY): I left China in 1991 to work in Japan and lived in Tokyo until the end of 1993. In the 2 1/2 years in Tokyo, I took a few rolls of black and white film. As it was too troublesome to get a darkroom to do the printing, I did not continue. When I lived in Hong Kong from 1993 to 1995, I did not take any photos for more than a year.

TKC: Some critics may think that your style is very outdated, how would you respond to that?

SY: (Laughs) Indeed. I hate to see my photographs and this is why I invited friends to deal with them. I still remember that in 1999, a well-known critic and curator from Paris said to me, “Your pictures are good for the ‘50s but we are coming to the twenty first century.” I was half a century behind!

To be honest, I never thought of the question of styles when I took those pictures. Looking back, I should not be surprised since I was influenced by the great masters who made their names in the middle of the last century or even earlier. A French friend from Alliance Francaise in Singapore compared my work to that of Robert Doisneau’s.

Critics are always looking for new ways of looking at things, or even better, original perspectives. This is their job.

I believe there are photographers who changed their styles at different stages of their career. Walker Evans is Walker Evans; Lee Friedlander is Lee Friedlander; and Martin Parr is Martin Parr. I admire them from the bottom of my heart. But should I emulate their styles? Moriyama Daido, the Japanese photographer who was inspired by William Klein in his early years, has been very popular these days. Many photographers may be able to copy his style, but there is only one Daido.

Sometimes I think the trend is more about the attitude towards photography and towards life. A fashionable image may not be as sophisticated and profound as a classic one, but the look matters. I once tried to get very close to my subjects and release the button without even looking through the viewfinder. Later when I checked the contact prints, I realised it was too expensive to photograph that way, considering my limited budget for my hobby.

Any approach a photographer adopts has to do with his personal temperament and the subjects he is dealing with.

TKC: You have never really considered yourself a professional photographer, so how did you motivate yourself to go out regularly to make pictures?

SY: I learned some basics of black & white photography in the late 70s when I was a student at Beijing Broadcasting Institute, where I majored in television production. The school curriculum focussed on 16mm film but still photography became an important lifelong hobby. Eventually, when I felt more settled in Singapore, I was able to pick up the old passion again. Working with two Nikon FM2 bodies and a few lenses, I even set up a makeshift darkroom in one of the rooms in our HDB flat. Around the end of 1995, I began to photograph Singapore streets more intensively and kept myself busy developing and printing the films at home. I would not say that I went out regularly or with a clear purpose but I did spend a lot of spare time wandering and hunting for images.

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TKC: Do you think photography helped you to settle into Singapore?

SY: Definitely. My camera took me to a lot of places and corners around the island where I would not have gone otherwise. I went to Indian temples, mosques, as well as churches, taking pictures of different people celebrating their own festivals. I photographed a wedding of an Indian man and a Chinese woman at an India temple in Little India. I also followed a large crowd of local Chinese people to a place in the middle of nowhere to burn huge paper houses and paper Mercedes cars that were intricately crafted. While most Singaporeans are probably familiar with such sights, they were very new experiences for someone like me. By observing what Singaporeans do when they were not in their workplace, I got a better understanding of this country and its culture. Although it is widely considered a modern city or a developed country, underneath the surface, there are so many facets and hidden truths that people from the outside world will never see.

TKC: You often cited Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank as the photographers you tried to emulate in your work. Do you think that has changed since you became exposed to more photographers?

SY: I first saw Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographs when I was a student. To Chinese photographers, he is the photo God, the most important one. I have bought quite a few books about him. As for Robert Frank, I was only introduced to his work, “The Americans”, in 1996. Although they were two extremes with respect to their approaches, I admired both their work. Naturally, I tried to look for inspirations from their work in those days.

More than 20 years have passed. Thanks to many photography festivals and talks by the masters from all over the world here; and the Internet, I have been exposed to contemporary photographers, so I reckon I may try something different if I were to photograph Singapore again.

TKC: Do you think your obsession with Chinatown has something to do with where you came from?

SY: Yes, absolutely. My office was located at Tanjong Pagar, and it took me literally only five minutes to walk to Chinatown, so I often wandered there to take pictures during my lunch breaks. But the main reason that I frequented Chinatown had to do with where I came from.

Although Chinatown in the late ‘90s was probably quite different from the Chinatown decades before, for a newcomer like me, it was still very interesting and unique with a flavour of antiquity. Walking around the area, I saw things that reminded me of my childhood. For instance, the traditional Chinese medicine shops made me think about the one my grandfather had in Shandong in the early ‘60s. The old people walking on the streets or resting at different corners highlighted the characteristics of the area. To me, they were the souls of Chinatown.

I used to walk around the corner of Nankin Street and China Street where the shophouses were emptied and waiting to be pulled down by developers. I met some old folks under the shelters killing time or reminiscing the good old times. An old man was writing a letter for another old man, one to be sent to his family in China. A barber with a business under the roof of the passageway, surrounded by a few regular customers. It was there where I encountered the remains of the ‘old’ Chinatown.

At the same time, Chinatown was ‘familiarly strange’. The look of the people and their dialects were somewhat foreign to me, a northern Chinese. The Nanyang architecture and the mix of everything culturally and geographically were also quite charming to me.

TKC: How do you hope viewers will see your work?

SY: My photographs may have documented fragments of lives of some ordinary people and mundane scenes in Singapore, mainly before the new century. I hope people in future will find them useful when they look for references of the time. History is not abstract, it is made of small debris, many bits of them, and even I found it difficult to find old images of Singapore.

Of course it would be nice if someone says, “This man is attentive to life and he loves people, he is a humanistic photographer.”

