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Film Photography: Chinatown, Singapore

Updated on August 4, 2015

Singapore's Chinatown is certainly one of its most interesting neighborhoods. As the historic Chinese enclave during British colonial rule, its architecture and culture is distinctively Chinese and sets it apart in the middle of the multicultural metropolis that is Singapore. Today, many parts of Chinatown have been designated as heritage sites, while other areas have modernized.

These photos were taken during a film photography workshop session conducted by my university's photography and videography club, NTU Photo-Videographic Society. During this workshop I began to familiarize myself with the operation of a film camera and how the different settings influence the final product. I also had the chance to explore different parts of Chinatown and see how people go about their business in the area.

In this Hub, I'd like to show you some of the pictures I've taken in the outing, attempt to critique my own pictures and share some of the insights I've gained. All pictures are taken with a Pentax K1000 manual SLR camera and Ilford Delta 400 Professional black-and-white film.

Chinatown's Alleyways

The area around the Chinatown MRT station gets quite a lot of tourist footfall every day, and it's always a vibrant and exciting place to be. (Note that the border on the left side is left over from the film scan.)
The area around the Chinatown MRT station gets quite a lot of tourist footfall every day, and it's always a vibrant and exciting place to be. (Note that the border on the left side is left over from the film scan.)

Pagoda Street, which is now a pedestrian-only street and street mall, is pretty much the "face" of Chinatown -- when people mention Singapore's Chinatown, they remember this street. Named after the towering gate of the Sri Mariamman Temple at the South Bridge Road end of the street, the road is famous for its restaurants, souvenir shops as well as the Chinatown Heritage Center.

This shot was taken at one of the alleys connecting Pagoda Street to Smith Street, which has an open air food court. These alleyways are always crowded with foreign tourists and locals.

Personally, I think this shot was not very well-composed, and that it looks like a typical street-level shot of a busy pedestrian pathway. There are no central objects of focus, nor there are defining lines or symmetry depicted aside from a leading line from the edges of the picture towards one vanishing point at the center. The image also appears to be not perfectly level with the ground, but this should be easy to fix by making a small rotation.

However, the best feature of this image, I believe, is the contrast between the old shophouses and the newer apartment buildings in the background.The shophouses, which are built during colonial times, retain its architectural uniqueness thanks to the conservation of the area, while newer housing developments are built around the area and are visible in the background. In fact, the furthest building in the picture appears to be the Pinnacle @ Duxton, one of Singapore's newest public housing apartments that boasts modern looks and rooftop gardens. Combined with the scene of pedestrians filling the cramped alleyway, the contrast between old and new depicts the unique nature of Chinatown and Singapore.

Life in the Flats

Most Singaporeans live in public housing apartments built by the government's Housing Development Board (HDB). Popularly known as HDB flats, these apartments offer a glimpse of the Singaporean lifestyle.
Most Singaporeans live in public housing apartments built by the government's Housing Development Board (HDB). Popularly known as HDB flats, these apartments offer a glimpse of the Singaporean lifestyle.

My favorite shot from the whole outing features the ground level of a public housing apartment, commonly known as 'HDB flats'. (HDB stands for Housing Development Board, a government unit.) Most Singaporeans live in these apartments, and thus HDB flats are somewhat popular as urban photography subjects in Singapore. Many Singaporeans and foreigners attempt to explore the daily lives of the residents and what makes these buildings, and the people living there, unique.

The highlights of this image are the concrete block patterns and the diagonal lines that practically form the image. You can see the diagonal lines formed by the concrete blocks, the building, and the shadow cast by other buildings (which leaves a conspicuous lit area in the center). Even the people are lined up in an approximately diagonal formation. I rarely manage to get such patterns in my shots even though I consciously look for them, so I'd say it's a one-in-a-million shot for me!

Often, you can see laundry poles sticking out of the apartment units. This unique mix of modern living and traditional, tropical lifestyle is what makes Singapore quite unique among Southeast Asian nations.
Often, you can see laundry poles sticking out of the apartment units. This unique mix of modern living and traditional, tropical lifestyle is what makes Singapore quite unique among Southeast Asian nations.

This shot, while not particularly outstanding, is another way you can spot patterns in built-up environments. The repeating pattern of windows and lines make for interesting subjects, and helps contrast the building against the sky. You could also take an image of the patterns alone without making use of negative space; my approach is definitely not the best and certainly not the only one out there when it comes to taking pictures of apartment buildings.

The Singapore Skyline

The Central Business District, viewed from a residential building in Chinatown. Singapore's impressive skyline is most often photographed from the Marina Bay area, but it looks great from many other locations as well.
The Central Business District, viewed from a residential building in Chinatown. Singapore's impressive skyline is most often photographed from the Marina Bay area, but it looks great from many other locations as well.

