Teo Bee Yen



Teo Bee Yen (b. 1950, Quanzhou, Fujian Province, China–)1 is an acclaimed photographer and philatelist. Although Teo ventured into photography only in the mid-1990s, he was, by 1998, already listed as one of the top 10 photographers in the world by the Photographic Society of America (PSA). He also has the rare honour of being twice awarded fellowship status with the British Royal Photographic Society (RPS).2 For his contributions to the field of photography, Teo was awarded the Cultural Medallion for Photography in 2004.3

Early life and career
Teo left China for Johor, Malaya (later Malaysia), with his mother at the age of three to join his father who was working there as a rubber seller. The eldest child among seven children in the family, Teo stopped schooling at secondary one as his family was facing financial difficulties. Teo helped to bring in extra income by taking on various jobs such as hawking bread, selling scrap metal and empty bottles, and being a coolie at the docks.4


In 1969, the 19-year-old Teo came to Singapore to work in a relative’s rubber processing plant. After a year, he returned to Malaysia and worked for a relative selling joss paper. After three months, Teo returned to Singapore to work at a steel rope company as he felt that he had no future in Malaysia.5

In 1974, Teo, under the encouragement and financial support of his boss, started his own company, Gaylin Trading Company, with two of his brothers, selling steel ropes.6 The business started off in a small office along Beach Road and eventually, after some five years of hard work, the business expanded and they rented a warehouse in Yio Chu Kang. The company grew further and was renamed Gaylin Holdings Limited in 1999. It now provides rigging and lifting equipment for the offshore oil and gas industry.7

Teo has been interested in stamp collecting since he was a boy. He later dabbled in collecting Chinese paintings before becoming interested in photography. Teo is now retired and spends his time travelling to take photographs and writing books on postal history and philately.8

Artistic career
Teo’s first love was stamp collecting. As a young school boy, he was fascinated by the colourful world of stamps and owned a few simple stamp albums. When Teo became more financially stable, he started collecting historic stamps from China.9 In the 1980s, Teo also became interested in art and collected Chinese paintings.10


Teo was an accidental photographer. In 1994, just after stepping down from his business,11 a friend asked Teo to help organise an exhibition for well-known Taiwanese photographer Lang Jing Shan.12 Teo was very impressed by Lang’s photographs. He felt that they looked like Chinese paintings and was curious as to how the effect was achieved. Inspired, Teo decided to take up photography.13

Teo likes the scenery found in China, which is often the subject of his photographs. He visited Huangshan in Anhui Province 14 times and Jiuzhaigou in Sichuan Province 13 times to take photographs.14

Although Teo had a late start in photography, he was, by 1998, already listed as one of the top 10 photographers in the world by the Photographic Society of America, and again in 1999, 2000 and 2010.15

In 1999, Teo attained fellowship status with the British Royal Photographic Society and again in 2003. This was a rare feat as no one else then had achieved the honour twice.16

In 2004, Teo received the Cultural Medallion for Photography. He was the first photographer in 14 years to receive the award; the last photographer to receive the honour had been Wu Peng Seng in 1990.17

The awarding of the Cultural Medallion to Teo stirred up some controversy because Teo was not a full-time photographer and was relatively unknown then.18 He seldom held exhibitions in Singapore. The most well known of his local exhibitions was Affections for the Jiuzhai Valley, which was held in 2001. His photographic works were published mainly in China. In fact, Teo was better known in China than in Singapore.19

Teo, however, remained unfazed by all the criticism. He felt that everyone was entitled to their own opinions and that he would continue pursuing his art regardless of the opinions of others.20

In 2008, to commemorate Singapore’s 43rd National Day, Singapore Post issued a set of stamps featuring familiar landmarks of Singapore. Three of Teo’s photographs were selected to be reproduced for the stamp collection.21

Teo has retired from Gaylin and spends most of his time travelling and taking photographs.22 He has held exhibitions in Malaysia and China featuring photographs of people and scenery he took in remote areas in Asian countries such as China, Nepal and Cambodia.23 To date, Teo has published 17 photography books featuring pictures of people and scenery in Asia. Teo’s next project is to take photographs of people living in the area of Pingnan in Fujian Province, China; the local inhabitants live in villages 800 to 1,000 m above sea level.24

