Kouo Shang Wei
by Nurhaizatul Jamila Jamil
Kouo Shang-Wei (b. 1924, Vietnam–d. 22 December 1988, Singapore) was a pioneer photographer of Singapore.1 He is known for his shots of Singapore as a newly developing city from the 1950s to the 1980s.2 His subject matter include the Singapore River and samsui women.3 In 2007, Kouo’s family donated a number of his works and his Zeiss Ikon camera to the National Library Board, and these are currently exhibited at the Donors Gallery in the National Library Building.4 The donation grants the library access to about 7,000 items from Kouo’s collection of photographs, slides and artefacts.5
Kouo is most noted for his portrayal of samsui women.6 He had a keen interest in capturing their actions in everyday life, but their refusal to be photographed made them a particularly challenging subject. According to him, samsui women believed that the camera could capture their souls. In order to get around this problem, Kouo hid behind strategically placed objects on construction sites and photographed them using a telephoto lens to avoid being seen. Eventually, 40 of his photographs of these women, out of over a hundred, were exhibited in conjunction with the launch of Singapore Broadcasting Corporation’s 1986 drama serial, 《红头巾》 (Samsui Women).7
Kouo’s ability to capture unique details often resulted in an exquisite portrayal of his subjects. He has inspired younger generations of photographers with his creative techniques.8 An exhibition in honour of his works, along with those of his contemporaries Yip Cheong Fun and Lee Lim, was held at the Empress Place Museum in April 1992.9
In 1984, Kouo’s photograph “Pigeons by the Singapore River” won him first prize in the Singapore Cityscape Today photo competition, organised by the Urban Redevelopment Authority.10
In commemoration of Kouo, the ASEAN Salon of Photography introduced the Kouo Shang Wei Memorial Award in 1992 for the best submission in the colour slide category.11
Nurhaizatul Jamila Jamil
1. D’Cruz, N. (1988, December 29). Wife to fulfil river man Kouo’s wish. The New Paper, p. 8; Local lensman dies. (1988, December 27). The Straits Times, p. 8; 321 deaths. (1988, December 23). The Straits Times, p. 38; 前人种树后人遮荫 [Legacy of the pioneers]. (1992, April 1). 《联合早报》 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 30. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Local lensman dies. (1988, December 27). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. D’ Cruz, N. (1988, December 29). Wife to fulfil river man Kouo’s wish. The New Paper, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. National Library Board. (n.d.). Donors showcase: Kouo Shang-Wei. Retrieved from National Library Board website: http://www.nlb.gov.sg/donors/kouo-shang-wei-%E9%83%AD%E5%B0%9A%E6%85%B0/
5. National Library Board. (2008). National Library Board annual report 2007/2008. Singapore: Author, p. 35. (Call no.: RCLOS q027.05957 SNLBAR-[AR])
6. Local lensman dies. (1988, December 27). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Cheong, C. C. (1992, April 2). Three men and a passion. The Straits Times, p. 12; 赵慕媛 [Zhao, M. Y.]. (1986, April 12). 红头巾的沧桑 [Sorrows of the samsui women]. 《联合早报》 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Cheong, C. C. (1992, April 2). Three men and a passion. The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Local lensman dies. (1988, December 27). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Local lensman dies. (1988, December 27). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. 1992 ASEAN Salon: Introduction of Memorial Awards. (1992, September/October). PSS Journal, 3. Singapore: The Society. (Call no.: RSING 770.605957 PSSMB)
Koh, T., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet; National Heritage Board, p. 414.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
Photographic Society of Singapore. (1992). A tribute to: Kouo Shang Wei, Lee Lim, Yip Cheong Fun. Singapore: Photographic Society of Singapore.
Available via PublicationSG.
The information in this article is valid as at October 2020 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.