Chasing the picture-perfect dream

Chasing the picture-perfect dream
Photographer of choice to celebrities, Mr ND Chow Meng Wah has come a long way from his days as karaoke jockey, dishwasher and waiter. Not bad for someone who failed his O levels twice.

When Madam Chow Poh Chan died of a heart attack in her one-room rental flat in 2002, her only son was in Japan working as a dishwasher in a restaurant while hoping for a break as a photographer.

Mr ND Chow Meng Wah, then 27, got on a plane to Singapore and cried all the way home. At the wake, a relative ticked him off for being unfilial by leaving his mother alone and going off to chase an impossible dream.

The criticism hurt, but he kept his emotions under control. "I told myself she was happy and in a better place," he says. Madam Chow was an unwed mother who battled depression and had a hard time bringing him up.

"I also told myself I should not cry, that the saddest part of my life was over and if I continued crying, my mother would not be happy."

His energies, he decided, should be channelled into making good on his promise to her - that he would make her proud one day. He has kept that promise.

Mr Chow - who failed his O levels twice - is now one of Japan's most successful commercial photographers, commanding fees of between US$12,000 (S$15,200) and US$20,000 a day. He has shot bigwigs such as Hollywood star Tom Hanks and pop star Pharrell Williams, as well as campaigns for Japanese cosmetic company Shiseido and retail giant Isetan.

With his Japanese wife and two young children, he lives in a stylish house designed by an up and coming Japanese architect and built on a plot he bought in Chiba, near Tokyo's Disneyland.

Serendipity helped to shape his life. After leaving school, he applied for a job as a jeans salesman. The company asked if he would like to man a novelty photo booth on Sentosa instead - and his love affair with photography was sparked.

Cheery and boyish-looking, the diminutive man was born out of wedlock and grew up in a one-room rental flat in Telok Blangah Crescent.

"I seldom saw my dad and thought he must be a sailor since I had a neighbour whose father was a sailor and seldom around. One night when they thought I was sleeping, my parents quarrelled, and it was only then that I found out they were not married, and that my father had a wife and seven daughters," says Mr Chow, who was in town recently to shoot the stills for film-maker Eric Khoo's new movie In The Room, which comprises several stories about love, loss and lust.

"I realised my father's name was not on my birth certificate when registering for Primary 1. My mother told me to tell the teacher that he was dead," says the former pupil of Bukit Merah Primary.

His father was a photographer, but seldom worked and often sponged on Madam Chow, who made ends meet by babysitting several children.

"We were very close. She had a day off every Wednesday and she would take me to a movie and to McDonald's or Orange Julius."

Being pint-sized made him a target for school bullies, so he started mixing around with bad hats for protection.

By the time he entered Queenstown Secondary School, the Normal Stream student was already smoking and getting involved in fights. "I was notorious. I was not involved in a gang, but I always picked fights, especially with bullies," says Mr Chow, who was caned publicly in school for his scrapes.

After failing his O levels, he left school with no inkling about what he wanted to do.

His first job earned him $5 an hour. He manned a novelty photo booth on Sentosa, where people had their pictures taken and superimposed onto a magazine cover of their choice.

"It was where I picked up photography and learnt to use light meters and strobes to create shadows," he says.

Through that job, he met two editors of a Filipino lifestyle magazine who occasionally hired him to shoot pictures of concerts held here, including those by rockers Bon Jovi and saxophonist Kenny G.

After a year, Mr Chow became a waiter at a nightclub in Havelock Road.

"I wanted to travel and my friend, who was working there, told me I could earn more because of the tips," he says.

A stint as a karaoke jockey at a Lucky Plaza dive followed. "That is how I ended up with my name ND. I had to sign in, and because I was so lazy, I would sign Andy as ND, and it stuck," says Mr Chow, who juggled work and a course in mechatronics at the Institute of Technical Education.

"I would work until 3am, go home, sleep and attend classes from 9am until 5pm," he says.

That was a trying period because his mother also suffered a nervous breakdown.

"I guess it was menopause and stress and sadness over her situation with my father," he says. "She paged me one day, and when I called her, she sounded different. When I went home, I found her sitting in the dark."

Madam Chow spent one week in the Institute of Mental Health. Her condition was kept under control with medication, but there were relapses.

"I would sometimes come home to find her staring into space. Fortunately, my godsisters helped to look after her. They were very close to my mother because she was their babysitter when they were children," he says.

