Conversation with Love Wildlife founder Nancy Lynne Gibson Part I

Nancy Lynne Gibson is is a good friend of mine who started an amazing non-profit organization in Thailand — Love Wildlife Foundation. The mission of the non-profit foundation is to educate the younger generation about the importance of wildlife conservation and work towards keeping wild-born animals free in their natural habitat. 

She was kind enough to spare me some time to have a conversation with her. 

Mickey: How did Love Wildlife Foundation came about? Was it something you always wanted to do? Was it out of a dare? [laughter]

Nancy: Yeah, I dare you to do this [laughter].

Mickey: You studied Medicine so how did that evolve to become Love Wildlife Foundation?

Nancy: I was studying Medicine at first. Then, ding! I didn’t want to do it anymore. At that time, I was taking herpetology and behavioral ecology and I found that’s what I really liked. Afterwards, I did an internship at the Rosamond lion breeding compound. I was supposed to intern for about three months but I ended up staying there for about a year. I just couldn’t tear myself away. Then, The Animal Guys, who were also graduates of CSU Northridge, came to talk to us and we got to learn about them and I thought what they were doing was really cool.  I applied to work with them and then started teaching wildlife biology with The Animal Guys. I just submerged myself in learning about animals and I wanted to do something similar to The Animal Guys, but maybe not in the same area code. Then, I came to Thailand thinking that I’ll get more experience here and then I’ll go back and do this in the US. I picked the Love Wildlife name already before I even moved here. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it but I knew that I wanted the name. Then, I ended up staying in Thailand. 

Mickey: [laughter] This seems to be your story so far. You were supposed to stay for three months, you stayed for a year. You were supposed to stay for a short while and now it’s been eleven years. 

Nancy: [laughter] Yeah, part of it was that I was interning with the zoos here, the Dusit Zoo (สวนสัตว์ดุสิต) and the Chiang Mai Zoo (สวนสัตว์เชียงใหม่). When I was at Dusit Zoo, someone came in on a motorbike with a slow loris and said that he found the creature on the tree, near his house, and so he brought the animal over to the zoo. The vets were like, “There’s no way he found her in the tree. Her teeth has already been cut. She was definitely a pet.” At that time, I was helping the Dusit Zoo with the education program and the vets told me to take her home and see if we can work with her. If it didn’t work, I can bring her back to the zoo. So, I took the slow loris home and look for information about how to care for her but I could barely find anything. The only thing I could find was one little manual and it wasn’t even on that specific species! It was a different species — a slender loris which didn’t even live here. The slow loris had so many problems with her teeth and I just discovered a whole lot about the animal itself and then decided that Thailand was where I needed to do this the most because there are so many wild animals here that people don’t know about. That’s why I decided to start Love Wildlife and that’s why our logo is a slow loris. 

Mickey: How long did it take from your arrival in Thailand to start this foundation?

Nancy: It took some time. I’ve been here 11 years. Love Wildlife is five and a half years old. 

Mickey: About half the time.

Nancy: Yeah, but I started it as a project before. In 2008, we were at first a project under another organization. We were able to legally work, do things, and have credibility. About a year later, in 2009, I decided to put it together and set it up as a foundation. 

Mickey: Did you have mentors or you just read up and then plunged into this?

Nancy: Sort of plunged into it. Non-profit world in Thailand is a little bit different from the US. Most of the stuff I researched pertained to the US because I wanted to set it up there, get funding from the US, and use the fundings here in Thailand but that proved to be a lot harder than I thought. Nobody wanted to take on that burden. I spoke to non-profit lawyers and they said that without a physical presence, you can’t get things done. That’s why we ended up doing it here in Thailand and I ended up asking friends with legal backgrounds in non-profits to help us through the process. 

Mickey: The mentors then are mostly lawyers? 

Nancy: Lawyers and other conservationists at the zoos. Actually, I just experimented with a bunch of methods. When I first set up Love Wildlife, I didn’t really know what we were doing either. People asked me, “What do you do at Love Wildlife?” and I’m like, “I don’t know.” [laughter] 

Mickey: You were just finding your way or mission.

Nancy: Yeah, the mission and the niche. We always had the mission but people still needed more explanation of what’s going on. 

Mickey: You read up on setting up in the US. How different is it between setting up in the US and in Thailand? Is it easier? More difficult?

Nancy:  They’re both difficult. I think in the US, it’s easy to set up as a non-profit. You can do it on your own. You don’t need lawyers. That might be because I’m American and I’m fluent in English. But here, in Thailand, especially in the beginning, I couldn’t read or write Thai at all. I can speak Thai but when I had to go through documents and writethings down, there was just no way I could do it. We had to use attorneys. Even if I could read Thai, I don't think it’s an easy process for someone to do on their own. All the organizations I know of have used lawyers to do it. It’s just way too much to try to do it yourself. The tax-exempt status is also difficult here. They changed the laws recently. Before, you had to be established for 3-5 years and then you had to send them all these documents before you can actually get it. Now, you don’t have to wait that long but it’s still a big hassle to get all the documents prepare for them to evaluate and you have to justify everything. If you fail it, you'll never ever be able to apply for it again. 

Mickey: Oh wow. That’s serious. 

Nancy: Yeah. So, if they think that you don’t have all of your documents in order yet, they'll tell you to not do it that year. You’ll have to come back next year. Otherwise, you won’t get to do this anymore. 

Mickey: At least they give you a warning. Better than they take the documents and tell you too bad.

Nancy: I’ve been doing the accounting myself in English but for the evaluations, it needs to all be in Thai. They don’t understand a lot of English words that is being used and a lot of it has to be translated. I’m hiring an accountant from now on. I can’t do this anymore!

Mickey: Speaking of accounting, how difficult was it to find funding in the beginning? I imagined it was difficult because it was difficult to set up as a non-profit but was it easy because there were a lot of people passionate about your mission?

Nancy: It was a struggle. Thai people like to give money, but they like to give money during an emergency or to big organizations that they're familiar with. These big organizations have people out there actively showing what they’re doing, trying to get your credit card information, and signing you up for monthly installments. For us, we don’t have those resources and people don’t know us. In the beginning, all the funding was coming from me. I was teaching and I used my salary to run Love Wildlife. That’s what I did for the first 2-3 years. After that, we started to receive little fundings here and there. We were able to get an office and one extra staff member. My little funding source came from a lot of the international schools here in Thailand. 

Mickey: That’s a good source. 

Nancy: Yeah, it’s a good source for donors but it’s also not stable. You don’t know how much you’re going to get each year because they always change the organizations that they support. You’ll have one year where they’re really interested in Love Wildlife and the whole school does the fundraiser and you get quite a bit. Some years, you only have a couple of clubs that are interested and it’s on a smaller scale. It’s not fixed.

Mickey: How does non-profit organization work in terms of fundraising? Do you keep any excess and use it for next year? Or do you have to use all the funds that you’ve raised for that particular calendar year for tax reasons?

Nancy: We have two different types of funding — restricted funding and non-restricted funding. The ones that come from the schools, unless they were fundraising for something very specific, are usually non-restricted funding so you can use it for anything in the organization. You don’t have to use the whole thing. Restricted funds, however, you have to use based on the budget that you asked for and you have to use it for that purpose only. You can’t use it for something else. If you have excess from those funds, you’ll have to ask the donors whether you can use it for some other project instead. Sometimes they say yes, sometimes they say no and you’ll have to return the funds. For large grants, if you don’t use all the amount, they’ll generally take it back. Luckily, we haven’t had to give donations back but it is an option for them. 

