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Visual Arts

Yip Cheong Fun

Perhaps Singapore’s best-known photographer.

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


Time taken : >15mins

When a picture is good, it is good.

The Straits Times, 27 July 1986.
Prof Yip Wing Kong, son of Yip Cheong Fun, explains, “To fully understand what my father meant, we only need to think of the converse: when a picture is evil, it is bad”

Yip Cheong Fun was perhaps Singapore’s best-known photographer. Admired for his seascape photography, it was his documentary photographs of Singapore that first won him fame. Today, his body of creative work remains an important and visually striking record of Singapore’s social and cultural history. In 1980, Yip was named as one of ten Honorary Outstanding Photographers of the Century by the Photographic Society of New York, USA. In 1984, Yip received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to photography in Singapore.

Born in Hong Kong in 1903, Yip was brought to Singapore when he was only seven months old. Four years later, his father passed away, and Yip was sent back to China to be cared for by his relatives while his mother remained in Singapore to support the family. In 1913, Yip returned to Singapore to join his mother after his neighbours in China realised he was neglected at home.

Back in Singapore, a young Yip helped out in his mother’s grocery shop, taking charge of the photocopying machine in the shop and helping to make copies for customers who brought in books on all kinds of subjects. Being an inquisitive young boy, Ying would make copies for himself too when he found anything interesting to him, and this allowed him to read widely. This thirst for knowledge would come to inform Yip’s photography greatly later in life.

In his early teens, Yip began his interest in photography when he acquired a Brownie camera that he would use to record the things he saw. However, he was more interested in music then, and went on to play the yangqin (Chinese hammered dulcimer) in the Chinese orchestra of the Tamfa Club, and the flute and violin in his free time. This changed when he made friends with a few professional photographers in the Tamfa Club.

Yip saved the money he got from working as an apprentice mechanic at an engineering firm and bought his first professional camera, a Rolleiflex, in 1936. He started taking a serious interest in photography and experimented with his camera in his free time—going on photography trips to Johor, Malaysia, with his Tamfa Club friends—while he worked as a technical supervisor at United Engineers. During this time, Yip took an interest in portrait photography and was influenced by pioneering Japanese photographers Kusakabe Kimbei, Shimooka Renjo, and Uchida Kuichi.

In 1942, Yip resigned from his job and opened his own engineering workshop. He also built his own photographic darkroom at the back of his house where he would experiment with his film prints. His photographic experiments lasted until the Japanese Occupation when his camera was taken away as the Japanese military did not allow the ownership of cameras. After World War II ended, Yip once again continued his photographic pursuits.

In 1948, renowned photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson visited Singapore and went on photography trips with Yip to Chinatown and the Singapore River to capture street scenes and images of the death houses in Chinatown. Yip’s shared Cartier-Bresson’s passion for capturing meaningful candid moments and would come to be influenced by Cartier-Bresson’s work. With his camera in hand everywhere he went, Yip created a style that would capture and document the changing face of Singapore across the decades.

Yip pursued his passion whole-heartedly, experimenting endlessly and honing his self-taught skills over the years. His talents received official recognition for the first time in 1952 when he submitted prints of Rowing at Dawn to international salons and competitions, earning himself top prizes and exhibition showings in over 80 countries. Rowing at Dawn—a photograph Yip created in celebration of Singapore’s independence from colonialism—would come to be his most recognised photograph.

Yip is noted for his humanistic understanding of his surroundings and approach to photography as manifested in his depictions of harbours, plantations and kampongs—these photographs showing the cultural landscape of a pre-urbanised Singapore and the physical and social impact of urbanisation. In particular, he took detailed pictures of every aspect of life in Chinatown. He is also known for his sensitive child portraiture and his hallmark seascape works, which consist of shimmering lights and reflections, and the fishermen and Chinese junks for which he is best known internationally.