Teo also continues to pursue his other interest in philately. Teo’s collection of stamps during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore (1942–1945) entitled Ri Zhi Zhaonan Dao You Zheng Shi won a gold medal in China in 1999. In 2006, Teo co-authored a book, Min Nan Qiao Pi Shi Hua, documenting the postal history of Chinese emigrants’s letters and remittances to Fujian Province, China, from Southeast Asia. This book won prizes both in China and in St Petersburg, Russia. Ri Zhi Zhaonan Dao You Zheng Shi is the first in a series of philately books to be published. Teo continues to work on the other books in the series.25

Stylistic conventions
Teo is known for his photographs of evocative landscapes.26 He admires China’s scenery in particular and has made many trips there to take photographs.27 Teo is of the view that a photographer needs to understand the culture and background of a place in order to take good photographs. Besides China, he has also made trips to Cambodia, Malaysia and Vietnam to take pictures.28


In his later works, Teo displays an interest in taking photographs of people and the social environment as he feels that taking photographs of scenery is too static. Using his photographs as a kind of photo-journalism, he wants to document the lives of people from the lower rungs of society.29

Teo has ventured into remote areas taking photographs of minority groups who live in harsh environments such as the Yi people living on Daliangshan in Sichuan, China; ethnic traders living around Tonle Sap, Cambodia; and the Bajau people who live off the sea in Semporna, Sabah. Teo wants to show how, despite their poor circumstances, these people stay positive and are happy and contented. This theme is something he tries frequently to express in his works.30

Teo takes both colour and black-and-white photographs; his choice of colour print type depends on which would best highlight the subject at hand. For example, people in Daliangshan wear old clothing that turn grimly with time. Thus he decided to take photographs of them in black and white. On the other hand, to show the vibrant colours of Jiuzhaiguo, he used colour prints.31

Though Teo has taken photographs of bustling cities like Las Vegas in the United States, he still prefers to take his camera into forsaken places to capture the simple, honest and carefree lives of the people living there.32

Family
Brothers: Teo Bee Kheng (Simon), Teo Bee Hoe, Teo Bee Chiong (Desmond), Teo Bee Hua (Steven).33
Wife: Liu Xiu Bao.34

Awards35
1998: Elected Top 10 Photographers in the World (10th place) by PSA (USA).

1999: Obtained FPAS (Singapore).
1999: Obtained FRPS COLOUR (England).
1999: Obtained FPSM (Malaysia).
1999: Elected Top 10 Photographers in the World (1st place) by PSA (USA).
2000: Elected Top 10 Photographers in the World (3rd place) by PSA (USA).
2001: Elected Top 10 Photographers in the World (2nd place) by PSA (USA).
2001: Recipient of HON. FPAS (Singapore).
2001: Obtained FPSEA (Hong Kong).
2002: Elected Top 10 Photographers in the World (1st place) by PSA (USA).
2002: Recipient of 5 STARS COLOUR (USA).
2002: Obtained FSCPS (Singapore).
2002: Recipient of HON. FPSP (Malaysia).
2002: Obtained FRPS Black & White (England).
2004: Obtained FPSS (Singapore).
2004: Received the Cultural Medallion for Photography.
2005: Recipient of HON. FPSM (Malaysia).

Exhibitions36
2001: Affections for the Jiuzhai Valley photo exhibition in Singapore.
2001: Magical Empress of Sichuan Mountains photo exhibition in Penang, Malaysia.
2004: Da Liang Shan Yiren photo exhibition in Quanzhou City, Fujian Province of China.
2004: The Dead Poplar Diversifola photo exhibition in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.