Mickey: Love Wildlife has been around for about five and a half years. In which year did you feel that this was going to work?

Nancy: It’s weird because you have up-and-down moments. One moment, you have a team together and you know you can do this. Another moment, you’re like, “Oh my god! Are we going to be okay?” It’s really a rollercoaster. 

Mickey:  When did you realize that Love Wildlife was sustainable?

Nancy: You don’t [laughter]. When you’re a smaller organization, nothing is certain. You’re depending so much on outside funding. Right now, I’m trying to change that by looking into the sustainability of our programs. I’m trying to make sure that we have programs that can sustain itself and the administrative cost that goes along with it. For example, we have a whale-watching program. We contribute to the conservation, whale ID, GPS location, behavior studies, but we take guests on the tripwith us and the guests pay for the trip themselves. Part of their payment pays for the research that happens. The guests also get educated and learn about the environment, the fishermen in the villages, the culture in the area, anything to give them more knowledge about the environment. We’re trying to do a social enterprise type model. Anything extra goes back into the organization and we’re trying to use that type of model so that we don’t have to go outside and beg for money. If we’re self-sufficient, then we can become a full-on foundation and give money to other people. That’s what I want. I want to give scholarships to students to go into environmental science or veterinarian school. I want to do that and it’s still in the process for me. 

Part II of this conversation will be posted later this week

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You can check out more of Love Wildlife and consider donating to them

Conversation with Thai designer Kavin Twikoon Part II

Kavin Twikoon is a good college friend of mine who started Time Machine Studio, a Bangkok–based creative and design consultancy. His client rosters include Nestlé, John Robert Powers, Bacardi, and Procter & Gamble. 

Kavin was kind enough to spare me some time to have a conversation with him. This is part II of my conversation with him. 

Design studio is like a person. It needs personality and character to become a more interesting person. No one wants to talk to a boring person.
— Kavin Twikoon

Mickey: What’s is the single most important trait in running your own design studio?

Kavin: Be interesting, but professional! Design studio is like a person. It needs personality and character to become a more interesting person. No one wants to talk to a boring person [laughter]. For this, you need to be well-rounded and you’ll have to socialize more. Remember, you won’t be working in one industry forever. You might need some intellectual talk when dealing with people from different industries and backgrounds. So you can’t just keep insisting on your personal taste or ideas, but you need to ensure that whatever it is you’re engaging in is up to professional standard. At the same time, you need to be sincere and true to yourself,  otherwise you won’t be able to do this for the long run. 

Mickey: In your opinion, can creativity be taught? Or is it something that you’re born with?

Kavin: I think it’s a little bit of both. You can learn from books, schools, and other people, but the knowledge doesn’t really count until you’re able to find your own way to use it. I was born in a country [Thailand] where you have to stand in line to go up the stairs. Our elementary schools require uniforms and acceptable hairstyles. We were disciplined so much when we were growing up but I don’t see any Thai adult with those same discipline. What I’m trying to say is that education doesn’t always work. Everybody learn the same thing but why do we still talk and think differently? If you analyze yourself well enough to know how you’re different from others, then you can bring out that good, creative quality to your work, and maybe add a little self-esteem to boot. I believe everybody has their own creativity, they need to develop it. 

Mickey: Please describe your creative process after you’ve secured a client. Do you outline right away? Do you just wait to be inspired? Assign it to your employee?

Kavin: Here's my six-step process:

  1. I first find the concept that can relate to the client. 
  2. Twist it around make the story interesting enough to tell.
  3. Come up with many designs that we think fits that concept. Might need lot of talking or other form of communication like drinking. This is just the initial state of work so don’t judge it yet. 
  4. Pick a few that you like and included them in your presentation.
  5. Make presentation interesting. 
  6. party after presentation! 

Mickey: I like your six-step process, especially number six [laughter]. How about your ideal client? What would your ideal client be like? 

Kavin: It’s simple. They just need to trust me!

Mickey: In your opinion, what is the most important trait to make it as a designer?

Kavin: Live your life! Spend more time to listen to music, read a good book, ask interesting questions, and do some research rather than just sit in front of the computer all day. 

Mickey: What kind of skill set would your ideal designer have then? Photoshop? Music?

Kavin: Everything combined! The ideal designer is a person that can add character to everything. 

Mickey: What do you do when you’re out of ideas or hit a creative block? Do you work through it? Take a break and come back? Give up?

Kavin: Take a break mostly. I either go watch a movie or play my guitar, anything to stop thinking about it. My teacher once told me that yoursubconscious works better when you’re moving and not thinking about a particular thing. That’s a part of the brain you need to unlock to access your creativity. 

Mickey: After a long day of doing creative work for others, do you still have time to pursue your own passion projects? If so, please tell me some of them. 

Kavin: I still write new songs and paint once in a while.

Mickey: I remembered your paintings! You’re really good! So, how do you go about maintaining your creative edge? I mean, do you paint, play games, etc?  

Kavin: I do normal things actually. I read. I listen to music. I play with my son. But, I’m not doing these things to maintain my creative edge at all. I’m just living my life and I think that helps. Traveling does help from time to time though, at least that’s the excuse I’ve been using. [laughter] 

Mickey: What is your ideal design studio that you would like Time Machine Studio to be like? 

Kavin: I wanna split the studio into two parts, the making money part and the ideal project part. Someday, when I have enough profit to run the company smoothly, I plan to start working on my own projects. It could be a short film or a documentary,  I don’ t know yet.

Mickey: What would be your advice for someone who wants to start a design studio in Thailand?

Kavin: If sleeping three hours every two days is not a problem for you, then go for it!

Mickey: How long do you see yourself doing this? I mean, do you see yourself running a design studio until you’ve retired?

Kavin: No. It’s not because I don’t like what I’m doing, but rather because it is just my interest now. It doesn’t mean I won’t switch to something else later. 

Mickey: What’s next for Time Machine Studio? 

Kavin: Recruit more “avenger” kind of artists to work with and have fun together. 

Mickey: What do think the industry will look like in 10-20 years? Easier to enter? Harder? Easier to make money? More difficult? 

Kavin: Definitely easier to enter because it’s easier to get the resources. Computers keep getting faster everyday. There will be more freelancers everywhere, but they’ll find it extremely difficult to earn decent money. I’m not going to talk about the quality of work, that’s very subjective. Technology always surprise us and there’s always a Picasso in every era. 

Mickey: For people unfamiliar with Bangkok’s creative scene, who in your opinion is the person to follow, website to read, or magazine to subscribe to? 

Kavin: So many! I’ll send you a list later. The list is here:

Here are some Thai bands I would recommend people check out:

Mickey: Thanks again Kavin!  

Kavin: No problem. Tell me the next time you’re in Bangkok. 

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You can check out more of Kavin's work at Time Machine Studio.

Conversation with Thai designer Kavin Twikoon Part I

Kavin Twikoon is a good college friend of mine who started Time Machine Studio, a Bangkok–based creative and design consultancy. His client rosters include Nestlé, John Robert Powers, Bacardi, and Procter & Gamble. 

Kavin previously co-founded Farmgroup, another successful design studio. He was kind enough to spare me some time to have a conversation with him.  

Yes, it’s easy now [the design process], but overall I think it’s bad for design. The design and inspiration process is so much like instant noodles these days.
— Kavin Twikoon

Mickey: I’ve been meaning to ask you this for the longest time. You’re also extremely passionate and talented in music, but you didn’t pursue a career in that. Why did you choose design over music? 