Skylines of major cities are always popular subjects for urban photography, and Singapore's skyline is no different in that aspect. Singapore's most iconic view is formed by the buildings in the Central Business District and the Marina Bay area. Many photographers go to the waterfront to take pictures of the buildings, in order to show Singapore as the glorious port city and cosmopolitan hub it is. If you visit Singapore, be sure to view the skyline at night; it's truly a sight to see (and make pictures of).

Taken from another location, however, the skyline shows a somewhat different image. This image was taken from an apartment building near Chinatown (Chinatown is not very far from the Central Business District). From here, the density and variety of buildings are more prominent, as well as the details on the buildings.

While I feel this image could have worked better as a color image, this image made me realize the wonderful dynamic range and shades of grey I could achieve with film and proper settings on the camera. I used to favor contrast-y images, but looking back, they were often too 'in-your-face' or even downright painful to see on screen. Using black-and-white also gives this image of a very modern skyline a nostalgic feel to it, and the contrast is quite unique.

Gate Guardian Statues

Statue of Garbhavira, placed at the right side of the temple's Mountain Gate. He symbolizes overt strength.
Statue of Garbhavira, placed at the right side of the temple's Mountain Gate. He symbolizes overt strength.
The counterpart to Garbhavira, Vajravira, is placed on the left side of the Mountain Gate. He symbolizes hidden power. Information from the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple website. http://www.btrts.org.sg/temple-first-gate-guardian
The counterpart to Garbhavira, Vajravira, is placed on the left side of the Mountain Gate. He symbolizes hidden power. Information from the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple website. http://www.btrts.org.sg/temple-first-gate-guardian

Gate guardian statues are commonly found in both Hindu and Buddhist temples. They take many forms, but these two depict Garbhavira and Vajravira, which are two manifestations of Vajrapani, a Boddhisatva (enlightened being) in Buddhist lore. As representations of power, the two figures are commonly depicted as muscular, stern-faced humanoids that carry a weapon in one of their hand. Together, they represent the strength and determination required to defeat one's inner demons.

These statues, standing before the Mountain Gate of Chinatown's Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, are carved out of grey granite stone. As such, it might be difficult to bring out some details, like the stylized abdominal muscles, without some post-processing. It was quite a challenge bringing the grey color of the statues while printing the photos in the darkroom -- scanning the negatives allowed for an easier way out.

With these statues, I decided to go up close and take the picture from a lower angle to bring out a 'larger-than-life' impression and properly depict the ferocity and strength that the sculptors wanted to portray. In this aspect, I felt that I've been successful; the statues look as terrifying and powerful as they are in person, in my opinion. However, these statues are unique in that they not only portray rock-solid strength (pun intended), they also show martial skill and prowess through dynamic, 'ready-for-action' poses. A slightly angled shot or a full-body shot could probably work better in showing those aspects.

Old Man in a Back Alley

The last shot in this batch is of an old man dumping cigarette ashes in a back alley near Chinatown. Old people are somewhat popular in street photography; we are drawn to how different they are from people of our own age, from how they dress and how they act.

I spotted this man by chance as I passed by the alley to head to my next destination. Without thinking much, I snapped a shot, but managed to wait and time it as he dumped the cigarette ash. This gave him a unique, natural pose that goes well with his gait. It also gave him a story in my mind: a story of a lonely old man, walking into a back alley at his own pace to do his own thing.

Looking back, though, I feel that I wasn't very creative with this shot. It was simply a shot of an old man walking down an alley, with him framed almost dead center. There isn't any other defining feature or uniqueness to the shot. I feel that if I took the shot with the view partially blocked by a wall, so as to make the impression of peeking, it would have made for a more interesting visual imagery and a more compelling story.

I'm glad to be able to share my images as well as the things I've learned through my first serious outing with a film camera. If you'd like to know more about why you should try out film photography, I've written a Hub about it here. I've also written a hub about street photography and why you should try it out. Feel free to post your opinions on my images or any sort of advice on the comment section. Happy shooting!

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    • Agung WP profile image
      Author

      Agung WP 2 years ago

      Thank you for the kind words, everyone!

    • newbizmau profile image

      Maurice Glaude 2 years ago from Mobile, AL

      Black and white photography are my favorites.

    • profile image

      mikeydcarroll67 2 years ago

      Pretty photos!

    • Jonas Rodrigo profile image

      Jonas Rodrigo 2 years ago

      Very nice photos. I love the black and white effect; it really suits the subject. Good description in the write-up, too. Great hub!

      Jonas

    • WiccanSage profile image

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 2 years ago

      Wow, that was beautiful. Nice work. I love the old man, the market, and the skyline.

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