Born in Hong Kong, Singaporean pioneer photographer Yip Cheong Fun (1903-1999) moved to Singapore in 1913 and began taking photographs for his family album when he bought his first Rolleiflex camera in 1936, a simpler time before Singapore became the bustling metropolis it is today.
Yip’s photography career only began to take off in his 50s, when he took a serious interest in it. To gain increased recognition, in a time where photography had not yet caught on as an art form in both Southeast Asia and Singapore, Yip submitted his work to international competitions all over the world. These were recognised, and garnered him over 50 international awards, along with achievements such as the Merlion Pewter Award presented by the Singapore International Salon of Photography in 1971 and the Cultural Medallion for photography in 1984.
Perhaps that is why it is high time he receives an exhibition of his own, one that has manifested with Yip Cheong Fun: Common Interest at Art Agenda, S.E.A.’s new space Art Agenda @ 63 Spottiswoode, which focuses on photography and art in Singapore context.
The origins of the exhibition lie in Yip’s son Andrew Yip, an accomplished poet and artist, who has dedicated much of his life to supporting his father’s legacy, such as having used his photos in a book he penned. In wanting to further raise his father’s profile, he approached Art Agenda and asked if they could sell more of his father’s merchandise and prints, to which Art Agenda decided to go even further, and launch the exhibition for the public to better appreciate these works.
The exhibition contains 20 original photographs taken from the 1950s to the 1980s, a period characterised by immense change and transformation of the Singapore landscape, one that is almost impossible to see in real life today. Yip Cheong Fun’s works then, capture a lesser-seen humanist side to the modern Singapore story, and showcase our country’s development from fast-changing rural landscapes to growing urban environments, all in broad strokes and fine details. The exhibition also displays some of Yip’s cameras used in his life, including the very first Rolleiflex camera he used in 1936.
The photos are curated to showcase Singapore’s transformation from the rural to the urban, capturing Yip’s observations through time, and how he attempted to snap as many shots of Singapore as possible before the city he knew disappeared. In those times, one could grow up in a simple kampung, to find themselves surrounded by skyscrapers and tall buildings in the middle of an urban city when they grew up.
Amidst these, one might spot a photo called Father’s Care, depicting a father helping his daughter climb down a slope. In those days, with how rare it was for photography, children would often run to pose for a camera, curious and fascinated by this new device. The aforementioned image is also paired with his son’s poem A Father’s Love, showcasing how much care and concern Yip had for his children.
Throughout his life in fact, Yip was known for his love for humankind. a topic in which we may all share a common interest today. That may in part be due to having had such a difficult childhood, with his father having passed away at an early age, and his mother working solo to bring up the family. Yip was also passed back and forth to relatives in Hong Kong and Singapore to be cared for, before living through two world wars. Yip always cared for the people around him; while having spent most of his life as an engineer, he quit his job when he found out his company was supplying arms to the Japanese during the war. Later on, he even volunteered as as air raid leader in Chinatown, whose responsibility was to tell people to go to the safe zone at the first sign of bombing. Through all these trials and tribulations, Yip chose to see truth and beauty in the everyday, one that can be seen in his photos.
The title of the exhibition, Common Interest, shares its name with one of Yip’s photos, depicting two photographers capturing a dancer performing a split. The focus then, is not on the dancer, but the act of taking photos together. Yip never went to a formal art school, and instead was self-taught, and honed his craft by going on photography trips with other hobby photographer friends to capture images of the beaches, parks, kampungs and plantations, and at the end of the week, develop the photos, send 3 photos to each other anonymously, and share honest feedback and critique with each other. It is these same friends who encouraged him to publish his own book.
Perhaps then, it is this spirit of camaraderie and common interest, in both photography and human nature, that has led to his success in life. The strength of his works lies not in the learned rules of photography, but rather, in the passion for experimentation and a profound understanding of the human spirit.
Yip Cheong Fun: Common Interest is the first of a four-part photography programme at Art Agenda @ 63 Spottiswoode. The space also contains an omnichannel retail shopfront run by Art & Market, a collaborative showcase with neighbour Art Porters and a series of activations in the Blair Plain conservation area, the concept space will be a focal point for all things photographic, collectable and reflexive of Singapore in the larger world.
Yip Cheong Fun: Common Interest runs from 3rd to 21st July 2021 at Art Agenda @ 63 Spottiswoode, 63 Spottiswoode Park Road, Singapore 088651. More information available here