Kavin: I have always been passionate about art and music since I was a kid. I started to play guitar when I was 14 and wrote my first song eight months after that. Both art and music have one thing in common, they tell stories. After spending years using my art and creative skills to do commercial works, I felt my concept of art got distorted. I guess that’s normal when you’re trying to make a living, but music is too personal for me to sell out like that. That’s why, now I have over 25 private songs that I’ve kept for myself. Playing music is kind of like my personal space.

Mickey: You’ve started a creative and design consultancy before. What’s different about Time Machine Studio?

Kavin: I was 26 when my friend and I started Farmgroup. My passion was more toward art and design. Time Machine is quite different. We help clients tell their story and amplify it though many types of media. Nowadays, I want to create something more successful in terms of communicating people’s stories…with a high level of artistic quality, of course. [laughter]

Mickey: This isn’t your first design studio so just exactly how profitable is a design studio? I mean you keep starting one [laughter].

Kavin: Good enough just to keep you alive and entertained but not enough to get rich. At least, not for the near future. I came to a turning point where I was just about to give up a career in design. But then, a whole bunch of things that I haven’t done came to mind. I figured that I’ll just give a little push and move on so that I’m not going to regret it later in life. With the high demand in digital media and entertainment today, Time Machine has a very good chance to be a successful creative media company.

Mickey: No doubt about it. What’s the funniest story that you can share as part of owning a design studio? For example, did anyone accidentally send the wrong file to a client?

Kavin: You know what? Sending the wrong file to the wrong client is bad, but sending a wrong file to the right client is much worse. It was a nightmare because that actually happened! The funniest moment that I won’t forget has to be our company’s New Year’s trip to Laos. Most of our designers got very drunk, and we were in the middle of nowhere, but somehow we managed to find our way back to the hotel. To this day, we still don’t know how! [laughter] The last thing I remembered was that I slept on the floor next to the “outdoor barber” in Laos. There are a lot of funny stories, too many to share. 

Mickey: How big is the design community in Bangkok? Have you ever had to compete with friends for a contract? Was it weird or were you guys strictly professional?

Kavin: Design community in Bangkok is quite small, this is if you only consider registered companies. We run into each other from time to time. We don’t really want to compete against bigger companies, especially the ones we respect and know personally. However, the pitching candidates stay anonymous sometimes.  We also have so many freelance artist & designer scatter everywhere. They still prefer being freelance for many different reasons.

Mickey: You’ve been doing creative work since you graduated college but at what point in your career did know that this was it? That this is what you wanted to do for the rest of your life? 

Kavin: To be honest, I don’t know if I’m going to do this for a rest of my life. One thing I’m sure of is that I’ll always do things my own way, in whatever field I find myself in. Let’s say if I happened to own a restaurant, you are guaranteed to get a new experience from my restaurant. I’m more focused on what I am than what I do. 

Mickey: Woah. That’s deep [laughter]. Okay, so what’s the coolest project that you’re proud of?

Kavin: All of my experimental project. Pretty much the projects without client or judge. [laughter]

Mickey: With the advancement in technology like Photoshop, Adobe Premiere, etc, do you think design work has gotten easier or harder for design studios? 

Kavin: It’s easier in terms of how you get things done, but many projects ended up being bland and flavorless. You know people have started to get back into collecting vinyls even when there’s a shitload of free music out there. You want to know why? Because it has more story in it. People miss those day when they hang out at a music store all day and having a conversation about the new rock band in town. You actually know who designed the cover and who produced that particular album. You get the idea? You should see how most designers work now. They don’t even share their experiences anymore. Perhaps they don’t have enough interesting stories to tell. People get so lazy these days. I admit that I’m getting lazy too. It’s so easy to find “reference” for your design these days. Thanks to sites like Pinterest, we don’t have to travel all over the world to find inspiration any more. Yes, it’s easy now, but overall I think it’s bad for design. The design and inspiration process is so much like instant noodles these days. However, one of the positive sides of advance technology is that it allows you to translate your imagination into your works seamlessly. That’s a good thing. People just need to be better at actually creating something new and original. 

Mickey: Speaking of which, what’s your competitive advantage over other creative and design consultancies in Bangkok?  

Kavin: I always offer more solutions than necessary. I know that clients come to me because they need help. I create contents that fits their context. I’m also a very honest person. Too honest most of the time! [laughter] But seriously, I won’t suggest anything if I know for sure that it’s not going to work, even if that means they would’ve had to pay me extra. See my problem? [laughter]

Mickey: [laughter] That is a problem! What’s more important in running a design studio then? Being business savvy or being creative?

Kavin: I would say both. Most designers don’t take business seriously, that is until they have their own company. We always begin our career with “let my work speaks for itself” attitude. But in reality, clients will judge you based on the famous customers you had in the past, unless your work won a prestigious award. Anything that help boost their sales dramatically, that’s all clients usually care about. Having a good reputation is like having a platinum credit card in this industry. You need to balance these two skills. The great project that will take your portfolio to the next level always start from a very modest budget. It might be good during your start-up phase, where you’re trying to establish a portfolio, but if you dedicate too much time to it, you might end up losing your business. You need to be both business savvy and creative. That’s part of the job.  

Part II of this conversation will be posted tomorrow.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You can check out more of Kavin and his work at Time Machine Studio.

Conversation with Chinese translator Eric Abrahamsen Part II

Eric Abrahamsen's translation of Wang Xiaofang's  The Civil Servant's Notebook

Eric Abrahamsen's translation of Wang Xiaofang's The Civil Servant's Notebook

This is part II of my conversation with Chinese translator and publishing consultant Eric Abrahamsen. He kindly agreed to have a conversation about literary translation, publishing consultation, and the state of Chinese literature. 

Eric has been living in Beijing since late 2001, when he began studying Chinese. He received a PEN translation grant for Wang Xiaobo's My Spiritual Homeland (我的精神家园) and a NEA grant for Xu Zechen's Running Through Zhongguancun (跑步穿过中关村). In 2007, he and his peers formed Paper Republic, a forum for translators of Chinese literature to share information about Chinese books and authors, and discuss how to get them translated and published abroad. Paper Republic now lists over 250+ translators on their forum and they have worked with over 100+ publishers.

If anything is going to stop piracy, then it’s going to be economic pressure.
— Eric Abrahamsen

Mickey: The issue of copyright and piracy in China. I know it’s a very common topic, but do you think the pricing model in China where books are really cheap is good for consumption of literature because it increases the reading base? Or do you think that the pricing will eventually go up? Or is piracy keeping the price artificially low?

Eric: I don’t think piracy is as big of an issue as it used to be. It certainly has not gone away, especially for very popular books. But, it used to be that everything got pirated. It was actually very hard for a publishing house of any size to make money past a certain point. I think the economics of it has changed. It’s just not as profitable anymore to get involved in piracy so fewer books are getting pirated now, only the bestsellers. I do think that Chinese consumers are gradually becoming willing to spend more money for books of higher quality. They’ve been incredibly sensitive to price for years. Anything that was a couple of yuan cheaper, they would’ve been happy to buy a pirated version. I think that’s gradually changing. It’s a little big weird. People are still so insistent that books should be incredibly cheap. Most normal paperback books are somewhere between 25¥ to 35¥  ($3.90 USD to $5.50 USD) which is incredibly cheap but it’s very hard for a publisher to do a good job producing the book when they know that they’re not going to make much money out of it. There’s a changing public perception that books should be more expensive and they should be higher quality but that’s only just starting. It’s the early days for that trend. 

