When his mother died at the age of 59 after a heart attack in 2002, her friends slammed him for being a bad son, calling him "unfilial" and "irresponsible".
Just a year earlier, local photographer ND Chow, then 25, had left Singapore for Tokyo to carve out a career in photography - but was still not earning a stable income.
While struggling to reach that goal, he juggled two jobs - working as a part-time waiter in a restaurant and assisting Tokyo-based Singaporean celebrity photographer Leslie Kee, whom he had met a few years earlier.
Fast forward to today, and Chow - ironically unknown in his home country - is a sought-after name in the photography industry, having worked with Japanese and international celebrities and models.
The list includes Grammy-winning US producer-singer Pharrell Williams, British rocker Liam Gallagher, Japanese singer Ayumi Hamasaki and actress Rinko Kikuchi.
The portrait photographer's work features widely in Japanese publications like GQ Japan, Nylon Japan, Spur and Ginza.
He has also teamed up with renowned brands like Shiseido, Cathay Pacific and Panasonic for their publicity campaigns.
Chow, who returns to Singapore twice a year to meet up with friends, will be back in town next month to launch his first exhibition, Roots.
It will feature photographs he took during his two-year post-national service travels in 1999 to Nepal, Tibet, India, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Europe and Africa.
"When my mother died, it was the turning point in my life," Chow, 39, told The New Paper in a telephone interview from Tokyo last Friday.
'I FELT SO LOST'
"I felt so lost. I had visited her a month before that and told her to wait for me; that I will succeed as a photographer and take her to Japan. Her death was a wake-up call for me - I cannot just waste time in Japan any more," he said.
When he returned to Tokyo, he kept his job at the restaurant. But he gradually started receiving offers, landing his first cover for a
Japanese magazine in 2002.
That same year, his career picked up.
"I think my mum was watching over me. She has always been very supportive," he said.
Chow said she would have been proud of his achievements today, but the road has not been easy as he faced the inevitable language barrier and lack of opportunities for foreign talent.
"Japan already had established photographers. I had to prove I was different. I think it was the fact that I try to bring out honesty in photographs that worked in my favour," said Chow, who looks up to US fashion photographer Bruce Weber and South African Peter Lambert.
Chow is married to a Japanese woman and they have two children - a five-year-old girl and a boy aged 14 months. The photographer earns between US$10,000 (S$12,500) and US$20,000 a day for each beauty campaign.
'PROUD TO BE S'POREAN'
Despite this, Chow admitted: "I do feel dejected sometimes because no one really knows me in Singapore.
"But I hope that will change, especially with this upcoming exhibition. Still, I'm proud to be a Singaporean whose career took off overseas."
He added: "I don't think I would have become what I am today if I had stayed (in Singapore). The market is too small for me and I would
not have had much freedom for my 'craziness' and creativity. My advice is to always go out and open your mind. You never know what can happen."
He has also never allowed his low-income background or troubled family life to get in the way of his dreams.
An only child, he was born out of wedlock and brought up by his single mother, who supported him when he was younger on the $500 she earned each month from babysitting.
He learnt to support himself when he turned 16, taking up part-time jobs at a photograph counter in Sentosa, as a nightclub waiter and later, DJ.
In 1994, he found out that his mother had a mental illness and was suffering from depression.
With no siblings or relatives, he had to take care of her.
He was then a student at ITE College Central (MacPherson campus) studying mechatronics engineering.
"I had to get special permission to leave school early to take care of her at the mental hospital," he said.
Chow and his mother did not have a good relationship with his father, whom she never married and who visited once or twice a week at their one-room rental flat in Telok Blangah Heights when he was not with his own family.
Ironically, it was his dad who sparked Chow's interest in photography.
"I was never allowed to touch any of his cameras, but I did see some of his work," he said of his father, who died from a lung infection six
months before his mother.
When asked if he had any regrets leaving her behind in search of better opportunities, Chow said: "I don't think she blamed me. I think
she was happy for me. Until today, I keep her advice in mind - do what you want, but don't get caught."
ND Chow on celebrities he shot
"Pharrell is a very quiet person who does what he is told. But I remember the moment he saw (Japanese fashion model-actress) Jun Hasegawa, whom he was posing with for the magazine cover, he became chatty. He flirted with her and kept saying, 'You're so sexy,' while grabbing her waist. He became such a boy."
- On Grammy-winning US producer-singer Pharrell Williams
"He's such a mean and impatient guy! After every instruction, he kept saying, 'not cool.'
But he laughed, so I think he was joking. He also kept asking, 'Are we done?'"
- On English rocker Liam Gallagher , former singer of Oasis and current frontman of Beady Eye
"Six months after I came to Japan, I met her through Leslie Kee during a shoot. It was Valentine's Day, so she gave me chocolates and a T-shirt. She's a very nice, intelligent woman who pushes me in my work."
- On Japanese pop star Ayumi Hamasaki
"Once, he pretended to throw a shoe at me when Iept asking him to pose this way and that. He's a very mysterious person."
- On Japanese actor-director Takeshi Kitano
"She's very innocent and pure, there are no airs about her. She grew to become my muse. She's probably the one star that I have the most photographs of. When we did the underwater shot, she grew used to the water really fast...almost like a mermaid." - On Japanese actress Haruka Ayase
"She's not the traditional beauty we're used to. Looking 'pretty' and 'girly' wouldn't have worked on her, and she is very cooperative in embodying that sort of character."
- On Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi
WHAT: ROOTS: A SOLO EXHIBITION BY ND CHOW
WHEN: May 15 to June 14
WHERE: Objectifs - Centre for Photography and Filmmaking, 56A Arab Street
HOW MUCH: Admission is free
This article was published on April 22 in The New Paper.
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