By Tay Suan Chiang
Photographer Jonathan Yeap usually takes shots of people and daily scenes, but for his latest project, the 28-year-old was tasked to shoot several national monuments.
'The buildings are more than twice my age,' says the Lianhe Zaobao photographer. 'It was also my first time at the monuments, and I even had to search online for their locations.'
His pictures, including those of the 186-year-old Hakka clan house Ying Fo Fui Kun in Telok Ayer Street and the 182-year-old Sri Mariamman Temple in South Bridge Road, are featured in a book published by the Preservation of Monuments Board.
Titled Resonance - Songs Of Our Forefathers, it features photographs of 24 of Singapore's 61 national monuments.
The book was launched by Acting Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts Lui Tuck Yew at the National Museum of Singapore yesterday. The museum, which was gazetted a national monument in 1992, is also featured in the book.
Rear-Admiral (NS) Lui said in his speech that the book 'helps to generate greater interest in Singapore's built heritage and history'.
In his foreword, architect Alfred Wong, the board's former chairman, writes that the bright, fresh colours of the monuments have 'dimmed over the decades but with the art of photography we can, even now, see the resonance of the original inspiration which created buildings that we can call 'frozen music''.
He first proposed the book about two years ago and approached businessman Kwek Leng Joo, whom he felt was a strong supporter of preserving heritage, to photograph the monuments.
Mr Kwek, managing director of City Developments Limited, has been an avid photographer since he was 10 and had initiated the biennial Singapore Young Photographer Award. He took on the project despite his busy schedule.
'As a Singaporean, I am proud of our monuments which are unique representations of the nation's heritage and embody the dreams and fond memories of many,' he says. 'Being a property developer, buildings are close to my heart. As an avid photographer, I find it a meaningful challenge to portray our national gems in an unconventional and artistic style.'
He adds that the project was a rare opportunity for him to re-acquaint himself with monuments that have been around since he was a child.
As team leader, he selected a team of six photographers from various backgrounds and years of experience to shoot the monuments using different styles of photography.
Besides Mr Yeap, the other five are photography lecturer Chow Chee Yong, commercial photographers Chris Yap, Darren Soh and Raymond Phang, and Mr Huang Fan, a former news editor from Wuhan. Together, the seven photographers took about two years to complete the project.
This is the third book that the Preservation of Monuments Board has published on national monuments. The previous two books, In Granite And Chunam: The National Monuments Of Singapore (1996) and Faiths Of Our Forefathers: The Religious Monuments Of Singapore (2002), focused more on the architecture of the monuments.
The Preservation of Monuments Board was formed in 1971 and it aims to preserve monuments of historic, traditional, archaeological, architectural or artistic interest.
The board offers two schemes for non-commercial and non-government national monuments, such as religious institutions. Owners can apply for a grant for urgent repair works from the board, while people who make a donation for restoration and repair will receive a tax exemption.
Ms Jean Wee, the board's director, says this third book is an artistic take from the point of view of the photographer.
She adds that the book is also more light-hearted compared to the previous two. It was written by G. Uma Devi, a heritage consultant who has also written historical books. Her writing makes for easy reading, and will appeal even to those who may not have an interest in history or architecture.
She uncovers little details which may surprise, such as the existence of a time capsule under the former Supreme Court which was buried in 1937 and is to be opened in the year 3000.
But it is the 162 photographs, whittled down from hundreds, that are the main attraction.
'The photos project different viewpoints of the building,' says Ms Wee. 'We want the buildings to not be just seen as national monuments, but also as buildings that can be enjoyed.'
The board has printed 2,000 copies of the book. She says the project is 'costly' but declined to reveal more. The photographers volunteered their services for the book.
The board will take a photo exhibition to various schools and community centres next year. There will also be an education kit produced to get the public interested in the monuments.
Ms Wee adds that there are plans to have a second book that will capture the remaining monuments, including St Andrew's Cathedral and the Chinese High School Clock Tower Building, as well as the six new gazetted monuments that were announced yesterday by Rear-Admiral Lui, including the Church of St Teresa's and St James Power Station.
As the 24 monuments have often been photographed, Mr Kwek's brief to his team was not to photograph anything that can be found in existing books. He himself pored through books, to give himself a feel of what has been done.
For some of the other photographers, getting the right shot meant going down to the various locations, sometimes up to 10 times.
Mr Chow, a photography lecturer at the Temasek Design School in Temasek Polytechnic, made 'countless visits' to the former Supreme Court and City Hall to find the best angles and the best lighting to showcase the two buildings.
'I went once in the evening and realised that I couldn't photograph the buildings as the sun was in the wrong position,' he says.
He returned in the morning and spent three hours studying the sun's rays. 'The best time was from 10 to 11am, and I had to make sure I got good shots within that hour,' he says.
Another problem the photographers faced was getting chased away at some locations. Mr Chow recalls being chased away by the security guard at the Chesed-El Synagogue in Oxley Rise. The synagogue had strict rules against photography, but he was eventually allowed in.
'It was my first time in a synagogue and I spent some time speaking to the caretaker to find out more about the building and its activities before taking my shots,' he says.
For Mr Yeap, the project has helped him realise something new about himself.
After taking pictures of Sri Mariamman Temple, which he always felt was a tourist destination, he says: 'I realise I like Indian temples, because they are so colourful and alive.'
Resonance - Songs Of Our Forefathers is available at major bookstores for $85.60.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.