Author
Chor Poh Chin



References
1. Teo, K. G. (Interviewer). (2010, May 27). Oral history interview with Teo Bee Yen [Cassette recording no. 003522/05/01]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
2. Ho, V. (2004, October 23). Winners in the Arts. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Teo, B. Y. (n.d.). A profile of Teo Bee Yen. Retrieved from http://teo-bee-yen.com
3. National Arts Council Singapore. (2013, October 4). Cultural Medallion & Young Artist Award Recipients for Visual Arts. Retrieved from National Arts Council website: https://www.nac.gov.sg/art-forms/visual-arts/local-directory/cultural-medallion-young-artist-award-recipients-for-visual-arts
4.
Teo, K. G. (Interviewer). (2010, May 27). Oral history interview with Teo Bee Yen [Cassette recording no. 003522/05/01]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/; 王宏伟 [Wang, H. W.]. (2012, April 19). 好一个张美寅 [Hao yi ge Zhang Mei Yin]. Retrieved from http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_9a19b41301011zml.html
5. Teo, K. G. (Interviewer). (2010, May 27). Oral history interview with Teo Bee Yen [Cassette recording no. 003522/05/01]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
6. Teo, K. G. (Interviewer). (2010, May 27). Oral history interview with Teo Bee Yen [Cassette recording no. 003522/05/01]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
7. 寒川 [Han, C.]. (2009, September 17). 诠释生命,捕捉人生 [Quan shi sheng ming, bu zhuo ren sheng]. Retrieved from http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_5edd46a70100et64.html
8. 寒川 [Han, C.]. (2009, September 17). 诠释生命,捕捉人生 [Quan shi sheng ming, bu zhuo ren sheng]. Retrieved from http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_5edd46a70100et64.html
9. 寒川 [Han, C.]. (2009, September 17). 诠释生命,捕捉人生 [Quan shi sheng ming, bu zhuo ren sheng]. Retrieved from http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_5edd46a70100et64.html
10. Oon, C. (2004, October 20). 'Accidental' photographer captures Cultural Medallion. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. 吴启基 & 李白娟 [Wu, Q. J. & Li, B. J.]. (2004, October 20). 以镜头关怀人生 [Yi jing tou guan huai ren sheng]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 30. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Oon, C. (2004, October 20). 'Accidental' photographer captures Cultural Medallion. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Oon, C. (2004, October 20). 'Accidental' photographer captures Cultural Medallion. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. 吴启基 & 李白娟 [Wu, Q. J. & Li, B. J.]. (2004, October 20). 以镜头关怀人生 [Yi jing tou guan huai ren sheng]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 30. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Ho, V. (2004, October 23). Winners in the Arts. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Teo, B. Y. (n.d.). A profile of Teo Bee Yen. Retrieved from http://teo-bee-yen.com
16. Ho, V. (2004, October 23). Winners in the Arts. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. National Arts Council Singapore. (2013, October 4). Cultural Medallion & Young Artist Award Recipients for Visual Arts. Retrieved from National Arts Council website: https://www.nac.gov.sg/art-forms/visual-arts/local-directory/cultural-medallion-young-artist-award-recipients-for-visual-arts
18.
Oon, C. (2004, October 26). Arts awards should provoke debate. The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. 吴启基 & 李白娟 [Wu, Q. J. & Li, B. J.]. (2004, October 20). 以镜头关怀人生 [Yi jing tou guan huai ren sheng]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 30. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Chew, D. (2004, October 20). Amateur win raises hackles. Today, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. 王宏伟 [Wang, H. W.]. (2012, April 19). 好一个张美寅 [Hao yi ge Zhang Mei Yin]. Retrieved from http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_9a19b41301011zml.html
22. 吴梅珍 [Wu, M. Z.]. (2013, July 1). 张美寅 让生命转个弯 [Zhang Mei Yin rang sheng ming zhuan ge wan]. Retrieved from http://nanyang.com.my/node/545413?tid=704
23. Soka Gakkai Malaysia. (2013, June 29). Photographer Showcases Social Documentary. Retrieved from http://www.sgm.org.my/en/?cur=news/view&id=245&title=Photographer_Showcases_Social_Documentary_Photography
24. 吴梅珍 [Wu, M. Z.]. (2013, July 1). 张美寅 让生命转个弯 [Zhang Mei Yin rang sheng ming zhuan ge wan]. Retrieved from http://nanyang.com.my/node/545413?tid=704
25. 王宏伟 [Wang, H. W.]. (2012, April 19). 好一个张美寅 [Hao yi ge Zhang Mei Yin]. Retrieved from http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_9a19b41301011zml.html
26. Oon, C. (2004, October 20). 'Accidental' photographer captures Cultural Medallion. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. 吴启基 & 李白娟 [Wu, Q. J. & Li, B. J.]. (2004, October 20). 以镜头关怀人生 [Yi jing tou guan huai ren sheng]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 30; 自然之美不仅是表面的 [Zi ran zhi mei bu jin shi biao mian de]. (2004, October 25). 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 25. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
28. Teo, K. G. (Interviewer). (2010, May 27). Oral history interview with Teo Bee Yen [Cassette recording no. 003522/05/01]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
29 Teo, K. G. (Interviewer). (2010, May 27). Oral history interview with Teo Bee Yen [Cassette recording no. 003522/05/01]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
30. Soka Gakkai Malaysia. (2013, June 29). Photographer Showcases Social Documentary. Retrieved from http://www.sgm.org.my/en//?cur=news/view&id=245&title=Photographer_Showcases_Social_Documentary_Photography; 寒川 [Han, C.]. (2009, September 17). 诠释生命,捕捉人生 [Quan shi sheng ming, bu zhuo ren sheng]. Retrieved from http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_5edd46a70100et64.html
31. 寒川 [Han, C.]. (2009, September 17). 诠释生命,捕捉人生 [Quan shi sheng ming, bu zhuo ren sheng]. Retrieved from http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_5edd46a70100et64.html
32. 寒川 [Han, C.]. (2009, September 17). 诠释生命,捕捉人生 [Quan shi sheng ming, bu zhuo ren sheng]. Retrieved from http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_5edd46a70100et64.html
33. Condolences. (1993, June 8). The Straits Times, p. 32. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
34. 王宏伟 [Wang, H. W.]. (2012, April 19). 好一个张美寅 [Hao yi ge Zhang Mei Yin]. Retrieved from http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_9a19b41301011zml.htm
35. Teo, B. Y. (n.d.). A profile of Teo Bee Yen. Retrieved from http://teo-bee-yen.com/
36. Teo, B. Y. (n.d.). A profile of Teo Bee Yen. Retrieved from http://teo-bee-yen.com/