Mickey: How about copyright? If there is less piracy, does that mean there’s an increasing respect for copyright?

Eric: Nope, I don’t think so. I think it’s economics that will squeeze out piracy, not legal knowledge. If it came down to the law, the government could have stopped piracy ten years ago if it just decided to. The law is already in place. What’s lacking is political will. If anything is going to stop piracy, then it’s going to be economic pressure. There is a much stronger awareness of copyright law now, that’s definitely true, and it’s improving quite a bit. Most of what I do is work with sales of translation copyright in and out of China. If we’re dealing with Chinese books which was written like 10 years ago, it’s very common that there was no contract or the contract was one piece of paper saying, “Yes, you can publish my book.” They weren’t even thinking in terms of rights or anything of the sort. That’s really changing. Books that have been published in the past 4-5 years have a much more professional contract, everything is spelled out, and everybody knows who has what rights. And while they don’t always respect what’s in the contract, at least, the contracts are there and people are getting more aware.

Mickey: With the increasing accolades for Chinese writers with Mo Yan (莫言) and the popularity of Su Tong (苏童), and the recent winner of the Nebula award was a Chinese author, is it like a golden era right now for Chinese literature? Is it just greater access in terms of translation to the material or is it just that the writers are becoming better because they’re better trained?

Eric: I think it’s an inevitable consequence of China having more contact with the rest of the world. Culture travels across borders very slowly. At the end of the Cultural Revolution, into the 1980s, Chinese society started to have more contact with the rest of the world but still very little and very slowly. More channels for communication opened up, not just economically, but culturally and socially, and they all are strengthening. I don’t actually think Chinese literature is having some amazing new period of high performance. I think it’s mostly a natural consequence of China emergence to the rest of the world. Publishing is a slow industry, it’s slower than other economic connections and it is now getting around to paying more attention to China. Foreign publishers are starting to learn about Chinese literature. I think it’s just an inevitable process. I actually don’t think Chinese writers are doing much better now than they were before, unfortunately. 

Mickey: As a literary consultant/editor, how different is it from just being a translator? It doesn’t sound like it’s a natural progression for most translators to shift from translating to consulting.

Eric: The consulting part of it is just plain old literary consulting, so helping publishing houses getting into contact with each other and editorial stuff like with Pathlight magazine. I’m editing a series of novella translation for Penguin. That involves picking the novella, finding a translator, editing their translation, and stuff like that. I like it better than just translating. For one thing, I just don’t know that many Chinese writers who are really excited about translating novels and spending the prerequisite 6-9 months on one person’s book, just working on that book and nothing else. There aren’t many books which I would want to do that. Much of the pleasure I derived from translation, I derived equally well from editing other people’s translation. It’s just fun. It’s about thinking about the same questions, but you don’t have to do all the work. Then, there is also a social element, where you’re discussing it with somebody else, you’re having these conversations that I think are really interesting. A lot of that is just as much fun editing as it is translating. You get to do more because somebody else is doing the grunt work so that means you’re working with more writers and working with more translators. You’re not just locked up to this one novel for 9 months. They are very different things and it’s not a normal thing for translators to do to switch between these roles.

Mickey: But you also have the different experience and skill sets that allowed you to take on this editorial and consulting roles. 

Eric: Yeah, but in the beginning, it wasn’t my idea. There was just so little information about Chinese literature out there that I found myself often having to play the role of guide or consultant or whatever. Eventually, that just sort of expanded over time and I realized that I just like it better. 

Mickey: Has Paper Republic evolved the way you originally envisioned it? Or did you just react to what came your way? 

Eric: I never really had that much of a vision for Paper Republic. Several of us translators started it in the beginning and we were just looking for a place where everybody can hang out all night and talk to each other about translation. The vision in the beginning was a meeting place as a social hub and a community. That has come and gone over the years. The site has been more quiet over the past couple of years largely because I haven’t had as much time to put into it. I’m getting back now. In terms of the community, I wish it was stronger but I think it’s doing pretty well. In terms of Paper Republic as a company, I’m revisiting the idea of how to make it a viable, functioning company and hopefully within the next few months, that will be more of a reality. But, I never had that clear of a dream for the thing, it’s just fun to see it there and fun to see people using it.  

Mickey: What do you think of the future of literary translation? Do you think there will be more publishing consultant in China as more people want to tap into the Chinese market? Or is literary consulting already big enough?

Eric: It’s certainly not big enough. There’s hardly anybody else doing what I’m doing. In part that’s because it requires a big investment of time and language study and time and effort just to get to know people here. Partially, it’s also because nobody really expects to make enough from publishing to center their career around this so that’s why I’ve been a little bit foolish, rushing in when nobody else is even interested in [laughter].

Mickey: But you have a monopoly! [laughter]

Eric: But I don’t know what to do with my monopoly! It’s not like I make a lot of money from it. I need to figure how to arrange it a little bit better so I can at least make a living off of it. There’s much more interest in cross-cultural communication. At the same time, the publishing industry itself, both the global and the Chinese industry, are all in this period of uncertainty and upheaval. In some cases, there is blank terror about what they’re going to do in the future. While there is a lot of theoretical interest, there isn’t a lot of confidence that there is money to be made. There is certainly money in selling children’s or educational books in China. But selling Chinese books out of China? Nobody thinks that they’re going to make a lot of money doing that and so that has a knock-on effect of people just not bothering. They take a very pessimistic attitude towards it so while there is interest there, the economics of the whole thing is very odd and people are not certain of what’s going on. A lot of the work I do is either government sponsored, international book fairs, or larger bodies that have vested interest in furthering industry connections. It’s not like individual publishers and publishing houses are all getting really gung-ho and saying, “Hi! We’re going to publish Chinese literature!It’s going to be great! We’re going to love it! Our readers are going to love it!” Nobody is saying that. While this attitude is still here, then it’s going to be hard for things to take off and I probably will continue to be the only person who really bothers doing what I’m doing. 

Mickey: Dreamworks and other studios are grabbing Chinese IPs. They bought The Tibet Code (藏地密码) to try and make a Chinese version of Indiana Jones. Do you think that with the release of these films or media of other Chinese IPs, that the economics will be there?

Eric: For film and media, it’s definitely there. There’s the case of an industry where everybody is making a lot of money, so they’re just rushing in and there’s all kinds of activities and interest. That has rubbed off on literature a little bit in that a lot of studios are very interested in finding stories that can be made into film. In some cases, there have been successes with that and that’s pretty cool. But, the trickle-down effect is pretty minor. That hasn’t had a big effect on the publishing industry as a whole. A lot of Chinese writers have gone on to write teleplays for TV serials or film scripts but that’s already a longstanding tradition in Chinese literature. 

Mickey: Thank you again Eric for taking the time to have this conversation. 

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You can check out more of Eric's work at Paper Republic.

Conversation with Chinese translator Eric Abrahamsen Part I

Eric Abrahamsen's translation of Xu Zechen's Running Through Zhongguancun

Eric Abrahamsen's translation of Xu Zechen's Running Through Zhongguancun

I met Eric Abrahamsen at the Singapore Writers Festival in 2014. He kindly agreed to have a conversation about literary translation, publishing consultation, and the state of Chinese literature. 

