Photographic memories

Photographic memories
Mr Mun is still the proud owner of a old-school sound blimp, which was used back in the day to muffle noise generated by film cameras.

SINGAPORE - For 40 years, Mr Mun Chor Seng had a front-row seat to Singapore's journey from backwater colony to modern city - from behind his camera.

He clambered on top of vans to capture the National Day Parade, jetted with ministers to Africa on political visits and sloshed through neck-level puddles to snap the floods that swept through his home in Newton in 1969.

Now retired from his job as a cameraman, the 76-year-old wants to share his lifetime of work with the public. He is donating part of his treasure trove of more than 10,000 photos and videos to the National Heritage Board.

"We're turning 50 next year. It's a big occasion for Singapore. This is a good time to showcase our history," says Mr Mun as he takes SundayLife! through his collection of old pictures, which include landmarks such as the old Clifford Pier area and Victoria Memorial Hall.

Despite their age, the photos, taken mostly between 1958 and 1998, are in good condition.

He stores them in albums and envelopes at his Thomson Terrace home, where he lives with his wife and son. But he occasionally puts the negatives out in the morning sun to remove moisture.

Age has not eroded the memory of the grandfather of three. The lively raconteur can recall in meticulous detail the people and places he has photographed. While some, like the baroque-style Eu Villa in Mount Sophia, have long vanished, his memory of them remains.

"Ah, this one. We used a self-timer for this, you know. I managed to take it because my secondary school friend lived next door," he says, referring to a shot of the villa owned by the late tycoon and philanthropist Eu Tong Sen, who died in 1941.

Another cherished shot is one taken at Singapore's National Day Parade in 1963, while he was working as an assistant cameraman with Television Singapura. "At that time, TV was king because a lot of people watched it. We could get access to anywhere we wanted to shoot, not like now when you need permits for everything."

He keeps track of all his pictures. "I write the date of reference on the back of every photo that I have taken."

His two-storey terrace home resembles a museum crammed with 35 photo albums, at least 10 cameras (both film and digital) and other collectibles salvaged over the past few decades.

One prized possession is a foundation stone for the now-defunct Radio Malaya station, which now rests in his front yard.

"I found it abandoned in a five-foot-way. The building was already torn down, so I took it home. It has a lot of historical significance," he says.

The second of four siblings credits his tidiness and eye for detail to his father, a migrant from Guangdong, China, who opened a watch repair shop here.

His interest in photography was sparked by his elder brother Chor Koon, 78, who worked for the family business, and from shooting for school publications when he was studying at Beatty Secondary School.

The rest he learnt on the job, from his first gig as a broadcasting assistant with Radio Malaya till he rose to become head of location operations with the then Singapore Broadcasting Corporation.

Many of his photos, which capture a rapidly developing Singapore, were taken while he experimented with leftover film.

"These were not shots that I specially intended. I just happened to have my camera, so I pressed click to capture the moments."

While film cameras have given way to digital ones and selfies are now the rage, he still abides by a golden rule when he heads out for his weekly leisure shoots around the island. "Every picture must tell a story. If not, there's no point in taking it," he says.


This article was first published on November 23, 2014.
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