PIG China

Facetime with adventurer/filmmaker Stefen Chow

by Crystal Wilde

Despite Singapore’s year-round tropical climate and a typography of just 163 meters at its highest point, Malaysia-born director Stefen Chow climbed every mountain he could find. “For me, it wasn’t so much that I had a sudden love for nature, but rather I felt like mountains give you the opportunity to discover yourself and your connection with others. This is something you don’t get to do everyday in an urban, cosmopolitan society,” says Chow.

© Stefen Chow

Following several Himalayan expeditions, the ultimate challenge came knocking at age 25, when alma mater, the National University of Singapore, funded Stefen and team’s Everest attempt in celebration of its centennial. Chow took photos every step of the way, and realized that mountains were not his only love. “Up until that point, my relationship with photography was just taking snaps on holiday and at parties,” he says. “But being able to document our journey as we climbed the highest mountain in the world felt like photography had a higher purpose.”

© Stefen Chow

Stefen landed his first [badly] paid print job on the merits of his Everest portfolio. He spent a year snapping beauty pageants, student events and disgruntled aunties before deciding to move to New York City to further pursue his photographer’s dream. While drilling fundamentals in night school, Chow began to connect with magazine editors at TIME, National Geographic and News Week. There, he witnessed firsthand the rapidity with which digital photography was replacing film in the city’s newsrooms. It was then that Chow took his first steps into filmmaking. Stefen Chow, the director, was being born. “I took classes and studied cinematography and movies, so I had a pretty early head start in seeing how my way of looking at still photography could transit over to video,” says Stefen.

Stefen Chow

While working in New York, Chow realized the obsession editors had with China and her upcoming Olympics. Upon returning to Singapore, Chow and partner Huiyi Lin discussed their options and, after exchanging marriage vows, packed up and made the move to China’s bustling capital, Beijing. More than 12 years later, Chow has no regrets. “China is still a very exciting place,” he says. “It’s hard to do an interview in 2020 without talking about the pandemic, but China is one of the few markets where content is still being created at this time. I’m very grateful to be here.”  

© Stefen Chow

Chow’s professional life revolves around filmmaking and photography. He still lives in Beijing, China with his two children and wife/artistic partner Lin. Stefen has worked across a range of industries and genres in 40 different countries, shooting artists, celebrities and billionaires. As a director, Chow shies away from pigeon-holing the aesthetics of his style, but says he always starts by striving to understand and listen to his subject. “I don’t project so much on the person. I’d rather under-stand what makes them tick, what makes them do the job they do or take the course they’ve taken,” he says. “I have always seen photography and video as an excuse to peer into people’s lives, and I’ve peered into many through this job.”

© Stefen Chow

© Stefen Chow

One notable ‘life’ he had the pleasure of peering into is that of superstar Canadian-Hong Kong celebrity Edison Chen. Tasked with shooting a documentary-style spot for Chen’s personalized line of Nike Air Jordan shoes, Stefen found himself facing numerous constraints such as scheduling time with the A-lister and the client’s grip the creative process. As is his M.O., however, Chow still wanted to understand his subject. “To be able to connect with someone like that takes some pressure,” he explains a year on. “In the end, it was how do you find a way to show this person when they have [already] been shown in so many ways ?” Ultimately, Chow succeeded in revealing a truly authentic side to Edison Chen — ambitious and determined, but at heart, a humble Jordan fan boy.

Air Jordan X EDC © Stefen Chow

This shift towards authenticity and the ‘true self’ is something Chow sees with increasing frequency in both social media and in commercial advertising in China. Whereas a decade ago, every shoot was planned to a t, and every photo retouched to perfection, consumers are now looking for something that feels real. “More and more Chinese brands have managed to show a side that’s more genuine and sometimes even vulnerable,” he says. “These are the stories that connect.” Alongside his commercial commissions, Chow finds time with his economist wife to work on personal artistic projects, as one half of Chow and Lin. The couple’s award-winning, statistically-rooted and socially conscious collections have been exhibited across three continents, including at St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Photography and Beijing’s CAFA Museum.

© Stefen Chow

Chow is determined to continue learning and evolving as the parameters change, much as they did when Instagram came on the scene in 2010 and solidly imposed the square format. Stefen hopes his ability for growth will be everlasting. “I fear the day I walk into a shoot and think there’s nothing to learn because I know everything,” says Chow. “I always think that would be a scary day, because where is the passion that allows me to continue?”  

© Stefen Chow 2020 Director’s Reel