Yip has had many notable disciples and taught for decades at both the Photographic Society of Singapore—where he was vice-president from 1966 to 1974—and at the Kreta Ayer Camera Club, playing an active role in inspiring and guiding many aspiring photographers. His influence reached beyond students of photography to people who were interested in the preservation of Singapore’s memory of the past. Some of these included former Deputy Prime Minister S. Rajaratnam and Chief Architect of the Housing and Development Board Tony Tan, both of whom would visit Yip regularly at his Kreta Ayer home.

In 1972, Yip was conferred the Honorary Excellence Distinction by the Fédération Internationale de l'Art Photographique, an honour he would received again 11 years later. In 1980, he was named as one of ten Honorary Outstanding Photographers of the Century by the Photographic Society of New York, USA. In 1984, Yip received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to photography in Singapore.

On 16 Sep 1989, after a sixth trip to the Chinese Gardens to take pictures of the Lantern Festival celebrations, Yip collapsed at midnight while on his way back home. Yip passed away at the age of 86.

Today, Yip’s legacy of photographic work lives on as one of the most striking and important records of Singapore’s social and cultural history. In 2006, a book of Yip’s photographs, An Ingenious Reverie: The Photography of Yip Cheong, was published with an accompanying exhibition of his work. In 2009, Yip’s son, Andrew, published A Poetic Vision: The Photography of Yip Cheong Fun.

Timeline

1903

Born in Hong Kong.

Came to Singapore aged 7 months.

1909

Sent back to China to be cared for by relatives.

1913

Returned to Singapore at age 10 to join his mother.

1914

Attended a private school in Chinatown, Singapore.

1919 to 1923

Apprentice at an engineering firm.

1936 to 1942

Technical supervisor, United Engineers.

1936

Purchased first professional camera, a Rolleiflex

1942

Set up his own engineering workshop and built a photographic darkroom at the back of his house.

1955

Created Rowing at Dawn, which goes on to be exhibited in over 80 countries.

1957

Named Associate of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain, UK.

1958

Received Certificate of Excellence, Berlin, Germany for Rowing at Dawn.

1960 to 1973

Commercial photographer and technician, Tien Wah Press.

1960

Received Gold Medal award, Indonesia.

Received Gold Medal award, Malaysia.

1961

Named Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain, UK.

1964 to 1965

Member, Photographic Society of Singapore.

1966 to 1974

Vice-president, Photographic Society of Singapore.

1967

Received Print of the Show award at Washington Fair, USA.

Received Silver Medal award, France.

1969

Listed in Who’s Who in Photography by the Photography Society of America.

1971

Received the Merlion Pewter Award for Fisherman’s Hurry, 29th Singapore International Salon of Photography.

1972

Conferred Honorary Excellence Distinction of the Fédération Internationale de l’Art Photographique.

1974

Conferred Honorary Fellowship, Photographic Society of Singapore.

1976 to 1989

Advisor, Kreta Ayer Community Centre Camera Club.

1978

Conferred Honorary Life Membership, Photographic Society of Singapore.

1980

Named as one of ten Honorary Outstanding Photographers Century (Seascape Specialist), Photographic Society of New York, USA.

1983

Conferred Honorary Excellence Distinction of Fédération Internationale de l'Art Photographique (EFIAP, Hon.).

Conferred Honorary Fellowship of the Southeast Asia Photographic Society (FSEAPS, Hon.).

1983

Solo exhibition, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.

Solo exhibition, Penang Museum, Penang, Malaysia.

1984

Received the Cultural Medallion for contributions to photography in Singapore.

1986

Published Yip Cheong Fun’s Pictorial Collection.

16 Sep 1989

Passed away at age 86 in Singapore.

2006

Posthumous exhibition and book, An Ingenious Reverie: The Photography of Yip Cheong Fun.

2009

Book written and published by son Andrew Yip, A Poetic Vision: The Photography of Yip Cheong Fun.

Sep 2010 to Mar 2011

Four posthumous exhibitions on the photography of Yip Cheong Fun held in various provinces in South China, organised by the Chinese Government.

4 Sep 2011

9 + 1 Honorary Exhibitors Photgraphic Exhibition, featuring the photography of Yip Cheong Fun, held at Kreta Ayer Community Club, organised by Singapore Chinatown Photographic Club.


TributeSG

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.

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