Loke Hong Seng

Imaging a Nation:

Loke Hong Seng and Post-Independence Singapore

“ … photography … demands a vigorous keeping up with the times, rapid adaptation to fast-changing technology, and an innovative approach to new equipment and usage. It was at the process of this turning point that I witnessed the growth of Singapore and the gradual  settlement of its people.”

So observes Loke Hong Seng, one of the pioneers of street photography in Singapore. His black-and-white images, which depict the industrialization and urban transformation that we now coyly refer to as the nation-building era, seem, from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, irremediably steeped in nostalgic sentiment. The intersection of history and technology, however, that underpins Loke’s practice perhaps also suggests broader tensions at work in his otherwise wistful tableaus of everyday life in the 1960s and 70s: kampung and waterborne communities giving way to the abstract contours of the soon-to-be ubiquitous HDB housing estate; fast disappearing forms of labour, such as that of bumboat coolies and samsui women, viewed against the backdrop of the evolving urban fabric of the island; pastoral and agricultural landscapes juxtaposed against scenes of extensive land clearance and construction. What the oneiric mood of these social portraits belie, then, is the contested terrain of a young nation-state in flux, of lifeworlds caught in the interstices between one historical zeitgeist and the next.

Loke Hong Seng was born in Singapore in 1943. The artist is part of the pioneer generation in Singapore, graduating from Chung Cheng High School in 1960, after which he was hired by the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation as an announcer in 1965 where he produced numerous Radio Dramas in Mandarin and Cantonese. Around this time, he began taking amateur photographs with his older brother’s Topcon camera. His passion for the craft steadily grew, and soon he acquired and used cameras such as Topcon, an Afga folded 6X9 and a Rolleicord 6X6. In 1968 he joined the Photographic Society of Singapore (PSS), mingl with photographers like Quah Shang Wei, Doctor Wee, Yip Cheng Fen, Tan Lip Seng, Foo Tee Jun, David Tay, Goh Kim Hui, Benedict Toh, Royston, Henry Lee, Ho Kok Kin, and Francis Tan, amongst numerous others. Following the advice of his peers, he began shooting with a Leicaflex 35mm camera. 

In 1973, he received the Golden Award from the 3rd Singapore Photo Art Photography Society, and in 1974, contributed one work that was selected at the Photokina Exhibition in Cologne, Germany, with “One World for All” UNESCO Award. He also exhibited at the Unesco Headquarters in Paris in 1975 with “Human Settlement”. 

A watershed year was 1982, when he digitalized his collection of images. This included digital editing of his photographs. He started to also use video as a medium and became a professional videographer. 

In recent years, he has been in high demand for talks, presentations and exhibitions, and his photograph was selected as the main feature of Clifford Pier’s 80th Anniversary photo contribution. He conducted a talk at the Photographic Society of Singapore (PSS) in 2013, which was featured in “Life Behind the Lens ” at the Arnoldii Arts Club in Gillman Barracks in 2014 (moderated by photo writer Zhuang Wubin), and he also gave a presentation of his work to the lecturers at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in 2014. In April 2015, he was the keynote speaker for Nikon’s “Iconography 2015” seminar at Hwa Chong Secondary School. 

Exhibitions for the artist include group presentations at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts entitled Vernacula_As Seen Through Art, Film & Photography, 24 April – 19 May 2015; The World Around Us at The American Club Singapore from 1 May – 30 June 2015; a public display of Singapore River and its Trade at the Raffles Place Park MRT station from 1 July 2015 - 30 August 2015; and at the UOB public plaza during August 2015. Recent exhibitions include group presentations at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts entitled Vernacula_As Seen Through Art, Film & Photography, 24 April – 19 May 2015; a public display titled Pioneers: Modern Singapore at the Raffles Place Green from 5 August - 30 August 2015, and at the UOB Plaza during August 2015. Yeo Workshop proudly hosted his first ever solo exhibition titled “A Social Portrait of Singapore: The Critical Years.” 

  • Threads & Tensions - Stories from Southeast Asia, 4 November 2017 - 7 January 2018

    Yeo Workshop presents Threads & Tensions - Stories from Southeast Asia, an exhibition showcasing the work of four contemporary artists who document changing life in the region. As the Southeast Asian region develops rapidly, Jim Allen Abel, Kanchana Gupta, Loke Hong Seng, and Santi Wangchuan present their works through mediums of photography, mix media, the weaving of fabric, and multi-sensory installations. A disparate mix of aesthetics and artistic expressions, the bodies of works by these artists are tied together by their purpose: they explore similar and overlapping themes that reflect a forgotten or endangered lifestyle in South-East Asia.

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  • A Social Portrait of Singapore: The Critical Years, 3 July - 6 September 2015

    In concurrence with Singapore’s 50th National Day, “A Social Portrait of Singapore: The Critical Years” aims to introduce you to the impactful works of Loke Hong Seng. Notably recognised for his creative engagement in street photography during 1963 and 1985, the selection of works depict a culmination of 20 previously unpublished works. An active member of the Pioneer Generation whose work features as an insight into Singapore’s historical beginnings, this exhibition encourages a new reading of early photography at a time when photography struggled to establish itself as a viable medium. Other than its former uses in documentaries and archives, this selection exemplifies the crudeness of 20th century life. 

    Through an engaging and motivated effort to illustrate the transgressive progression of Singapore in a time of international establishment, the essence of daily life manifests. Capturing the emergence of a new republic in contrast with vernacular architecture and colonial buildings, the modern notion of familiarity is contextualised. HDB flats, which define Singapore’s distinctive cityscape, the reliance on water trade, and specifically the heroines of Singapore’s national growth - commonly known as Samsui women - are all aspects to be considered when referring to cultural significance. 

    Loke Hong Seng’s photographs are not merely nostalgic reminders of the past but rather  reminders of the sacrifices made in the name of progress.

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  • To download the Press Release please click here. 

  • A Social Portrait of Singapore: The Critical Years - eBook

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