With the explosive growth of bird photography as a hobby in Singapore in recent years, it is hard to imagine a time when the number of local bird photographers can be counted with the fingers of one hand. That was the case in the 1990s, in the days before the Internet, social media and pervasive connectivity. There was no one to tell you about the latest birds sightings. You have to just get out there (often alone) and master your fieldcraft and if lady luck smiled on you as well, you get your reward. It was also the age of film and slide photography, and no instant gratification in photo playback or rapid firing of successive shots of digital cameras that we take for granted these days.
Looking around at the bird photography community these days is to see a predominantly male pursuit with heavy, long supertelephoto lenses and the latest expensive professional camera system. So it comes as a surprise that one of the few bird photographers back then was a petite middle-aged woman with modest equipment. Her name was Ong Kiem Sian. An optometrist by profession, she started bird photography at a late age, prompted by the call of adventure in 1990.
And adventure was what she pursued, with vigour, persistence and patience. In the course of her hobby, she waded in thigh deep waters, trekked for hours in the wild, endured leeches in tropical rainforests, all for the perfect shots. Something that most serious bird photographers can relate to all too well! Many of her friends have described her as a tireless, curious and enthusiastic nature lover that went well beyond just getting a photo of a bird.
I came across her photo book “A Passion for Birds” a few years back. Flipping through the pages, one could see her mastery of the craft, with beautiful bird pictures, some very rare species and even rarer moments captured, many of which have stood the test of time. Technology may have greatly advanced since then, but between the pages of that book, are images that other photographers can only hope to emulate.
In doing research for this website, I was looking at some of her published photos, and was amazed that her local owl photo collection included the Short-eared Owl, a very rare winter visitor to the island and she managed to get a beautiful picture. Next to that owl was another species of owl. In those days, it was referred to as a Brown Hawk Owl. Just last year, based on latest research, that particular owl could be a Northern Boobook instead, a new bird to the Singapore checklist. So indeed she was a lady way ahead of her time.
I have elected not to write too long a story, but to let the lady and her photos speak for themselves. At the end of this article are links for further reading. Her book is sadly out of print, but I have asked and obtained permission from Morten Strange of Draco Publishing to reproduce some pages to share. In the Gallery, click on the “View Full Size” link on the bottom right hand corner to get a bigger scan image.
Ong Kiem Sian passed away on 14 June 2009 at the age of 63. She is fondly remembered and regarded as the first lady of bird photography in Southeast Asia.