Eric has been living in Beijing since late 2001, when he began studying Chinese. He received a PEN translation grant for Wang Xiaobo's My Spiritual Homeland (我的精神家园) and a NEA grant for Xu Zechen's Running Through Zhongguancun (跑步穿过中关村). In 2007, he and his peers formed Paper Republic, a forum for translators of Chinese literature to share information about Chinese books and authors, and discuss how to get them translated and published abroad. Paper Republic now lists over 250+ translators on their forum and they have worked with over 100+ publishers. 

There is a little bit of that but for the vast majority of censorship, that’s not how it happens. The worst of it, I think, is still self-censorship by writers.
— Eric Abrahamsen

Mickey: How did you end up in China? 

Eric: During college, I knew that I wanted to leave America and have an adventure somewhere else, but I didn’t really have much of an idea beyond that. At the time, I was studying international studies at the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. I figured, for some reason, that if I wanted to go abroad, I should study International Studies. It actually doesn’t make any sense when I think about it now but at the time, that was totally my idea. The Jackson School has both area programs and language programs, and so eventually it came down to deciding between learning Arabic and going to the Middle East or learning Chinese and coming to China. I’ve actually been to China before and so I traveled to Tunisia to study Arabic for a summer to see what it was like. After my trip, I concluded that China was more interesting as there were more things going on. At the Jackson School, I basically completed all my degree requirements except for language. Then, I came to China for my last year of university. I completed a whole year of language study in China, sent the language credits back to the school, graduated from a distance, and I’ve been in China ever since. 

Mickey: Why Chinese and not some other East Asian languages like Japanese or Korean?

Eric: The language was very interesting to me. I was more interested in the Chinese language. I came to China once before when I was ten with my family in 1989. It left a big impression on me. I didn’t know what was going on but I was looking around and seeing things. It left a really big impression on me. Then again, in 1999 or 2000, when I was in Thailand, I decided to take a few weeks trip through China. I went overland to Laos and into Yunnan and then did this trip through western China — Yunnan to Gansu then to Tibet and out of Tibet. It was actually a horrible trip. It was the loneliest that I’ve ever been in my entire life and western China was just incredibly difficult to travel around. It was really hard to get around, not knowing the language, and having no preparation, which granted, was my fault. It was a really awful trip but it gave me a bit of a grudge against China and I decided that I was going to learn the language and do it properly the next time around. Those two experiences left powerful impressions on my mind and I think that’s what drew me back. 

Mickey: Reading your biography, you’ve been in Beijing since 2001 and Paper Republic started in 2007. What was going on during 2001-2007? Were you in the process of setting it up?

Eric: Not at all. In the beginning, I didn’t even know that I was going to get into literary translation. I’ve always been very interested in literature and I’ve always wanted to write in one capacity or another. In the beginning, I thought that it was going to be journalism. I thought I was going to be a journalist and write reports from China. For several years, I tried to do that. I worked for a couple of years at a local English magazine. After I left that, I tried to be a freelance journalist. Gradually, the realization dawned on me that I was not cut out for journalism. I would never make a good journalist. I don’t like it. It makes me anxious. I’m just not very good at it. But it took a long time to learn that lesson. I was very stupid. During that time though, as I was living in China, and getting used to the society and making myself at home, my language was improving. I started to get into Chinese literature. That has always been a personal interest of mine and so it seemed natural that after my language reached a certain point where it’s feasible to read books that I would try to read fiction. That slowly crept up on me when I was not paying attention. I was reading books and found a couple of Chinese writers that I really liked and I just found myself naturally wanting to translate. It just seemed like the natural response to reading something in a foreign language that I liked. So I started doing that on the weekends and evenings just for my own pleasure. I translated a couple of essays by Wang Xiaobo (王小波). He’s still probably my favorite writer. I decided to try and get these translations published. I got one of them published and people seemed to like it and I thought Wow! This is pretty interesting. So I gradually shifted to doing translation but I was always doing odd jobs. I was always doing other writings, non-literary translations, or editing jobs. All kinds of stuff. 

Mickey: Can I say that 2001-2007 is your discovery phase?

Eric: It was me being young and clueless and not really knowing what-I-really-wanted-to-do-with-my life phase. I’m sure most people have a phase like that. Mine was just a little bit longer than most. All I knew was that I wanted to write somehow and I had no idea what that meant or how to do it. 

Mickey: As a translator, do you think you have a pulse on Chinese literature? A good grasp on what’s on the rise or which genre is currently popular in China?

Eric: Yeah, absolutely. I actually don’t do as much translation nowadays. I do a lot of publishing consulting and editing of translations. Every aspect of my work now involves learning about Chinese literature and Chinese publishing and helping to interpret that for other people. Particularly, as one of the editors of Pathlight magazine, I spend a lot of time reading short stories by new authors and figuring out what’s going on and seeing what people are reading. I would like Paper Republic to be a place where all that information is. Sometimes I have time to update it, sometimes I don’t. It has fallen behind a little bit, but I feel like the website is where all that information should be. 

Mickey: Can you share what the current trends are? For me, I find it fascinating that sci-fi is picking up in China as sci-fi, historically, is a really difficult genre for Asian countries other than Japan. One plausible explanation is that it is perhaps challenging for these countries, at the current state, to imagine a future where their country is scientifically advanced. But now, I feel like they’re embracing that idea. Do you agree?

Eric: Yeah, I think all of China is getting used to seeing itself as an advanced country and obviously everybody is thinking a whole lot about the future and what’s going to happen to the country and where everything is going. I think right now it’s very easy for Chinese people to think about the future. I think one thing that Chinese science fiction has gotten over, or is in the process of getting over, is going from a very traditional interpretation of science fiction — the space opera, spaceship, hard science, like what people were reading and writing in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s in the US — that’s developing into a little more than what you would call, it would be silly to call it “post-modern science fiction” but something like that, where the books are about more than just a faster-than-light drive. There are more social elements. There is more talk about how technology changes humanity. There are more humanistic elements to the books and I think China is just coming around to that in the past 5-7 years. That means the writings appeal to a lot more people than just hardcore science geeks who want to read the details of the faster-than-light drive. So I think that trend will continue to improve and increase science fiction popularity. 

Mickey: Speaking of science fiction, time-travel was recently banned in TV and other mediums in China. I’m bringing this up because I would like your opinion on the issue of censorship in China. How do you feel about it? Do you think it’s appropriate in certain instances?

Eric: Everybody imagines that censorship is like a bunch of writers trying to write what they want and an army of government officials with red pens crossing things out of the books. It isn’t like that. There is a little bit of that but for the vast majority of censorship, that’s not how it happens. The worst of it, I think, is still self-censorship by writers. It’s writers who know, who have an idea, but know that it would never get published or know that it would be incredibly difficult to get it out there, so they just don’t bother. Or it’s conscious or subconscious edits they make while they’re writing. They might find themselves going in a certain direction and just think I’m not going to do this and dialing it back or changing the plot. I think the worst of what happens is crimping the writer’s imagination right from the very beginning. Everyone thinks of it as the government versus the people, but what people don’t realize is how internalized and socialized politics and government pressures are in China. The worst of the worst that I have seen done in terms of pressure on writers or damage done to their imagination comes from the cliquish aspect of Chinese literature where there is very much an establishment: government bodies, critical establishments, newspapers, magazines, and in order to get published, you have to be friends. This happens in any country, in any publishing industry anywhere, but it’s really, really bad in China. Most writers, if they want to get famous, come to Beijing and start hobnobbing. Then they get to know the editors and the influential journals and start pitching pieces to them, and it creates an atmosphere where everyone is watching each other. Everybody is reading what everyone else has written and wondering Oh, how did he get away with that? or Who should I be pitching my story to? or How should I write so as to please so-and-so? It’s very rare that the writer is just off to some little hole-in-the-wall somewhere in the middle of the countryside where nobody knows about them and just sits down and writes just because they want to write and not because they’re trying to get famous or get published. That does happen. There are writers who do that, but very rare. It is so corrosive to the quality of Chinese literature because it’s an echo chamber. It’s an old boy network and the quality of their writing comes so far down the list of things people are actually worried about. I think that’s horrible. That’s far worse than somebody with a red pen telling you to rewrite something. 

