New year, new space, old friends

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After the pictures went up, the new space began to feel familiar, like a place I should return to.

I’d been putting off moving into the new office near the Botanic Gardens, telling myself stuff like, there’s not a lot to do. And, there’s nobody else there yet. And, I can work from home.

I joined the Institute of Policy Studies as a consultant editor late last year to start a small newsroom that will put out a Singapore version of The Conversation, a website that began in Australia and now has spread to the UK, US, France and South Africa. If all goes well, there will be a Singapore Conversation later this year.

But first, there was that unoccupied office. The new year shoved me into action and I took some stuff into 20 Evans Road, cluttered the desk, and brought the pictures that used to hang in my old office at News Centre, plus a few others.

Seeing them on the wall made me feel at home right away. So let me tell you who’s keeping me company on this new adventure. And forgive the cropping.

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LIM SIN THAI, 1992

ST photographer Lim Sin Thai took this beauty back in 1992, at one of the last kampongs in Singapore. Sin Thai has shot numerous award-winning pictures for the paper over the decades. He’s also taken the best pictures of Singapore’s water polo men’s team each time they set off to the Southeast Asia Games to keep up their winning streak – I sometimes put them on Page One and it never failed to make readers stop, smile, laugh and have something to talk about. But this picture’s been with me longest, it’s a throwback to another time and place in Singapore, the expressions on the children’s faces are precious. And I love the outsized high-heel shoes the girl is wearing. Can’t imagine where they are now, and they’re in their 30s.

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SIM CHI YIN, 1999

Before she became a world renowned photographer and maker of incredible visual documentaries, Chi Yin worked at The Straits Times too. I’ll never forget the day she came to my office and wouldn’t let me move until she was done showing me the hundreds of photographs she took while working on a personal passion project. She wanted us to see  where the maids Singaporeans take for granted come from, what they leave behind, and the lives they put on hold while working as domestic helpers. Chi Yin has long gone on to do other, equally inspiring work. She gave me this happy picture from Siberia for my wall.

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TERENCE TAN, MEULABUH, 2004/2005

When the Indian Ocean tsunami happened on Dec 26 2004, most of us didn’t realise immediately how big a story it was. It was Christmastime, usually a slow-news period. It took some days for everyone to realise how devastating a disaster had happened at our doorstep, and how widespread the tragedy, destruction and untold sorrow that spread across so many countries around the Indian Ocean. Reporters and photographers from The Straits Times fanned across every affected country except those off Africa, and filed stories and pictures that showed us that we had just seen one of the Earth’s cruellest natural disasters in terms of the number who died and the communities affected. Singapore sent a military team to help in Meulabuh, off Indonesia’s Aceh province. Some of the most horrifying devastation had happened in Aceh, which faced the full brunt of the tsunami after the earthquake off Sumatra. One day Terence sent in this picture from Aceh, and it was uplifting in so many ways. The smiles on the faces of the children. The friendship of the soldier from Singapore. It says so much about human resilience, and that we can learn to smile again, no matter what we’ve been through.

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TERENCE TAN, PHUKET, 2005

On the first anniversary of the tsunami, The Straits Times sent reporters and photographers to revisit the communities that had been the scene of death and destruction a year earlier. There were amazing stories filed from India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and other places. Phuket, Thailand, one of the worst-affected places, had seen holiday resorts and hotels destroyed, with tourists and locals among the thousands who died. This “Boy With Big Fish” was an instant winner when Terence produced it in 2005. That grin. The size of that fish. What on earth is he about to do with it! Terence went on to other things after he left the paper, but I’m happy to have two of his terrific pictures with me wherever I go.

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BRYAN VAN DER BEEK, SRI LANKA, 2005

Sorry about my cropping of iPhone pictures of these framed photographs. I liked this photo so much I got myself two of them – I wanted a bigger print than the first. Sri Lanka produced some of the saddest stories in 2004 after so many seafront communities were wiped out by the tsunami that had arrived from way out in Indonesia. A year later, Bryan was in the team that revisited tsunami-hit areas in Sri Lanka and this was one of the pictures he filed. I’ve gazed at this photograph countless times, and it is always a picture of joy, hope and the freedom of childhood. Bryan was a shooter of great photographs at the paper, then went on to do even better things on his own. We finally got together for coffee recently, after making plans for several months, but I haven’t gathered the nerve yet to let him persuade me to try tulang, the psychedelic red marrow bone curry he swears is damn-shiok.

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RORY DANIEL, LEH, INDIA

I don’t know how it happened but the pictures on my wall at work ended up being of children. One day Wong Kim Hoh, that teller of great human stories, came in and said: “Nah, for your collection.” It was by his photographer friend Rory, and I had no idea where this place was or who these children might be. People who look at this picture are surprised to learn that this is India. It’s in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, Google tells me. Aside from being an adventurer and someone who has scaled a pyramid in Egypt, Rory lives in Singapore and is a shooter of fine photographs.

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HANOI, 2006

I don’t know who took this photograph. The first time we visited Vietnam, we went to Hanoi. I was wandering along the streets near our hotel when I came across a shop selling photographs and art works. These kids leapt out at me from a box of prints and I had to bring them home. I can’t make out the signature, reads like Tuan, I should have asked and noted it.

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JEAN QINGWEN LOO and DENICE LIM, SRI LANKA

Jean Loo was one of my wife Hedwig’s students at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at the Nanyang Technological University, and worked a short while at The Straits Times before taking off to do interesting projects in the region, as well as about hospices, death and dying. One day she invited us to an exhibition at Vivocity and the photographs were from a trip she had made to Sri Lanka with a number of other photographers to see post-war Sri Lanka. I liked these two and kept them at home, but they’re at Evans Road now. Denice t0ok the picture of the shy boy, Jean got the two lovely kids with their big grins. “I want them back,” Hedwig said, as I packed these two in the car to go.

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RIPPLE ROOT, 2016

No children in these pictures, and they’re not photographs either. But they are in my office and blend right in with the leafy surroundings. Ripple Root is the joint byline of Arnold Liquan Liew and his collaborative art partner Estella Ng. They work on their art together, passing a piece back and forth until they’re both satisfied that it’s completed. Their art is light and fun, colourful and connected with nature. I liked the top piece when they had an exhibition and asked if they would do me a companion and so they produced the second. Their art is appearing on cafe walls and street murals in Singapore and one of these days I’m going to get Liquan and Estella to take me on a tour of their works. I wrote about how we met last April in Bentong Boy: A postscript, which was a surprise follow-up to That boy from Bentong which I posted a month earlier.

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The office is kinda empty now – there’s just me and it’ll be a while before things take off, but every day when I go in, the pictures on the wall offer the warmest welcome. Old and dear friends in a new place. I’m good to go.

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