Passion keeps him alive

He has end-stage kidney failure and has to walk using two walking sticks.

Mr Yim Chee Peng knows he does not have long to live. Sometimes, the pain is so intense, he retreats to a wheelchair.

Yet, the 68-year-old pushes on, hanging on to that one last project he wants done. For the last 40 years, Mr Yim has chronicled life in Singapore with just his camera.

Although his health is failing, he is determined to finish a second book of photographs - 100 two-page spreads - by next December.

Rest can come later, he said.

"This is the music that is in my heart and I have to sing it before I die," he told The New Paper in all seriousness.

Some might describe his passion as an obsession. After all, with his law degree, he could have become a litigator after graduating in 1970.

Instead, he chose to pick up his camera, with the desire to tell the Singapore story.

Mr Yim's book will be a sequel to his 2006 pictorial, Aesthetically Yours, Singapore, where he captures the essence of different HDB flats in the heartland.

It was a book that earned praise from Singapore's first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, who also wrote the foreword.


Yes, he is frail, but Mr Yim said: "Nothing will get in the way of my camera and me, not even my struggle to walk."

For the last seven years, it has been a struggle for Mr Yim as he has to move about with two walking sticks.

Three times a week, a van from the People's Dialysis Centre in Queenstown picks him up to go to the centre for dialysis. Each session is six hours long.

"I have a really good friend living with me who looks after me," he said weakly, but he refused to reveal more.

He said, of the second book: "I hope to show how, like America, we live a different kind of dream - the Singapore dream."

His photographs occupy every little bit of space there is on the walls of the MacPherson Road shophouse where he lives.

Pages of his new book are laid out on the floor and each day, without fail, he scrutinises them meticulously. A stack of files containing his previous work are balanced on a makeshift coffee table.

Tucked behind several walking aids and a wheelchair is a small cabinet where he stores his camera and several lenses.

In his weakened state, Mr Yim struggles to lift his 63kg body off the couch.

When asked how he endures a shoot, he said he "spends about two hours each time he goes out for a shoot because his body cannot take standing or walking for too long".

His camera weighs just over 1kg, but even then, friends have to help support him.

For every shot he takes standing, his friends, who are former colleagues or longtime friends, wrap their arms tightly around his waist so he maintains his balance.

He admitted: "It is a huge hassle.

"I've wanted to give up many times, but how can I? How can I give it up? It keeps me alive."

Suggestions by Mr Lee Kuan Yew inspires second edition

Mr Yim's 2006 book Aesthetically Yours, Singapore was praised by former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Mr Lee extended the compliment in a letter after Mr Yim had sent him an advance published copy as a gift.

Mr Lee added that his wife, Madam Kwa Geok Choo, liked it.

"I almost had a heart attack when I saw what was written on that piece of paper," Mr Yim said of the letter he received in 2005.

In the letter, Mr Lee suggested getting "more photographs of old Singapore... so that those too young to remember the past will know how their parents and grandparents lived".

Mr Yim said: "When a brilliant mind says (he likes) the book and suggests ideas for it, you don't just sweep that under the rug."

So he took the advice and came up with a second edition.

This second edition, which had an additional 20 pages, was released in 2009. A total of 10,000 copies were printed and given away at a book launch.

After receiving Mr Lee's earlier letter, Mr Yim said he sent a reply, requesting for Mr Lee to write the book's foreword.

"It was a long shot, but I knew I would regret it if I didn't at least ask," he says.

On Dec 20, 2005, Mr Lee's reply came with a foreword, where he writes that Mr Yim "captured the charming ambience of the homes of over 80 per cent of Singaporeans".

"My jaw dropped... Having such a great man be part of my book was my biggest accomplishment," he said.

In his forthcoming book, Mr Yim plans to "dedicate a part of it to the late Mr Lee".

And although he has not made the request yet, he is hoping Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will write the foreword.

This article was first published on Sept 7, 2015.
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