Mickey: Someone told me that authors in country with a high level of censorship or self-censorship in this case have developed a sophisticated system of imagery and tropes as a way to criticize so that they won’t get in trouble. Have you encountered that or do you see that going on right now?

Eric: Mostly that’s something Chinese writers say to make themselves feel better about the situation. Yes, there are ways to work around it but I think the majority of the time, people just don’t say it. The mental model that people are working from is the Soviet Union one. The dissident writers of the Soviet Union and how there really was an adversarial relationship between members of the cultural elite and the government. They were trying so hard with the underground publications and coded messages and all that. The fighting spirit was there. For the vast majority of Chinese writers, the fighting spirit simply isn’t there. It’s not like they’re trying really hard to say all these critical things and finding clever ways to do it. Most of them are just really not interested in writing anything critical. It’s a little bit unfair. There are plenty of writers who try to dig deeper and talk about the roots of social issues, but there’s nothing subversive about it. It’s not like they’re being extra clever in order to avoid censorship. They just tone down the criticism, leave out certain details, and avoid the sharp edges. Blunt the whole thing down. Soften it up.  Blur it a little bit. I don’t see it as a big fountain of creativity where people have claimed that, “Because of this we’re more creative!” I don’t see it at all. 

Mickey: During the Hollywood Studio era, smoking was a way to establish that the couples on screen had sex. You never see them in the act of it, but the next morning, if they’re smoking, it implied that sexual activity had occurred between the characters. Is there some sort of similarity that’s going in China where certain imagery connotes certain things? 

Eric: There’s a little bit of that but is that a good thing?

Part II of this conversation will be posted this Thursday.

* * *

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You can check out more of Eric's work at Paper Republic.

Conversation with photographer Alvin Lim

I met Alvin Lim back in 2010. At the time, he was producing a film. Since then, Alvin has shifted more into photography. I was fortunate enough to have a conversation with him in Singapore before he embarks on a two-year stint in Europe. 

Below is a conversation I had with him over dinner. 

If you’re going to do work as an artist, then I suggest you be hungry to be questioning the accepted paradigm, the sure thing about the medium or certain issues that you want to talk about. Right now, to me, art cannot be done for art’s sake.
— Alvin Lim

Q: How did you get your start?

A: I was doing a diploma in Film Sound & Video at Ngee Ann Polytechnic.

Q: To people unfamiliar with Singapore, is Ngee Ann Polytechnic a high school or a junior college?

A: It’s a vocational training school after secondary school here. A vocational training, a film school, training you to be proficient in filmmaking.

Q: But they don’t train you for film producing though, which is quite different.

A: No, it’s film directing, pretty much the technical stuff.

Q: How did you end up being a film producer?

A: Well, not immediately, my major in school then was Sound actually. My major modules were in Sound. Producing was not the first thing that came to mind as a career option. In fact, at the time, I don’t think most people know what a producer does. Everybody knows what a director, actor, cinematographer do, but not for a producer. To most people at the time in school, a producer was usually a girl who’s good at managing stuff. In that context, I wasn’t good with that at that period of time when I was 17 to 20.

Q: How did you transition from sound to producing?

A: Producing didn’t arrive that early. It was sound, then photography, and then producing.

Q: Photography, not cinematography?

A: Photography, yeah. There was a compulsory module in school which is basic photography. I barely passed the module. Then, 3 years later, I finished my core modules and I had a lot of time to fill in my electives and at the time, I don’t know why, I wanted to do photography as an elective in school. So I kind of beg my way to the same lecturer who gave me a “D” grade for my basic photography. I spoke to the program chair and course leader and they let me do it. So, it was great and it was quite defining. It changed a little bit because my interest shifted from sound to photography. At the same time that I was doing that, I was actually volunteering to do live sound mixing in an auditorium for about 3000 people so I was involved in live sound. But a year into it, I realize that it’s not what I wanted to do so I kind of stop pursuing sound production and just went to photography. But, I haven’t answer your question, what was my first film, have I?

Q: [laughter] No, you haven’t. 

A: My first film is actually when I was in school at Ngee Ann Polytechnic. We have a graduating film at the end. Everyone had to do it. I was a sound designer and music composer for our final graduation piece. I was basically in charge of all things related to sound. It was a 15 minute film.

Q: What’s it called?

A: It’s called The Soldier, set in Singapore during World War II, exploring the brief bond formed between a Japanese and a local soldier.

Q: What happened then after The Soldier?

A: I went to NS (National Service), which most of us did at that time. That was defining again because halfway through my training, I was injured and I was not combat fit. Then, I had a decision to make as there was an opening in two different departments, the film unit in the Singapore Armed Forces, who was in need of a sound engineer, and the other opening was with Pioneer magazine, a monthly magazine that is circulated to servicemen and anyone who subscribed to the military stuff in Singapore. The magazine came back to me first and so I got posted to the magazine to be a photographer and that’s pretty much it. That entire time that I spent there sealed the deal for me because I knew at the time that whichever path I took, after National Service, I was pretty sure that path would be the one that I would carry on and continue doing for a long time. I knew I was going to be doing photography after I finish my national service. I was going to move into photography and might even do journalism.

Q: During that time, you were about 20-22 years old. Once you got out of NS, then you started producing?

A: No. I was still doing photography. I was doing freelance for two years but still kept in contact with former classmates who were still working on films and they would be looking for me to do on set photography for them. So I was still more of a photographer than a producer. It’s only in 2008 when I suddenly decided that I wanted to jump back into productions.

Q: Why?

A: It was through a project. A friend of mine came to me with a proposal to do a short film and a photo exhibition to raise awareness about HIV / AIDs. So, I was like, I know the perfect person to collaborate with, my friend from school and I contacted him and we’re like, yeah, let’s write a script. So, it’s another short film. That’s the second film I did. So, two short films now.

Q: What’s the second film called?

A: August 29th. It was in collaboration with Health Promotion Board of Singapore. I co-wrote the script with him. I co-directed with him. After that short film was done, I was doing a documentary photography on the HIV positive patients in Singapore.

Q: It’s a documentary or a photography? Sorry, I’m a bit confused. 

A: The short film is narrative, a fictional narrative. Other than that, there was also a documentary photography that I was doing on my own. So, it’s one campaign, but two projects. I was involved in both the short film and the documentary photography. That was 2008 and that’s when I went back to school, to Chapman University Singapore to do producing.

Q: Why producing then? After you’ve done photography, why not cinematography?

A: Like I said, initially in school, the producers then were known for mostly being girls because they’re more organized and can do those things better. After doing freelance photography, running my own show, sole-proprietor kind of way, I had to do a bit of scheduling and budgeting and planning on my own. And for some strange reason, at that point in time, I realize that I actually enjoy doing it. I realized that, yeah, I can do this, which was not something I could do years before, not when I was in film school and not when I was in NS or even when I was fresh out of NS. So, it came quite late, this whole sense of organizational awakening.

Q: [Laughter] That’s great, I like the term “organizational awakening.”

