Keeping Singapore in His Sights

Renowned National Geographic photographer Michael Yamashita shares his changing perspective of Singapore’s ever-evolving landscape.


Workers on elevated platforms apply fresh paint to a ship under repair at Sembcorp Marine Tuas Boulevard Yard.


merican citizen Michael Yamashita has Singapore to thank for launching his career. And over the years, as he’s captured diverse glimpses of its development, it’s also managed to capture his heart.

He first arrived here in 1978 on a 70-foot schooner, which had sailed from Thailand. The ship belonged to American writer Harold Stephens, who had asked Yamashita to shoot photos for a book about his adventures in Asia while sailing the South China Sea.

Yamashita stayed on board for several months as it was being fitted out for further travel. "I lived in the Singapore harbour for a while, right about where Marina Bay Sands is sitting right now," says the 68-year-old over the phone from his New Jersey photo studio. Looking for work, he would hop onto a bumboat or rowboat with his photography portfolio, literally roll up his sleeves, and row to shore to disembark at Clifford Pier. After weeks of showing his work to advertising agencies in Singapore, he finally scored his first big gig, shooting Asian destinations for Singapore Airlines.

Those photos eventually led to his first job for National Geographic – a six-month assignment about the people and wildlife of Hokkaido, Japan. Since then, he has travelled around the world for the magazine. Many of his stories were later turned into books and even films.

A story on the Ming dynasty admiral and explorer Zheng He, which first appeared in the July 2005 issue of National Geographic, was released as a documentary feature film in 2006. The film, The Ghost Fleet, won Best Historical Documentary at the 2006 New York International Film Festival. The Chinese explorer was also the subject of a book, published in 2006, which chronicles his voyages.

“ Singapore is a model of urban planning and environmentalism in the midst of environmental destruction within its region. I feel the world can learn a lot from its example.” ”

Michael Yamashita, American photographer


While in Singapore, Yamashita lived in a rented apartment at Cairnhill Court, near the country’s main shopping street, Orchard Road. He stayed for almost a year before returning to New York City for work in 1979.

He retains a fondness for Singapore, and returns now and then to give photography workshops, work on National Geographic jobs, as well as take on corporate and government gigs for the likes of HSBC, and the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore – a government-linked agency that looks after the nation’s strategic maritime interests.

A dragon dance segment captured during a Chingay Parade; A rehearsal for Singaporeʼs 50th National Day celebrations at the Padang, shot from Yamashitaʼs hotel room; Singapore Harbour – work goes on 24/7, 365 days a year at the worldʼs busiest transshipment hub.

Whenever he is in town, he catches up with friends and hunts down his favourite local dishes, like chilli crab and Hainanese chicken rice. “In the 1970s, I would eat at Newton Circus and some hawker stalls that were right in Orchard Road. All those stalls were portable, not permanent, then,” he says, referring to the travelling hawkers who were a common sight before purposebuilt hawker centres (open-air food centres) came on the scene.

Yamashitaʼs humorous side is revealed in this posed shot by his aide, Fu Qing.

As his first memories of Singapore were of the sea and the Singapore River, he also tends to revisit locations there. The Fullerton Hotel, at which he has stayed, is one of his favourite hotels and a stone’s throw from where he used to step off his rowboat. He says: “In 1978, the Singapore River was full of godowns and filled with boats bringing in cargo from the big ships in the harbour. I remember getting off boats and having to climb up the steps carefully because of the wet seaweed. All that’s been replaced by a world-class city with astounding architecture, now.”

He now finds Singapore a fascinating mix of amazing architecture and greenery. “Many cities in Asia have a lot of big buildings and traffic but, in Singapore, there is good city planning. It has buildings, which have become signature attractions, as well as green, manicured gardens. I am particularly blown away by Gardens by the Bay and had to take some shots of it outside of assignment – just for myself.”

After witnessing the effects of the haze on the country, Yamashita decided to produce a photo book to showcase Singapore’s strength as an urban oasis. He is trying to crowdfund the project. “Singapore is a model of urban planning and environmentalism in the midst of environmental destruction within its region. I feel the world can learn a lot from its example,” he says.

He is also struck by its rapid changes. “I would like to have a retrospective exhibition of my pictures of old Singapore, which have never been shown. Much of what I photographed is no longer there.” It would be a fitting tribute to a country that has been close to his heart.

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