Now in his 70s, Tan Song Kow serves in not one but two ministries in CHC, with gladness in his heart. He sits down with City News to talk about his love for photography, the elderly and the Lord.
Tan Song Kow is a familiar face in City Harvest Church. Sporting a distinguished head of white hair, he is always neatly dressed in a shirt and pants, toting camera equipment that looks too heavy for him. To churchgoers, he is a photographer who strides up and down the hall capturing beautiful moments during worship service. To those who know and respect him, he is “Uncle SK”—a mentor and a faithful volunteer in the house of God. To bereaved families, he is the funeral director of The Resting Place, which is his family business.
Song Kow’s love for cameras began at the age of 10 when his father bought him a small box camera. He fell in love with it and started learning to take photographs. He would follow the instructions on the back of the box of the film he was using and try different camera settings for different conditions. “It was sometimes slightly overexposed or underexposed, but I would still get a photo. So, I’d say I was a natural photographer,” he says.
In secondary school he had a teacher who was a photography enthusiast. This teacher set up a dark room and let Song Kow freely use it to learn whatever he liked. For three years, he learned film processing techniques from this teacher until the school shut down the unauthorised dark room.
Song Kow would also learn from photographers back in the day when going to take one’s photo or family photos at a photo studio was the rage. “The ‘uncles’ there would look at my photos, comment and give me a few pointers. That’s how I learnt,” he relates.
But as he grew older, other commitments began to fill his time and photography took a backseat. “Also, it was very expensive to develop a photo in those days,” he adds. “One photo would cost me 75 cents to print.” It was a princely sum, considering the fact that it only cost 60 cents to buy a carton of eggs back in the 1960s.
That was why Song Kow rejoiced when digital cameras became available in the 1990s and 2000s. But at that time, he was raising his family and had to stretch every dollar he earned. “I did my research for two years before I settled on buying a Canon DSLR,” he says. Interestingly, he bought the camera lens in 2006 before he bought the body. “I knew that if I bought the lens, I would be committed.”
The first item he invested in was a 70-200mm lens that set him back $3,000. He was so determined that he cashed out his paycheck right after getting it, and went straight to the shop. The next month, he did the same thing and bought a 24-70mm lens.
“These two were the ‘workhorse’ lenses and I knew I had to have them,” he says. When he received his paycheck on the third month, he knew that he could no longer indulge in his hobby. “I was eyeing the 85mm lens, but my conscience was pricked. I knew had to be fair to my family,” he shares with a smile.
Half a year later, he finally bought the camera body. That was just a few months before he signed up for the Photography Ministry in CHC, where he still puts his gear to work.
A HEART FOR THE ELDERLY
Song Kow came to City Harvest Church in 1999. Today, his wife also serves off and on in Dialect Church. Of his four grownup children, one is also a CHC member with three kids that attend Harvest Kidz. This grandfather of five is one year shy of his platinum celebration, but he serves in two ministries with the energy of someone half his age: he is a photographer in the main weekend English service, and also a volunteer with the Dialect Service.
CHC’s Dialect Service was, in fact, his first ministry. “Back then I was going through a difficult period as I was diagnosed with a heart problem,” he shares. “I was in the hospital waiting to go for heart bypass surgery when I heard the Lord speaking to me in a peaceful voice. He asked me, ‘Son, what have you done for me?’ When I heard that, I immediately knew it was the Lord because of the peace I felt—I’ve never experienced that sort of peace before.”
Right after his heart bypass procedure, Song Kow signed up to serve in Dialect Service. “Basically, I love two ministries and one of them is the children’s ministry. But with my (heart) condition, there’s no way I can run after the children. So, I thought Dialect Service would be where I could easily integrate,” he explains. He was in his 50s when he started serving the dialect-speaking elderly of the church.
Even though he was given 30 days of medical leave following his surgery, Song Kow zealously went on visitations with the other volunteers. For three months, he would drive to Queenstown to visit the elderly members. “Later on, I was given the task of following up on the walk-ins (visitors to CHC’s church in Jurong West) who live in the West.”
For the past 18 years, Song Kow has served faithfully in Dialect Service, turning up every week to help in whatever way he could. He attributes his long service to the significance of the ministry.
“After a few months (of serving), I started to realise that Dialect Service is very different. It’s very meaningful because we are really reaching out to those in the ‘highways and the byways’, which is what God commands us to do,” says Song Kow.
“Another thing is the elderly that we visit—they are very happy to see us. All of them tell us the same story, saying that they are lonely. They will also tell us all their secrets—things that they wouldn’t even tell their family,” he continues with a laugh.
“Soon, we find that we have developed a meaningful relationship. We become more like a family to them than outreach volunteers. They know that I’ll visit on a certain day at a certain time, and they look forward to my visit, and they sometimes prepare simple things for me. That shows me that they appreciate us and love us.”
To Song Kow, “it’s such a privilege to partner with Jesus in what He is doing for them. I can’t do big things, but I will do the small bits and pieces that have been given to me.”
SERVING GOD THROUGH PHOTOGRAPHY
In 2008, CHC held its inaugural Asia Conference, which brought together preachers from all over the world for a regional audience. The church made a call to its members to serve at the conference and Song Kow jumped at the chance to put his photography skills to good use. That was when he joined the Photography Ministry.
After a few years of serving in this ministry, Uncle SK was able to integrate his serving as he began taking photographs for the Dialect Service. When the Dialect Service set up its social media platforms, he also volunteered to upload photos onto its Facebook page.
He explains, “I just took it upon myself to select some photos, edit them and put it on the Dialect Service’s Facebook page.” He did it simply because he saw how busy the full-time staffers were, and since he has full access to the photos, he is happy to go the extra mile.
Song Kow’s most recent endeavour has been to train the next generation of photographers in the Photography Ministry. His training philosophy is simple, “I always believe that it’s not difficult to train someone in photography. You just need to let the person be involved, feel happy and develop a desire to take photos.”
He gave the example of one teenager he took under his wing. “I only taught him the basics, handed the camera to him and said, ‘Go and shoot whatever you want. No restrictions (while taking photos) during the service.’ I also encouraged him to bring his camera when he goes out with his friends,” he says.
Song Kow explains that teaching a newbie too much about technique will only cause him to imitate the teacher’s style. “I want this young person’s own style to evolve,” he says.
His love for God compelled him to go as far as to gift his student with a DSLR camera. “Cameras are not expensive these days because they are digital. If a student shows interest and I can help him grow his interest, why not? He doesn’t have to become a pro, but he would be learning a skill he can use later on,” he says.
PARTNERING WITH JESUS IS HIS PRIVILEGE
One thing Song Kow misses today is “the big events in Singapore Expo” where CHC’s services and events such as Asia Conference used to be held. “We would be running from one place to another because there was a lack of photographers,” he remembers, laughing. “Those were the fun days. Photographers are fearless people. If a photo must be taken, we must take it. No compromise.”
To Song Kow, serving is a joy and a privilege. “It doesn’t feel like ‘serving’ because these are things I love to do, and I look forward to them. It’s not tiring at all. I always tell the younger people in the ministries, ‘if you don’t find joy in serving, then don’t serve’,” he says.
“I promised the Lord, ‘The first part of my life, I lived for myself. The next part of my life, I will live for You’. I told Him I will serve Him to the end of my days, and what I need from Him is good health so that I can continue to serve.”
The world may define a successful life as one where you retire with lots of money. But looking at Song Kow, a truly successful life is to live each day walking with the Lord and serving His purpose with joy.