A: [Laughter] It came quite late and the chance came for the Chapman program - Creative Producing, which sounded good. There was a chance to go to LA to do an internship. It was a two year program. The professors were from Hollywood and they have a lot of experiences. In hindsight, it was a really good choice to be in school for two years. I got contacts and learned a lot of things in the Hollywood perspective, but I think it’s good, to always have that perspective so something to aspire to in comparison to the industry in Singapore. I particularly learned a lot from them.

Q: After August 29th, you became a full-time producer?

A: No. I was financing my own studies when I was in Chapman so I had to still work as a photographer.

Q: Photographer for the magazine?

A: No, the magazine was just for NS. I was doing photography for whatever jobs I have. At the same time that was happening, I was bringing in jobs to my friends’ production company. Same friend that I was collaborating with for August 29th. He had a partnership with my other friends from film school. So, I started to bring some work to them. The next work I brought was music videos for a local musician. Again, collaboration, but I was doing the lead producing and pretty much everything. The producers here [in Singapore] generally does everything from creative producing to line producing.

Q: Why did you have to find the financing for a music video? The client should have given you the funding.

A: No, the client is a local person and he doesn’t have the financial backing. So I had to look for money to get the video done.

Q: Your client is the musician?

A: No, the client is not a musician. The client is an organization where they decided to use the musician. It’s kind of a tie-up with the musicians so they’ll do promo for them as well. So, I kind of manage to tie all these things together. I found that person who had the power to say yes to give some money to make the music videos. My part was to just get the music videos done.

Q: How many music videos did you do?

A: Two! That was during the first semester of Chapman. 

Q: Do you like music videos? I’m only asking because music videos is also how a lot of filmmakers and producers get their start.

A: It was fun. I wasn’t the director so I didn’t get too much of the creativity, but in terms of story ideas, we again collaborated. We pitched the idea to the organization.

Q: Were you ever interested in directing?

A: No. I could direct my shoot for photography, but I find it difficult to direct for film. I just don’t have the sense for it. When you’re directing for stills, you’re only getting that one moment. That one shot. But when you’re directing for film, it’s a lot more collaborative and I think that goes back to the question, “Why did I go to photography and not cinematography?”. One reason why I went to photography after sound major and not do film stuff for a while is because photography gave me room for creative control and basically, I had to answer only to myself. I could do something with minimal intervention. I could do what I want to do and get it out as a form of art or visual communication piece. I like that. At that point in time, I wasn’t too interested in collaborative work because I found it too emotionally taxing at times.

Q: You produced your second film. You did some music videos. Then, when did you shift again from not producing to pursuing an MA in Photography?

A: While we were in the creative producing program at Chapman, our graduation piece was to have a business plan for work. In school then, two other friends and I, managed to get options from a guest speaker at Chapman. We got the options done, basically practiced whatever we had learned. It was kind of timely as well in terms of how things go about. By the time we graduated, we had two commissions for telemovies. We just created our own company and we got our first jobs — back-to-back telemovies for Okto, a media channel in Singapore that’s mostly targeted at teen and children programming, based on the options that we did for the speaker that was in school. Lots of connections going around.

Q: Yeah, everything is coming together.

A: Yes. So, we worked on the two telemovies and I produced them both. My partners are writers so they took one story each and I was producing both projects. After the wrap for the production of the first telemovie, I switched hats to the second one to do pre-production.

Q: What was the movie called?

A: The first one was called Super Duper Smartimizer, about a device that makes this kid really, really smart. The second one was Christina and the Runaways, which is a musical.

Q: I remembered this! I visited the set one day. It was at the ITE.

A: Oh, yes! It was when we were doing the concert scene. So yeah, it was a musical. That’s a lot tougher to produce as compared to the first telemovie. A lot of coordination.

Q: But you already had experienced with music videos, so in a way, you sort of know what to do.

A: Yeah, everything came together, music production and sound production. 

Q: So after the second telemovie, then what happened?

A: After we wrapped production for the second telemovie, I left the post-production to my partners and then I had an overseas photography gig that I needed to attend to so I left. I went to Europe to shoot wedding photos for my client. We were shooting in Sweden and Paris.

Q: Nice!

A: After the shoot in Paris, I carry on my journey. I did my first backpacking trip in Europe.

Q: Which year was that?

A: 2011. I traveled for two and a half months in Europe then.

Q: Did you pick up French?

A: No. The French weren’t too friendly in Paris. I was just traveling, it was quite fun traveling alone. Went to 8 countries then. It was really fun. Then, I came back. While I was abroad, we got commissioned for TV series for Okto.

Q: Congrats!

A: Thanks, but I came back and I had a different direction. I decided that due to certain conditions of the local industry, like it’s not being ideal for people who are above the line, I decided to go back to photography. Doing the telemovie, I was re-introduced to how tedious it can be to work with a bunch of people who have different ideas, directions, ambitions, aspirations, while still delivering the product. Again, the collaborative process of filmmaking, which I forgot how difficult it was, and plus the fact that I had some personal reservation about the local film industry in terms of longevity. I started to jump back into photography. Then again, I was always doing photography, whether its photography on set or freelancing.

Q: So you were always a photographer.

A: Yeah, it’s always been a parallel track. It’s interesting because both medium are photographic, just one is moving and one is still. It’s always moving in parallel. It depends on what hats I need to put on for which project, then I’ll just put it on. I think it’s complementary to me. It’s not something that is distinctly separate. There’s certain skillsets that’s non-transferable but I’ve always been a photographer. Producing just came along. 

Q: Given your reservation about the local industry, how is it different for a photographer? You think the photography market is better for the local market here? More robust than the film market?

A: To a certain extent. I paid my school through photography. Even in London I was still doing photography work. I have experience and a certain clientele, people always calling me back for work, so yeah, I think it’s more robust. I’m running my own show. I take the jobs I want. Things have changed a little bit since then. DSLR is cheaper and a lot of people are getting in and charging a lot less for things. It’s much more competitive now, but you still can make a living if you have enough experience and contacts. 

Q: You started in Sound, so have you stopped being interested in Sound? What happened with sound for you? I know that you realized you didn’t want to do Sound but, you were interested in the beginning so has all of that left or is it still there dormant?

A: I won’t do it as professionally. It’s still with me. We have to go back even before polytechnic, I was in the school band. I was a drum major, playing music.  When I was 13-16, I was contemplating to be a musician so the Sound thing kind of complement that move, being a Sound Engineer and being a musician. That kind of work.

Q: That means you’ve always been interested in the arts. You never consider jobs that Asian parents usually push for like doctors, engineers, finance, any of that?

A: I could’ve been an accountant, I was quite good at it. Until the school changed a teacher and the teacher was not that effective in teaching and my grades dropped and then I gave up on it. I could’ve been an accountant because I was good at it.

Q: But you weren’t interested in it. I mean, you were good at it, but you didn’t like it. 

A: No, I was interested in it until they changed the teacher. Then, the interest was gone. You’re right though, it’s mostly been the creative things — music, sound, film and photography. A thing you didn’t know, the film school wasn’t my first choice. My choices were then quite “Asian”. I studied Electronics and computer engineering for one semester. Two weeks into the course, I hated it and wanted to get out, but I had to finish the entire semester because I wanted to transfer from this engineering school to film school, but they won’t allow me to leave, I had to finish a semester and I had to score as well. So, I had to endure three months of engineering. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do soldiering. I was really bad at it.

