We caught up with the mind behind Lao Diam (Hokkien for “old shops”), a photo series shot by professional photographer Nicky Loh, 35, in a bid to recapture and preserve the old-world charm of Commonwealth, the estate that he grew up in. These shops aren’t just a place of business, but meeting points filled with nostalgia and memories, where the shop owners were friends, neighbours, and even confidants. Within those walls, echoes of emotions transcend time, as visitors past and present left their own mark and created their own history.
Nicky walked towards us, in his hands a folio of work samples, and of course, a camera in the other. As he settled down, he mentioned his plans to visit a nearby barber for a shoot.
“It’ll be quick,” said Nicky. “I’m just doing a reshoot because there was a plastic bag in the middle of my shot. It’s very distracting. But I’ll go later. You guys can come if you want!”
Nicky is a self-taught photographer who started when he was just 18. To make some extra income when he was still in school, he freelanced as a writer for magazines like Teenage and BigO. The stint gave him the opportunity to be sent to press conferences that also required him to take on the photo-taking role.
“Back then the fees were like, $100 for 1000 words and $100 for a picture. So you know…” Nicky trailed off with a laugh. “Taking pictures was literally an easier way to make money.”
When the time came for Nicky to serve his National Service (NS), he was placed in a publication department that handled news for the army. He had the opportunity to cover a number of military events, and travelled to countries like New Zealand and East Timor.
After his two-year NS stint, Nicky landed his first job with Reuters as a photojournalist. He stayed on for two years, before moving to Taiwan where he spent the next six years doing journalism, before returning to Singapore. “During my six years in Taiwan, I’d come back every year and it was just shocking how many of the places that I used to go didn’t exist anymore,” shared Nicky. “So I thought to myself – I’ve got to make use of my time and my skills to do something, to help myself remember the things that will disappear in the future.”
This thought led Nicky to start a series called Lao Diam, in which he takes portraits of the folks who work or own the old shops in his old neighbourhood, Commonwealth.
“My parents were divorced when I was 3, and I was raised by my grandmother. I struggle to remember the places we used to go to with her,” said Nicky. “I grew up in Margaret Drive, which is totally different today. I still remember things here and there, but it’s muddy. Doing this is my way of honouring my grandmother, and also the sentimental part of me just trying to remember the way things used to be.”
To Nicky, there are different sides of photography to master. There’s the technical side that involves lighting and things like aperture, or shutter speed – hard skills that Nicky picked up as a photographer’s assistant to another commercial photography studio upon his return to Singapore. Then there’s the emotional side of photography, that Nicky has uncovered and pursued with Lao Diam.
“Technically, photography itself is just about looking into a camera and taking a photo. That’s easy,” explained Nicky. “But convincing them, especially the older folks, to stand in front of the camera, takes a certain type of skill.”
“I find it more meaningful to speak to people, to gain their trust, rather than the actual photography itself.”
“Like this bakery that I went to yesterday – the owner originally refused to let me take pictures of the shop. I think he thought that it was troublesome, and it wasn’t of value to him,” said Nicky. “But I was lucky. I heard him speak Hainanese to his colleague, so I spoke to him in the dialect and told him I was Hainanese too. He warmed up to me after that and was eventually okay with me taking the photos.”
“I get lucky like that, but sometimes, I do get rejected outright.”
Nicky now works in advertising photography, and has serviced clients the likes of Adidas, British Airways, Canon, and UOB. But he still feels a strong affinity to capturing life despite his commercial success.
“I still feel like there are a lot of things to do, and to shoot,” said Nicky. “That’s why I set up Lao Diam, to shoot something else aside from advertising. It became quite successful, I think, and got shared a lot. I stopped for a while and started again last year, but this time, with the whole of Singapore in mind. I initially wanted to do 100 portraits, but I doubt that’s possible.”
As Singapore progresses through the ages, we see remnants of our past left behind in the form of monuments and gazetted sites. However, one irreversible change is happening slowly but surely, some things that represent our heritage are diminishing before our eyes. Not just seen as objects or places, they speak of a time when the community was more closely-knit, and the kampong spirit was alive and well. Neighbours knew one another by name, and children would play together without a care in the world. It is exactly this nostalgia, though intangible, that Nicky hopes to capture through his photos, and the inevitable pockets of conversations that he is granted on his adventures with Lao Diam.
One of the portraits that Nicky shot for Lao Diam – a bookseller in Bras Basah, who has a curious way of stacking and displaying all his books. Photo courtesy of Nicky Loh
As the interview came to a close, Nicky once again invited us to follow him to the barber that he’d hope to reshoot. As we kept up with Nicky’s brisk steps and entered the traditional barber shop, it was as if we had stepped into a time capsule. Rows of white-haired uncles sat in the shop, watching as Nicky made his entrance.
“来了，来了！(“He’s here!”)” the uncles chorused. They had been expecting Nicky.
The old heroes who were waiting for Nicky. The “culprit” (the red plastic bag) can be seen on the left of the photo. Photo by: Chan Kar Leng
With effortless ease, Nicky immediately began directing the barber, who was attending to a customer.
“你要我怎样站？(“How do you want me to stand?”)” the barber asked, moving around as he continued snipping away at his customer’s head of hair.
“不用担心，你这样就好了。(“Don’t worry, you’re fine as you are.”)” Nicky’s eyes shot to the red plastic bag sitting innocently atop the table and swiftly moved it away. “It’s this bag! It’s still here after a week!”
We watched as Nicky snapped away, chatting loudly and animatedly with the uncles even as he focused on his work, with one eye glued to the viewfinder of his camera. It was a heart-warming sight to see the uncles laughing heartily as Nicky conversed with them. What was meant to be a short shoot became a catch-up session, and that was when Nicky realised that we were still in the shop with him.
“You guys go ahead first, I’ll stay and chat with them for a while longer.” Perhaps that also echoed Nicky’s feelings about these old shops, wishing more of them were around for a while longer.
A rare moment where Nicky is in front of the lens. Photo by Chan Kar Leng
Written by: FJ Sai
This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign