State of Mine

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 July, 2011, 12:00am


IN A WORLD becoming increasingly obsessed with celebrity, one would think Russel Wong had the perfect job. He has photographed a string of famous people: Jackie Chan, Richard Gere, Robert Downey Jr, and The Black Eyed Peas, to name a few, and his work has appeared in a stack of publications including Vogue, Elle, GQ, Marie Claire, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times. He has made the cover of TIME 15 times.

But for Wong, it is a society far removed from the hills of Hollywood that has captured his imagination. 'Japan is a huge obsession, in particular Kyoto and the geisha communities. It's fascinating, so theatrical and graphic. The perfect subjects,' he says. 'I visit Japan about 10 times a year and for the past four years, have been documenting the geishas in Kyoto for a book - the city is like a second home.'

His first home, however, is Singapore, where he was born in 1961 and returned to in 1989. 'It truly is a melting pot. You can be sitting at a table surrounded by five different nationalities,' he says. 'I love the traditional coffee-style hangouts - they are not the type of places you would see featured in fancy glossy magazines, but they serve the best food.'

It's this down-to-earth approach to food that has you thinking Wong would be just as comfortable around a street hawker as an A-list movie star. 'The people here in Singapore are all encompassing and warm. This place works - it's very 'what you see is what you get.' People always go on about the strict government and how conservative it is, but the reality is a very different story. Every country, if you dig deep enough, has controls and political problems. ... People move to Singapore because it is an easy place to adapt to; English is the first language. It's a very low-maintenance place.'

The calmness of Singapore, however, is a far cry from the craziness of LA where Wong spent much of his early career, a career that took off when the sports-mad student made the cover of Track & Field News - a US publication nicknamed 'The Bible of Sport'. His picture of world record-miler Sebastian Coe was taken in 1988 when Wong was 19 and an undergraduate student at the University of Oregon. Big opportunity number two came knocking when the Los Angeles Times magazine commissioned him to photograph fashion spreads of Hollywood celebrities. He would soon name Isabella Rossellini, Michael Jackson, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Glenn Close, David Lynch, Bruce Willis, Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell, Anna Sui and Yo Yo Ma as his subjects.

His second passion is film and since returning to Asia has collaborated on movie publicity shoots and fashion spreads with industry big shots. He worked on Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Oliver Stone's Heaven and Earth, and Zhang Yimou's Hero and House of Flying Daggers.

TIME front-page faces include superstars Jackie Chan, Faye Wong, Chow Yun-fat, Zhang Ziyi and Michelle Yeoh, and the Japanese actor Ken Watanabe for its Asia's heroes issue. His last movie project was Lee's Lust, Caution which starred Tony Leung, Joan Chen, Tang Wei and Wang Lee Hom.

Russel's interest in the big-screen has led to his own directorial efforts; while he plans to one day helm his own feature film, Russel has sharpened his skills on award-winning commercials for Breast Cancer and The Discovery Channel, amongst others.

But away from his celebrity lifestyle, it is the quietness of his home state that he enjoys most.

Brag rites:

Russel Wong was the first Singaporean photographer to have a solo exhibition at the Singapore Art Museum. He is the first and only photographer to be invited for the art residency at the Singapore Tyler Print Institute in 2004/2005. His work can be found in public and private collections. For the past six years his work has been sold through Christie's in Hong Kong. In 2005, his Bamboo Forest print sold for US$40,000.

Wong's home comforts


WHERE: Sin Huat Seafood Restaurant (659 Geylang Rd) It's been around for ages - it's not fancy but it is bright and noisy and popular with the late-night party crowd.
WOW FACTOR: The pepper crab and chili crab - both are unforgettable.

WHERE: Lim Seng Lee Duck Rice Eating House (38 South Buona Vista Road) This place serves one main dish - the soy duck and only a couple of side dishes. It's served with porridge or rice.
WOW FACTOR: Simple. The teochew braised duck.


WHERE: Ku De Ta (1 Bayfront Ave Marina Bay Sands SkyPark; Part inside part outside this is the place to see Singapore and be seen.
WOW FACTOR: Best sunset views of the city. Don't miss the poolside terrace.

WHERE: BluJaz Cafe (11 Bali Lane; I'm a huge fan of this place and not just because I'm a huge fan of jazz. This place is a perfect mix of live music and comfort food. I used to play the saxophone and have photographed many jazz musicians, so this is the perfect setting for me.
WOW FACTOR: It's in the Muslim district so it's rich culturally and architecturally.


WHERE: iFly@Singapore (Siloso Beach, Sentosa; One for adrenaline lovers. It's the world's largest indoor skydiving wind tunnel and only new to Singapore (it opened in April). I've not experienced it but my friends and their kids have and they loved it.
WOW FACTOR: I imagine the views of the South China Sea are amazing.