Singaporean photographer and violinist making it big overseas

7 June 2014 / 2 years 4 months ago

By Felicia Choo
ST Communities
Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Two Singaporeans who are relative unknowns back home have been making the news recently.

Tokyo-based Singaporean photographer ND Chow returned home to launch his first solo photography exhibition at Objectifs on May 15. He left the country 14 years ago to pursue a career as a commercial portrait photographer in Japan.

Meanwhile, up-and-coming violionist Jonathan Ong, with his quartet, the Wasmuth Quartet, has been sweeping awards at major music competitions in the United States and Japan.

Superpower in the middle finger

A can-opening accident 15 years ago left Tokyo-based Singaporean photographer ND Chow with an unbendable middle finger on his left hand.

He had been using a knife to pry open a can of food while travelling in the Czech Republic, but accidentally stabbed the base of his left hand instead.

Even after an operation there, his middle finger remained stiff, an injury which has ironically contributed to Chow's trademark shooting style.

"This injury made me develop a technique to focus and zoom all at the same time and very quickly," he says, while demonstrating on a camera. While his index and ring fingers are busy working away, the middle finger remains sticking up wilfully.

"If this is healed, I won't have this special power anymore," Chow jokes, half-seriously.

In town for his first solo photography exhibition, Roots, at Objectifs, Chow is one of Japan's top commercial photographers, having shot beauty campaigns for Japanese skincare giants Shiseido, Kose and Kanebo.

He has also photographed Japanese celebrities, such as Ayumi Hamasaki and Rinko Kikuchi, and American singers Cyndi Lauper and Pharrell Williams.

A former assistant to renowned Japan-based Singaporean photographer Leslie Kee for two years, the 39-year-old father of two has been based in Tokyo since 2000 and specialises in portrait photography. He says he was drawn to Japan because of the Japanese "extreme attention to every delicate detail, their punctuality, their spirit and their professionalism... it has been a huge influence on my photography and lifestyle".

"The art and beauty of Japonism has drawn me in search of the concept of Asian beauty." Chow, a self-taught photographer, discovered he had a knack for photography during a two-year soul-searching trip when he was 23.

"When I was younger, I wasn't very good at communicating. But when I started taking pictures on my trip, I learnt how to get closer to people and interact with them."

The exhibition here showcases photographs he had taken during that trip when he travelled to Iran, Pakistan, India, Tibet and Europe.

He learnt to identify and correct his weaknesses while on the job when he started out in Japan. He decided to strike out on his own to "prove that I was a good photographer in my own right". His big break came soon after when he was asked to document the life and work of renowned Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa.

That was followed by a photo shoot of Japanese pop diva Hamasaki that made her look unexpectedly "natural", by showing "a side of her no one had ever photographed".

On making it big, Chow, who speaks fluent Japanese, says: "It wasn't easy because Japan already had many established photographers and, to top it off, I was a foreigner."

"My style is very different from the classic Japanese style which tends to be very raw, very stark and also very distant from the subject, both physically and emotionally.

"My photos are the opposite of that. They are warm, gentle and very intimate, very close. I think that helped to set me apart."

He has no plans to move back to Singapore as his family and much of his work are in Japan. He is married to a Japanese human resources professional. He hopes that Roots will inspire young Singaporeans to travel more and learn about different cultures.

"I want them to travel and have many experiences, and get close to people," he says.

Enjoying every minute

Singaporean violinist Jonathan Ong, 27, does not aim to be remembered as a world-famous violinist.

"The people that I respect the most and remember most fondly are not just great musicians, but also great people," he says.

"So I want to be remembered as someone who is not just good in music, but also generous in spirit and kind." Humble words from one who is enjoying a string of successes as a member of the Wasmuth (pronounced as "vas-moot") Quartet, the graduate string quartet-inresidence at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music.

Since its formation in January last year, the quartet has swept awards at major competitions in America and Japan, including the Grand Prize at the 68th Coleman Chamber Music Competition, one of the biggest competitions in the United States, in April and, most recently, the Bronze Medal at the 8th Osaka International Chamber Music Competition last month.

A founding member of the quartet, Ong, who started learning to play the violin at the age of seven, says the members started playing together for a course in chamber music for string quartets at Indiana University and hit it off.

"They say a quartet is kind of like a marriage between four people - you have to learn to be open to one another's ideas and flexible. Thankfully, everyone in the quartet is easy to work with," Ong says with a laugh during a recent visit here.

Comprising violinist Brendan Shea, 27, violist Abigail Rojansky, 25, cellist Warren Hagerty, 22, and Ong, the quartet has been described by the online classical music site Cleveland Classical as "thoughtful, impressive musicians".

The quartet plays mostly classical music - early classical to 20th-century music - and music of living composers, such as Akira Nishimura and Dan Visconti.

At the age of 16, Ong, the 2001 third prize winner of the Singapore National Violin Competition, moved to the United States with his family to get an early start in music. He has an older sister and two younger brothers. He studied at the Eastman School of Music in New York.

After doing his national service here, he got a scholarship in 2012 to do a Master of Music in Violin Performance at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

Last month, he completed his Performer's Diploma in Indiana. On his experience living overseas for nine years, he says: "It's challenging but it's very rewarding. I've learnt and grown a lot as a musician and I've gotten the chance to learn from a lot of great teachers in America."

The bachelor returns to Singapore almost every year to see relatives and friends. He has also performed at a chamber music series at the Esplanade Concert Hall in 2005 and as a guest artist at the Goh Soon Tioe Centenary concert in 2011, where he performed a solo piece and a duet with his former music teacher Lynette Lim, whom he credits with inspiring him to become a violinist.

Ong hopes to make the quartet a career and to perform and teach. "Hopefully, our performances will take us around the world. We're still young and we're excited to see where our careers take us."

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