Further resources

Teo, B. Y. (2004). 大凉山彝人: 张美寅黑白摄影作品 [Daliang Shan Yi ren: Zhang Meiyin hei bai she ying zuo pin].新加坡: 新加坡影艺研究会.
(Call no.: Chinese RSING q779.9951 TBY)

Teo, B. Y. (2005). 风蚀大地: 张美寅黑白摄影作品 [Feng shi da di: Zhang Meiyin hei bai she ying zuo pin]. 新加坡: 新加坡影艺研究会.
(Call no.: Chinese RSING 779.36 TBY)

Teo, B. Y. (2007). 元阳梯田奇观 [Spectacular terraced fields in Yuanyang]. 新加坡: 新加坡艺林堂.
(Call no.: Chinese RSING 779.995135 TBY)

Teo, B. Y. (2008). 水墨黄山 [Shui mo Huang shan]. 新加坡: 新加坡艺林国际.
(Call no.: Chinese RSING 779.3651225 TBY)

Teo, B. Y. (2009). 土楼人家: 张美寅摄影作品 [Households in Hakka earth buildings]. 新加坡: 新加坡艺林堂.
(Call no.: Chinese RSING 779.97280951 TBY)

Teo, B. Y. (2010). 里萨湖畔的高棉人: 张美寅摄影作品 [Cambodians around Tonle Sap Lake]. 新加坡: 新加坡艺林堂.
(Call no.: Chinese RSEA 779.99593 TBY)

Teo, B. Y. (2010). 加德满都掠影: 张美寅摄影作品 [Glimpse of Kathmandu]. 新加坡: 新加坡艺林堂.
(Call no.: Chinese RART 779.995496 TBY)

Teo, B. Y. (2013). 灵感胜于快门: 张美寅的光影之旅 [Light and thought: Teo Bee Yen's photographic journey]. Singapore: 新加坡艺术理事会.
(Call no.: Chinese RSING 779.0951 TBY)

王朱唇 & 张美寅 [Wang, Z. C. & Zhang, M. Y.] (2006). 闽南侨批史话 [Min nan qiao pi shi hua]. 北京市: 中国广播电视出版社.
(Call no.: Chinese RCO 332.04246 WZC)



The information in this article is valid as at 5 March 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Subject
Personalities
Arts