TKC: Do you think your Singapore images are in any
way critical? Or do you think the images are more

SY: I love old things. Sometimes when I saw an old shophouse, I would stand there and stare at it for a long time. Strange enough, it made me feel nostalgic even though it had nothing to do with me. These sorts of images of mine may be considered sentimental. On the other hand, when I saw the unfortunate and less privileged people, especially the senior citizens still painstakingly striving to make a humble living, I became sad and critical. I felt they could be looked after better. But I did not have any pre-set attitude on what I should photograph. It all depended on chances.

TKC: You must have a favourite image from this collection. Which one and why?

SY: If I have to choose one, it will be the one taken in Chinatown, with the funeral lantern in the foreground and skyline in the background.

Although I didn’t have many preconceived ideas, I was subconsciously hunting for images that contained different elements – old and new, east and west, and different races and cultures. I like the juxtapositions, which in many ways portray the unique cultural landscape of this country. I love photographs that have multiple layers and mixed implications.

In 2001, this photo was selected for the book named “Tradition & New” by the Society of Worldwide Ethnic Chinese Photographers. When the tour exhibition came to Singapore, the committee decided not to exhibit it because they were concerned that some Singaporeans might consider it

TKC: Describe your methodology. Did you research about a place before you went out?

SY: I did not have a particular method per se. When I made these pictures, content came first and aesthetics second. Sometimes I followed an interesting person quietly until I found a good backdrop for a picture. Or I saw a good background and waited for something or someone to enter my picture. Then it all happened in a couple of seconds, just like hunting.

I did not do much research before I went out. This was perhaps because I was not on assignments. But I checked the street directory and asked people about the good places to take pictures. I remember my first landlord took me to Little India to see the red light district. We went to a back lane and saw some brothels with their doors open to the outside. I asked my landlord if it was ok to take pictures from outside and he said yes. But two ladyboys jumped towards me when I was raising my camera! They chased me until I surrendered my film.

TKC: Why do you photograph?

SY: I did not have enough film and papers and a darkroom to play with black & white photography when I was a poor student. So picking it up again when I could afford it was to compensate for the hunger of the past. I enjoyed the process of making the prints and being immersed in the absolute quietness alone in my darkroom. It was like a meditation.

I also wanted to see if I could make a couple of good photographs that were close to the masters’. The result was quite unsatisfying. Photography is tough. I wish I had more time. Cartier-Bresson said, “… it’s seldom you make a great picture. You have to milk the cow quite a lot and get plenty milk to make a little cheese.”

TKC: Words seem to be a big part of your practice. Are you saying there are limits to what photography can achieve?

SY: When I took those pictures, I did not think of words. But when I had the idea of collecting them together as a book, I felt the need for words.

Unlike some photographers who have clear ideas about what they will do with their pictures even before they started photographing, I did not have any plan. This is why, after over twenty years, I felt the need to introduce words to hold the images together and to provide some background information for the viewers.

A great photo book should not need too many words. I still believe in the power of images, but at same time, the right words can clarify and avoid misunderstanding.

TKC: This collection of Singapore pictures seems generally observed from a distance and uninvolved, do you think it was more a result of respect or fear?

SY: Both. I found that in Singapore the distance between people was generally further than some other crowded cities such as New York, which seems to be the paradise for street photography. It was difficult to photograph people in very close distance while not intervening in their lives. The late French photographer Marc Riboud coined the term double tension: “the fear of destroying an intimacy by approaching it and at the same time the strong desire to photograph as closely as possible what my eye dares not see.” In a conservative society like Singapore, the consequences may be rather serious once you are caught taking pictures of someone without permission.

Some photographers such as William Klein or a couple of the Magnum photographers have very bold approaches. They are so close to their subjects, to the extent of being intrusive and even confrontational. I admired their courage and vision, but I preferred the idea of taking a picture to making a picture. To me, an ideal street photograph is something that is “out there” and caught by accident.

TKC: Are you now just another “typical Singaporean?”

SY: (Laughs) I love this question but I do not know how to answer it. What is “typical”? Who is a “typical Singaporean?”

I guess after living here for more than 23 years, I have become more or less a Singaporean, especially in the eyes of my previous countrymen. I am an insider now and I have the right to vote. But every now and then, I observe this country from an outsider’s point of view. I know I may never become a “typical” Singaporean, but I am quite sure I am a Singaporean with an international vision.

TKC: Describe your feelings about Chinatown today. How is it different from 20-25 years ago?

SY: Occasionally I still go to Chinatown to meet friends and have a meal. The numerous food stores inside Chinatown Complex are still popular to locals.

Outside, on the street, statues have been built to honour the Samsui women for their contributions to the republic. A huge man-made roof designed for tourists hangs over a food street, and there is free WIFI in the whole area.

Globalization, commercialism and tourism … are all been promoted in the past two decades is to convert what was once a living place into a tourist attraction that can draw lots of tourists from all over the world, and it has been quite successful. Shops are lined up side-by-side, restaurants with local delicacies, souvenirs and electronics, traditional tailors and massage salons … you name it.

Life goes on. Lots of new old men replaced the old ones, playing Chinese chess and poker, reading papers or simply dozing off at the open space in front of the Complex. The wet market is still there and the fish head seller whom I took a photo of 19 years ago is still selling fish head, with more white hair but less business.
In May 2018, I even met Madam Ho Koon Eng, someone I first photographed in 1996. She recognised me and told me that her right arm is not well these days. Born in 1922, she is 96 now.

This Chinatown is not the Chinatown I used to photograph, just like the Chinatown I photographed before was not the Chinatown that our pioneer photographer Yip Cheong Fun roamed in the 60s.

I do not feel sad though that many things and people I photographed are gone. I am only a sojourner. What I photographed in those few years were just extremely small pieces of debris of the past.

As Susan Sontag said, “All photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”

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