Defu portraits

A view of the Defu Industrial Estate.

He stepped into a carpenter’s shop on Defu Lane last year to procure a prop for a photo shoot.

But he left with more than props.

Mr Samuel He, 32, stepped out filled with inspiration for his next project: a photobook called Defu, featuring 15 portraits of Defu Industrial Estate workers. Defu was launched on May 5.

The co-founder of video and photography production house Weave told The New Paper: "I was definitely drawn to the place. It was immediately apparent to me that I should do a project on it."

What initially struck the former The Straits Times photojournalist about the location were the repeated patterns of chairs, used vehicles and air-conditioning compressors dotting the industrial estate.

After doing some research online, Mr He learnt that many of the shops there will be relocated under the Housing Board's Defu Master Plan.

The first phase of the relocation will be in 2017. The relocation will be done in three phases.

In the first phase, 219 out of the 1,046 units will be relocated.

So Mr He and his friend Sam Chin, 28, decided to tell the stories behind the unassuming shopfronts through their lenses.

Mr Chin, who runs photography firm Onthestreets, said: ""At first, we were purely driven by the visuals, but we realised the photos would be mementos of these shops."

Over six months, the pair combed every corner of the 130ha area, in search of interesting profiles to feature.

They realised that many of the businesses were in their twilight years, with no one in line to take over.

"It was a recurring theme. Many owners told us that their children weren't interested," said Mr Chin.

One such business is Earn Fatt, an industrial laundry service.

Its owner Chua Loon Tiak, 58, who has been running the business for 20 years, said: "There is no one. It'll be the end once I stop working."


Although a few doors were slammed in their faces, Mr He said close to 70 per cent of those approached were more than happy to be photographed.

"Most of them were very warm because it's rare that they're able to share their story," he said.

"A Teochew confectionery boss even offered us pong piahs (sweet pastry with maltose filling) fresh from the oven."

The resulting shots are intimate portraits of the workers standing against a crowded backdrop of their shop's products, a visual motif of the repetition which served as the initial inspiration.

Mr Chin hopes the photobook will bring more attention to the many shops tucked away in Defu Industrial Estate.

"There are many hidden gems there," he said.

"Hopefully, people will find out about them before they move away."


  • Defu is part of the TwentyFifteen series, a project initiated by a group of local photographers known as Platform.
  • Platform is funding TwentyFifteen, which will see 20 photobooks published.
  • Defu, the 17th book in the series, is available online at $25 (

This article was first published on May 19, 2015. Get The New Paper for more stories.