After national service, where he passed out as a commando, Mr Chow hit the road to find himself. What was supposed to be a three-month trip turned into a 21/2-year sojourn.

He started in Nepal, before crossing over to Tibet, India, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and other parts of Europe.

"In Asia, I was living in $1-a- night digs and spending 50 cents on a meal. I was 50kg when I started out, but at one stage, I weighed only 42kg," he recalls.

The trip was a crash course in humanity, exposing him to not just the kindness and companionship of strangers, but also the follies and foibles of human beings.

In the Netherlands, a kind soul helped him prepare potions made from Chinese herbs after he hurt his hand; in Teheran, he was nearly killed by two teenagers after he tried to protect a female friend's modesty.

He documented all that caught his eye and his imagination with his trusty Minolta x700. Many of these photographs are featured in his exhibition titled Roots, now on at a Tokyo art gallery. The same exhibition was staged at photography school Objectifs in Arab Street earlier this year.

The restlessness and wanderlust did not stop after he returned home. Working two jobs - as a packer in an electronics factory and as a waiter in a cafe - he saved enough before hitting the road again.

This time, he took a train up to Bangkok, then traversed up and down Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and other parts of Asia.

He eventually ended up in Tokyo, where he got in touch with a professional photographer whom he had met while shooting at a concert in Singapore, and volunteered to be his assistant.

"I told myself I needed to find a proper job, but what? I had spent more than two years on the road taking pictures and I loved it, so I decided photography was it."

To keep himself afloat, he washed dishes in a yakitori restaurant.

He was in Japan when his mother called to tell him to come home because his father was very sick. "His wife and children had kicked him out, so he ended up at my mother's," he explains.

He returned, days before his father died from a lung infection. Shaking his head, he recalls: "His body was in the mortuary for five days because we had no money to buy a coffin. One of my mother's friends eventually found a donor who agreed to pay for the coffin and cremation."

Before heading back to Japan, he told his mother to wait for him. "I told her I would make it as a photographer in Japan and make her proud of me. I told her I would take her to Japan."

Six months later, his mother died. Her death only hardened his resolve to succeed.

By then, he had become friends with a group of aspiring fashion stylists and hair and make-up folk. "We all helped each other because we all needed pictures for our portfolios," he says.

He started sending samples of his work to magazine editors, but the going was tough before he started getting commissions to do fashion spreads for women's magazines.

His first big break came when a magazine asked him to shoot a famous jazz singer, Chie Ayado, being interviewed by veteran writer Ishii Haruo.

"I needed to take a few pictures of them speaking. The interviewer moved his tape recorder from the frame and put it on his lap, but I asked someone to put an apple box next to him so that he could put it there," he says.

That thoughtful gesture impressed the writer so much he asked to work with Mr Chow for not just a magazine spread, but also a book he was doing on world-famous conductor Seiji Ozawa.

The writer's editor was reluctant because he felt the Singaporean lensman was neither famous nor experienced enough, but Mr Haruo held his ground.

The job involved photographing Mr Ozawa as he toured Europe for more than a year. "It was a book, and my name was on the cover. It was very prestigious because Ozawa is a legend in Japan," says Mr Chow, who was soon signed up by an agency - and more doors opened for him.

His next milestone was shooting the empress of J-pop Ayumi Hamasaki. "I first did a shoot for her which ran over 12 pages in a music magazine. She liked what I did and got me to shoot her CD cover. I also travelled with her on her Asian tour, to places like Hong Kong, China and Taiwan."

A turbo boost to his popularity came in 2007, when Shiseido hired him to shoot a series of pictures involving three famous actresses - Koizumi Kyoko, Seto Asaka and Kazue Fukiishi - for a major campaign in Japan and Asia.

Since then, the cosmetic giant has been a faithful regular in an impressive stable of clients which include Japan Airlines, Panasonic and Asahi Beer.

Mr Chow says he owes his success to his willingness to push the envelope and his ability to read people and draw them out.

"My secret is my honesty. I don't act cool or give them bulls**t. You have to understand them in order to know how to make them respond to you. I try to find a lot of answers in life from my photography," he says.

He is now shooting a series of artistic pictures for an exhibition entitled Sweat.

A new coffee-table book on famous Japanese photographers features him alongside legends such as Mr Nobuyoshi Araki - celebrated for his controversial images of female eroticism - and Mr Moriyama Daido, nicknamed Japan's Father of Street Photography.

It is a big feather in Mr Chow's cap.

"They are legends. And I am in there, with them."


This article was first published on September 21, 2014.
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