Lui Hock Seng "Ellenborough Market, Clarke Quay", circa 1960 - 1965

Lui Hock Seng: The Past and Passing

By Akanksha Raja

(920 words, four-minute read)

On the heels of Objectifs Centre’s January showcase “we will have been young”, a group exhibition of works by fledgling Southeast Asian photographers themed on contemporary youth culture and the future, comes a very different solo showcase. This latest exhibition reverses its gaze, looking backwards on snippets of quotidian life in Singapore in the 1960s and 1970s: quiet kampong landscapes and portraits of professions that no longer exist, far removed from the densely built-up, bustling Singapore we recognise today.

Passing Time is 81-year-old Lui Hock Seng’s first solo exhibition, curated by Objectifs manager Ryan Chua, for whom it was also a first as a curator. It was inspired by an article published in The Straits Times profiling Lui: a former car mechanic, now an office cleaner at Singapore Press Holdings, with a lifelong passion and latent talent for photography.

Lui’s interest in photography began as a teenager in the late 1950s, and, with a Rolleiflex gifted to him by his elder brother, he developed his practice as a member of the now-defunct Southeast Asia Photographic Society. This was the closest to a photographic or artistic education that he had received. After all, one can learn only so much about the technicalities of making good photographs; to hone a sharp eye and a sensitivity to “the decisive moment” is what turns skill into magic.

For Passing Time, Lui offered the Objectifs team around 500 photographs to choose from. These photographs were undated and untitled, and some of the negatives were in need of cleaning after being left untouched in storage for so long. Of these hundreds of unsorted images, curator Chua presents a modest selection of slightly over 30 (now-titled) photographs shot during the 1960s and 1970s. Those keen on seeing more of Lui’s photographs can look forward to his first photo book, which is expected to be released in late April, and is available to pre-order at the exhibition.

The exhibition takes the viewer on a visual journey that is well-structured, organised around the walls of the Lower Gallery and retail store according to the different subjects in Lui’s expansive collection.


Exhibition view


It begins with images of industry and bodies at work, especially in professions rendered obsolete today, such as Man burning crushed cockle shells to make whitewash paint; Man writing Chinese couplets; Man soaking rattan cane.


Lui Hock Seng, "Man burning crushed cockle shells to make whitewash paint, Tanah Merah" c. 1960s - 1970s
Lui Hock Seng, “Man burning crushed cockle shells to make whitewash paint, Tanah Merah” c. 1960s – 1970s


These images certainly have a documentary quality; aesthetically, their composition pays attention to the juxtaposition of fluid, flexible human bodies against rigid or symmetrical graphic patterns created by materials and architectural structures.

The few images that particularly stood out to me visually were the ones defined by less structured lines and more obscured bodies: an image of two Indian dhobis (laundrymen) in Outram, surrounded by lines of white sheets hung out to dry, whose positioning and resemblance to curtain drapes struck me as having a theatrical effect; and a silhouette vignette of men repairing a ship, with the slim but sturdy lines of the naked mast of the boat towering over the minuscule, curved outlines of the men’s bodies.


Lui Hock Seng, "Ship Repair, Merdeka Bridge" c. 1960s - 1970s
Lui Hock Seng, “Ship Repair, Merdeka Bridge” c. 1960s – 1970s


A scene of fish-sellers at Ellenborough Market at Clarke Quay – where Swissotel Merchant Court stands today – marks the transition from this first part of the exhibition to the next, of bucolic scenes of villages and farm activities.

Devoid of the looming structures that defined the previous section of work, these photographs are marked by a predominance of natural light, and a focus on portraiture, capturing the faces of people going about daily activities of the time, such as collecting water. An image of ducks set against the background of a kampong in Tai Seng, positioned so that the surface of the lake is at eye level, leads the viewer on from the pastoral scenes to a couple of images focused on water, and then focuses on communal social life, such as a gathering for the Singapore Grand Prix at Sembawang.

Passing Time is a visual time capsule, perhaps telling stories of Singapore’s early years more impressively in black-and-white snapshots of light and shadow than some school textbooks can.


Lui Hock Seng, "Tree of Life, Jurong" c. 1960s - 1970s
Lui Hock Seng, “Tree of Life, Jurong” c. 1960s – 1970s


It was hard for me to believe images such as Tree of Life (above) were taken in Jurong, a neighbourhood I frequented as a schoolgirl while it was rapidly developing into the crowded and commercial hub it is today. These images, and a series of pictures of lone trees displayed on the walls of the retail store, made me – having grown up recognising Singapore by its endless skyscrapers and the sound of an MRT train whizzing past somewhere nearby – yearn a little bit for the idyllic calmness and wide, open landscapes of a Singapore long gone.

It’s hard not to sound like a cliché of millennial #nostalgia for “that imagined space” of kampung life, how much simpler or “better” it seemed. However, Passing Time is more than just a romantic stroll down memory lane with sepia-tinted glasses. Viewing these images, we meditate on what we have lost – open spaces, wider skies, the human element of manual work such as drawing water from the communal well. Remembering what has been lost alerts us to how things have changed with automation and technological advances, and how far we’ve come to where we are today. We then come back to the present, not with resentment or discontent, but with the acceptance of change and loss: that the little things we do, the company we share and the spaces we move in will become something else, somewhere else one day, and that time is never really past or present, but always passing.

Passing Time by Lui Hock Seng is on display at the Lower Gallery, Objectifs Centre for Photography and Film. It is curated by Ryan Chua, and runs until 11 Mar 2018.

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