Kouo Shang Wei
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. Nicklaus D’Cruz, “Wife to Fulfil River Man Kouo’s Wish,” New Paper, 29 December 1988, 8; “Local Lensman Dies,” Straits Times, 27 December 1988, 8; “321 Deaths,” Straits Times, 23 December 1988, 38; “Qian ren zhong shu hou ren zhe yin” 前人种树后人遮荫 [Legacy of the pioneers], Lianhe Zaobao 联合早报, 1 April 1992, 30. (From NewspaperSG)
2. “Local Lensman Dies.”
3. D’Cruz, “Wife to Fulfil River Man Kouo’s Wish.”
4. “Donors Collection,” National Library Board, Singapore, n,.d.
5. National Library Board, Singapore, Annual Report 2007/2008 (Singapore: National Library Board, 2008), 35.
6. “Local Lensman Dies.”
7. Cheong Chi Chin, “Three Men and a Passion,” Straits Times, 2 April 1992, 12; Zhao Muyuan 赵慕媛, “Hong toujin de cangsang” 红头巾的沧桑 [Sorrows of the samsui women], Lianhe Zaobao 联合早报, 12 April 1986, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Cheong, “Three Men and a Passion.”
9. “Local Lensman Dies.”
10. “Local Lensman Dies.”
11. “1992 ASEAN Salon: Introduction of Memorial Awards,” PSS Journal 3 September–October 1992). (Call no. RSING 770.605957 PSSMB)
Photographic Society of Singapore, A Tribute To: Kouo Shang Wei, Lee Lim, Yip Cheong Fun (Singapore: Photographic Society of Singapore, 1992). (From PublicationSG)
Tommy Koh, et al., eds., Singapore: The Encyclopedia (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet and National Heritage Board, 2006), 414. (Call no. RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
The information in this article is valid as of 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.