Dr Chua Yang’s first solo exhibition is a moving tribute to her famous father — oil painter, Chua Mia Tee

A week ago, I ran into Yang at her Leica showcase in Raffles Hotel. At the Galerie, she has on display a series of photos of her father — oil painter, Chua Mia Tee; these are intimate pictures of him at home, at work, and spending time doing the things he loves, offering a glimpse into his enigmatic life. Yang shot all of these with her dependable Leica M (Typ 240) camera, and the results are magnificent. And rather than printing the visuals on typical art paper or boards, Yang chose to print them on canvas, referencing her dad’s choice of medium in his famous oil paintings.

Above: Dr Chua yang self-portrait. copyright DR CHUA YANG.

I had the privilege of speaking with Yang about her photography work and the current exhibition.

When did you start taking pictures and how did this interest in photography come about?

For as long as I can remember, father always had a camera and photos were often taken at home and when we travelled… we often drove to various parts of Malaysia for holidays. Probably sometime just in my pre-teen years or early teenage years, I would have gotten my hands on some version of a camera. Subsequently, I had many generations of compact cameras, mainly Panasonic Lumix, a couple of Nikon Coolpix. I learned back then what set the Lumix apart was the Leica lenses they came with!

Above: Chua Mia tee, photo credit silver rue art consulting llp. Photo courtesy Dr Chua Yang.

Was there a pivotal moment in your time as a photographer that changed or directed your style of photography?

I started travelling more after I started private practice in 2002 (didn’t have to apply for leave anymore! LOL!). A few like-minded friends started a non-profit organisation, Global Clinic, and we organise free medical mission camps in remote corners of the world where communities of people have difficulty accessing healthcare. These places were so pristine and other-worldly, the people were just as curious about us as we are about them, and the work that we did had to be documented so we could be accountable to friends who were supporting our missions. I took more and more photos and enjoyed taking photos more and more!

How would you describe your style of photography?

Spontaneous I guess. When I am on a medical mission trip, time is limited and there is work to be done. My camera is always with me and I find opportunities to capture moments in between seeing patients. Many of my trips are activity centred… ski and golf trips, giving lectures at medical conferences, for example, and they can be quite hectic too.

Above: Photo by Dr Chua Yang. copyright DR CHUA YANG.

The only really relaxed holidays tend to be the family ones. Brother and I used to bring our parents on holiday at least twice a year, on each of the parents’ birthdays. So many photos were taken then. More recently, there had also been photo trips and they are amazing as I get to learn from other photographers and enjoy watching them approach photography and see their points of view.

Above: Yang with visitors at her photo exhibition at the Leica Galerie.

Why the Leica M system?

I was approached to do an ad campaign for Leica in 2016 in the Golf/Women magazine and I immediately took the opportunity to get what I think is the perfect camera for me! M240 customised with red leather and my Photologo engraved. This is lightweight, compact and really quite user-friendly if one is undaunted by manual focusing. Wherever I am, it is really easy to approach anyone on the street and it is not intimidating. Women and children are often drawn to the pretty colour! Of course, what fascinated me was also the fact that all historical M lenses would still always be able to fit any of the new and future M bodies.

Above: Photo by Dr Chua Yang. copyright DR CHUA YANG.

Do you have any favourite photographers?

I have learned many things from many photographers over the years. Everyone I have interacted with or walked or travelled with I have learned something from. It is an amazing passionate and generous community. I have really enjoyed being a part of this community!

Considering your day job as a doctor, how much time do you spend taking photos? Do you bring your camera out with you for all occasions?

Yes, most times when I am not working, my camera will be with me, even if I am just going out for dinner, or if I am just planning to spend an afternoon sitting with father. I would still have it with me. Sometimes, when I am driving and the sunset is spectacular, I may chase it and stop the car somewhere to try to get a shot. You never know what life brings in front of the lens!

Above: Photo by Dr Chua Yang. copyright DR CHUA YANG.

What is your dream as a photographer?

Just as my father is a realist painter and has always sought to paint what’s true and real, to paint with compassion, showing the best of humanity, and bringing out the beauty in each place and person, I think I feel absolutely the same about photography. I hope to be able to photograph anyone on the street with positivity and focus on their sense of purpose and dignity, whoever and wherever they are.

If you could photograph anything or anyone, who / what would you love to shoot?

At this moment, I am just hoping that we can get back to the “good old days” of travelling safely and simply. When that happens, my medical missions can resume and those trips allow me to enjoy two of my passions in life! I don’t “plan” to have any career-making photo or life-changing shot. I just love the idea of capturing random moments in time and immortalising them, for myself firstly, and sharing them with anyone with similar sensibilities.

What is next for you as a photographer?

I do hope to keep getting better!

Above: Yang’s exhibition photos at the LEICA GALERIE singapore.


If you had to choose just one photo, which is your favourite photo from the exhibition?

To be honest, every moment captured there was personal, deeply emotional and a memorable moment in time.

If I had to choose one, it would be the one with my mother and her two grandkids behind her. Mother, like me before, has never liked having her photos taken. It was always harder to get her to smile for the camera, unlike father! As she aged, I think she liked it even less! I did not take many photos of her the year she was sick and home bound, mainly because I did not want to make her uncomfortable. This photo was taken during a Chinese New Year lunch when the grandkids were in town. It was two months before she eventually passed and she was constantly breathless and struggling for air, which is exhausting. She had become very thin and frail. Despite all that, this particular time when I wanted to take her photo, and I sweetened the deal by getting the grandkids to pose behind her, she obliged. She was deliberate, pulled down her oxygen tubes, and just, just almost smiled. I think she knew then that I wanted and needed good photos of her for my keepsake and we were running out of time. That photo represented so much of her love for me and was so typical of her, always thinking of others first and caring for their wellbeing.

Above: Yang’s exhibition photos at the LEICA GALERIE singapore.

Which is your dad’s favourite photo from the exhibition?

I think his favourite would be that biggest photo of him putting the final touches and signing his name and dating the painting “Reunited”. He has painted mother so many times through his 70-year career but that painting, completed in April 2021, is likely to be his last as it will be difficult to paint again after his recent stroke in September.

Above: Photo of Chua Mia Tee by Dr Chua Yang.
copyright DR CHUA YANG.

It is technically such a difficult painting to do as he has to paint again the painting that he did in 1957 (portrait of Lee Boon Ngan), as well as his own self portrait. That painting is so well known that if it was not done precisely or just as well, it would be easy to spot.

Above: Portrait of Lee Boon Ngan by chua mia tee. Photo courtesy Dr Chua yang.

To paint that is a huge undertaking for anyone, even more so for someone at 90! The day he finished that painting was a happy day, a proud day for him, a great achievement! Even though the audience cannot see his face, a slight glimpse of his profile and his body language suggest that “Ah!” moment. He remembers that when he sees the photo.

The Man Behind That Portrait, is exhibiting at the LEICA GALERIE Singapore at Raffles Hotel, from now until 11 Jan 2022.
Chua Mia Tee: Directing The Real is exhibiting at the NATIONAL GALLERY Singapore from now until 20 November 2022. Admission is free for singaporeans and PRs.