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Lee Sow Lim is a pioneering and award-winning Singaporean photographer, journalist, presenter and arts educator. He was the first Singapore photographer to receive the Pingat Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Medal), and later chaired the Cultural Medallion selection panel for photography. Outside of photography, Lee established the Hainanese Drama Broadcast group at Rediffusion radio station.
Lee Sow Lim was born in 1930 in Malaysia where he had his primary and secondary school education. After the death of his father, a skilled engineer, he moved to Singapore with his mother and sister and took English lessons to improve his prospects. Photo studios were prospering at the time and with the help of a contact, he found work in one, learning to develop photos before he even knew how to take them.
In 1951, he bought his first camera—a Ziess Ikonta—and started to experiment with infrared photography. During the time, many of his fellow photo studio colleagues participated in international photo salons. Joining them, he sent the results of his experiments to salon competitions, sharing the postage cost with a few senior photographers, and won accolades in France and Barcelona, and also in competitions organised by The Sunday Times.
In 1955 he joined the cable radio company Rediffusion as a clerk, advertisement copywriter and photographer, and went on to become a producer and Hainanese presenter. He was asked to set up the Hainanese Drama Broadcast group in 1963, and having resolved issues regarding the standardisation of accents and finding appropriate actors, the broadcasts continued for about 16 years. Wanting to share his love of photography, Lee also started a series of talk shows on photography at Rediffusion, which went on to enjoy a run of more than 200 episodes over four years. He also hosted three photography television programmes for Television Singapura in 1964, 1965 and 1971.
When dialect programmes were not allowed to be broadcast in 1981, Lee left Rediffusion. However, he had already set up his own photo studio business in 1971, the Glory Photo Company, and he focused on running it. Lee also joined the Singapore Photographic Trade Association, rising over the years to eventually serve as its president. He was also a founding member of the South East Asia Photographic Club.
From 1957, Lee also began writing articles on photography for a few Chinese newspapers such as Free Press, Nanyang Siang Pau, Sin Chew Jit Poh, and Shin Min Daily News. He also went on two books in photography. In 1962, Lee began his involvement with arts education at the Adult Education Board, counting Singapore photographer Foo Tee Jun among his students. He went on to teach briefly at the Vocational and Industrial Training Board and Singapore Polytechnic.
Always striving to create photographs using novel angles and perspectives, Lee frequently emphasises the importance he attached to being involved in the whole photographic process, from taking photographs to developing them. After the photographs he took from 1965 to 1975 deteriorated due to poor paper quality, he returned to black and white photography in 1977 but fused this form with colour processing.
In 1978, he became the first photographer to receive the Pingat Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Medal). From the mid-’80s he sat on several government arts committees, chaired the Cultural Medallion selection panel for photography and was involved in the visual art segments of the Festival of Arts in 1988, 1990 and 1992.
Today, Lee continues to practise photography. A selection of his works is housed at the National Museum of Singapore and the National Archives of Singapore.
Born in Malaysia.
Attended Seremban Primary School, Malaysia.
Attended Segamat Chinese Secondary School, Malaysia.
Moved to Singapore with family.
Attended English courses, Singapore Institute of Commerce.
Received commendation for The Tiger in Hong Kong Pictorial Photo Competition.
Clerk, advertisement copywriter and part-time photographer, Rediffusion.
First prize, Cigarette and Life, The Sunday Times Camera Contest.
First prize, Silver Tree, The Sunday Times Camera Contest
Associate member, The Royal Photographic Society, UK.
Photography columnist, Free Press, Nanyang Siang Pau, Sin Chew Jit Poh and Shin Min Daily News.
Presenter and programmer, Rediffusion.
Cigarette and Life selected for photo yearbook Photogram, UK.
The Work is Done exhibited as Honour Print, 1st International Photographic Exhibition, Victoria Memorial Hall, Singapore.
Prints selected for 22nd Rochester International Salon of Photography, Inc., Memorial Art Gallery, New York
Founding member, South East Asia Photographic Society of Singapore.
Assistant secretary and exhibition chairman, Southeast Asia Photographic Society of Singapore.
Unloading selected for annual Hungarian PhotoART
Honorary Secretary, South East Asia Photographic Society of Singapore.
Street Market selected for annual British Photographic Almanac.
President, South East Asia Photographic Society of Singapore.
Bronze medal, Singapore Art Society’s Photographic Group, Southeast Asia Photo-Salon.
Silver medal, XI Salon International D’Art Photographique, Bordeaux, France.
Lecturer of photography courses, Adult Education Board, Singapore.
Participated in The Royal Photographic Society Autumn Exhibition, UK.
Speaker on photographic art and techniques at various photographic organisations.
Tape programme librarian, Rediffusion.
Established Hainanese Drama Broadcast group, Rediffusion
Director and Producer, Hainanese Drama Broadcast Group, Rediffusion.
Presenter, Television Singapura.
Presenter, Television Singapura.
Established Glory Photo Company.
Presenter, Television Singapura.
Received Pingat Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Medal).
Lecturer, Vocational and Industrial Training Board
Photography columnist, Sin Chew Jit Poh.
Member, Advisory Committee on Photographic Art, Ministry of Culture.
Council member, Singapore Photographic Trade Association.
Vice president, Singapore Photographic Trade Association.
Yesterday’s Glory exhibited at Festival of Arts Photo Exhibition.
Chairman, Advisory Committee of Photographic Art, Ministry of Culture.
Received Excellent Service Award, Federation International D'Art Photography.
Chairman, Cultural Medallion Committee (Photographic Art), Ministry of Culture.
Chairman, Photographic events, Festival of Art.
President, Singapore Photographic Trade Association.
Chairman, Singapore Photographers’ Directory Editorial Committee.
Chairman, Distinguished Asean Photographers Exhibition.
Published Talk on Photography.
Published Talk on Developing & Printing.
Vice President, The Society of Worldwide Ethnic Chinese Photographers in Hong Kong.
Critical photo-essay Let’s talk on Salon Photography published in Lianhe Zaobao, and in newspapers in Hong Kong, China, Philippines and Thailand.
Held three photographic arts and techniques seminars. Two in Hong Kong, one in Suntec City Exhibition Hall, Singapore. Sponsored by The Society of WECP.
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Lee Sow Lim (standing, 2nd from left) with colleagues in the Rediffusion Chinese Department. 1958.
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Lee Sow Lim (front, 3rd from left) with his students at the Adult Education Board on an outdoor photography class. 1962.
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Lee Sow Lim with president Ong Teng Cheong and fellow Singapore artists. (L–R) David Tay, Liu Kang, Ong Teng Cheong, Lee Sow Lim, Edwin Thumboo and Tan Lip Seng. c. 1990s.
TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.
In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.