Q: How about writing? For film, you collaborated a lot, that means you have ideas. You ever consider writing or producing something of your own work? Has there ever been a project, that’s like, “this is mine”?

A: August 29th is somewhat that. Other than that, not really. Part of creative producing is being able to identify good story, emphasis on good storytelling structure and most recently, my classmate and I collaborated again to see if we can work on something. He wanted to do his first feature. I used whatever I learned at Chapman to complement whatever idea he had. We came up with an outline for a feature, not sure when he’s going to bring it up for the development grant, but that’s something I written.

Q: Is August 29th your favorite film that you worked on?

A: No, I don’t think I have a favorite film to be honest.

Q: Come on! Really? So, you like all your work equally?

A: No, I don’t like them equally.

Q: Which one do you like least? Was there a film that you would have done something differently?

A: At that point in time, it was the best that we could do. In retrospect, I don’t like any of them. I’m in a different stage of my life now and when I look back, I just think…

Q: It could’ve been done better?

A: Well, at that point in time, no. At that stage in our lives, that’s the best we could do at the point in time. I don’t like them now because it feels like, yes, they could be better, and at this point in time, it could be better so I don’t like it. Do you know what I mean? I’m not sure if I’m being hard, I think I am being hard. I don’t hate it. I won’t say it’s my best film, not like I’m Christopher Nolan and I would say that Prestige is my best film.

Q: How about photography?

A: I have more favorite things in photography.  I think, right now, my favorite piece would be my graduation piece from my MA work. The MA was another turning point in my life. I think I mentioned this before, the MA from London, the University of Westminster, it’s a Masters in Art in Photography Studies. The program does not deal too much with the technical stuff. It’s actually more about photographic theories and it’s something that I had no idea existed when I was here, working as a professional photographer. I was looking for a change, I felt that I was hitting a ceiling here. I could not break out from certain limitations, like I hit a roof and I couldn’t break through the roof.

Q: Creatively or technically?

A: Creatively. I couldn’t think of anything else that didn’t seem too contrived in terms of the conceptual work I was trying to do. Everything seems a bit trivial and childish. I was looking for a way to improve myself, increase the capacity that I can in that area. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting when I was going to the MA course, but once it started, the first few lessons, I knew I was in the right place because every lesson was pretty much mind-blowing. New tools for me to learn to craft the message behind the photograph and London and Paris is pretty much the birthplace of photography. They have a long history and university departments that are specialized in photography.

Q: What’s your graduation piece called?

Alvin Lim's graduation piece -  Keys

Alvin Lim's graduation piece - Keys

A: It’s called Keys. It could mean many things and the reason I’m happy with the work is because it deals with the things I learned in the course. One of the things is a theory called semiotics, the study of signs. Keys was based on that idea. Keys, when you hear it, you’ll think it’s keys to the door, but actually the work is a still-life work that is based on the computer keys — keyboard keys. So, there’s a play on words as well, semiotics and that’s part of the whole process. In fact, the keyboard keys itself has certain symbols as well which have their own meanings. I felt that I was able to conceptualize and yet have a very workable framework, there’s a certain kind of rigor to it to a certain extent. 

Q: You’re technically a self-taught photographer, right? You had a photography course, the black and white, but it wasn’t a degree in photography. After your two courses, you were pretty much self-taught.

A:  Yeah, on the job mostly. Back to National Service, most of the people there were professionals. They’ve been there for a while and part of our work involved being the photographer for the Ministry of Defense so that means sometimes I get to travel. One of the most memorable period of time was in 2004, there was a massive earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia. Singapore Armed Forces was volunteering our resources and expertise to the Indonesian government because it happened so quickly, no one knew how big of a disaster it was. It was a disaster relief operation and what I needed to do as a photographer was to cover this and sometimes have photos that would be delivered to the press, Singapore and everywhere else. So, that was a kind of baptism by fire. I had to deliver the photographs because sometimes I was the only photographer and the media relations needed to forward that piece of news to external news agencies. It’s National Service, so I’m serving my country, but at the same time, it was a training ground for me to be a professional photographer.

Q: That’s a lot of natural light.

A: Yes, it was more documentary or editorial photography.

Q: So, what about your studio work? Studio lighting, was that on the job too? Or did you train yourself?

A: Studio came after NS, when I was freelancing. I was assisting another photographer who was doing his studio work. That’s where I picked it up. Prior to freelancing, everything was street, documentary photography, photojournalistic kind of thing.

Q: What’s the funniest story you have on a film or photography set? Any memorable moments that stood out?

A: [Long silence] On set? A lot of times I was making sure the production is running smoothly, on time, on schedule, and on budget.

Q: That’s a good producer. No one was goofing around? No honest mistake that turned out to be…you know…

A: No, I don’t think we had any of that.

Q: What would be your advice for someone who wants to be a photographer in Singapore or pursue the creative arts here?

A: I think to be hungry. To study more. Practical and theoretical, not just practical theory, you know, not just how to set up lights. To understand the medium and to read more about the history of the medium. It really depends, if you’re a working photographer, there’s certain things you need to worry about which an art photographer would not have to worry about. Right now, as a photographic artist and working in the framework of contemporary / fine art, I’m more concern about having works that would change perspective on certain issues — social issues or something — that will question the boundary of what photography is, or at least to understand what photography is. An example is that in most Asian countries, it’s still quite apparent that a lot of people/consumers/mainstream people, when they see a photograph, they take for granted that it’s sort of the truth, there’s an element of truth in it. Obviously, it’s a representation of a certain event or someone was there to capture the event physically and it’s been seen as evidence or use as evidence for truth. But in Europe, this isn’t the case, it’s been thrown out. There’s no singular truth in photographs. This is something that I only encountered when I was doing my MA. If you’re a working photographer, I say you need to be as hungry as you can to do the best with the things that you want to do as a professional photographer. If you’re going to do work as an artist, then I suggest you be hungry to be questioning the accepted paradigm, the sure thing about the medium or certain issues that you want to talk about. Right now, to me, art cannot be done for art’s sake. I see that art has a social impact, one way or another, or at least bring it to consciousness, certain things that might be swept under the carpet or not talk about or think about. Right now, art that would interest me, would be art that has a little snug of politics, sociology, and something more thoughtful, more intellectual, something more cerebral and yet at the same time, able to communicate something through the art, through the piece, not something too obscure, unless it’s abstract for a good reason, but the framework and method behind doing it is still very important.

Q: How different is it to be a photographer in Singapore as compare to a photographer in Europe?

A: It’s very competitive in Europe. There’s a lot of photographers, more so than in Asia. They have a heritage of photography since the invention of photography. They already have institutions that are training photographers from universities. For us, it’s not as much. In Singapore, there’s only one university that you can major in photography, which is NTU, that’s the only one where you can have a “proper” education. Most working photographers either learned it through apprenticeship or self-taught to a certain extent, on the job learning and then get to a level where they’re very proficient in the work.

Q: But there are advantages to not having such a rich history. In a way, you can start fresh. You can question things that people with heritage might find it difficult to question.

A: I have not encountered that. I have not encountered someone who has not been trained, or anyone, if you talk to anyone about photography, photographic theory, I think they would quite naturally think it’s about the practical theory and not about the theories that are embedded in photography itself. For example, it’s being used as apparatus of power both in colonial time and not. The function of photography in society.

Q: You think, as an art form, it’s more widely accepted in Europe.

A: Yes, for sure. So, photographers here [in Singapore] need to be hungry. 

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You can check out more of Alvin's work on Facebook or his personal website

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