In Remembrance of Philip

I learnt that Philip has passed on.

I rediscovered his book of photography “Singapore by The Back Door” recently while unboxing some of my memories. It was a gift from him 20 years ago. I painted Light Through Window Shutters from one of the photos. Just two days ago someone found my blog and told me  that coincidentally, on the day that I painted that photo, he had met with  motorbike accident in Malaysia. Philip fell into a coma, woke and was his usual cheerful self, but passed away on 1 Oct. He was in his 70s.

It now seems quite strange now that the second photo I painted from his collection was Graveyard of the Flowers.

When I looked at his coffee table photobook yesterday, I realise why I like his photos. He paid attention to things that we do not normally notice, the little things. He wanted us to see things as they are, not spruced up for the camera. He liked to focus on small, telling details. Not the big picture. This is how I like to take photos too. My husband likes landscape photos. I like the small things. One little aspect of that landscape, a flower, the fence, someone’s shoe. Maybe it is because I live a small life.

I kept thinking about Philip and what a free spirit he must have been. And I would like to share his work with you.

These photos were taken a long time ago, more than 20 years ago. Many of these aspects of Singapore life captured by Philip are now just memories or have take different forms.


My Friend Philip Little by shanlung

Philip’s Final Journey by shanlung


“Siingapore by the Back Door” (Photography by Philip Little with words by Ilsa Sharp. Published 1991)


“The ‘ordinary’ kitchenwares of Singapore’s simplest restaurants and coffee-shops are speaking in their bright simplicity. Among the most familiar local wares, the enamelled tin mug and the course-pot blue rice bowl.” -Ilsa Sharp


“You do not have to look at the mark on the base to see the ‘Made In China’ sign – it’s written all over them. Common they may be, but they inspire affection and emotions associated with ‘home’.” – Ilsa Sharp


“You cant’ get cooler than this tank of fresh lime juice looks, at one of Singapore’s drink-stalls.”-Ilsa Sharp


“Almost nothing says ‘Singapore’ as clearly as the forest of bamboo washing poles sticking out of high-rise windows, festoooed with undies and shirts. This is a popular way of sunning clothes that the authorities have been unable to stop the practice, disliking its visual anarchy.”-Ilsa Sharp


“…So in a way, the brightly coloured, laminated poles stand both for the tenacity of the Singaporean traditions, and for the stubborness of the people.”-Ilsa Sharp


“It may seem an unromantic thought, but the tropical colour of Singapore is perhaps better seen in humble household artefacts made of brilliant plastics, than in the blue skies or exotic blooms.”-Ilsa Sharp


“Chinatown streetscapes are always full of surprises of the sort that Philip Little savours. Perhaps only the keenest eye would have spotted the birghtly coloured parrot high up behind the louvres. This is the kind of facade which Singapore tries to preserve, but’s the secret life behind them that the photographer tries to convey through his lens.”-Ilsa Sharp


“The old ways survive behind the shuttered windows of Chinatown, as this snatched glimpsed of men engrossed in a mahjong game shows. On still, hot nights, the clatter of mahjong tiles shatters the peace of quiet back alleys. But this was a sound far more common when Philip Little first arrived in Singapore 17 years ago, than it is today.”-Ilsa Sharp


“The elderly aunties who owned the umbrellas abandoned their tea and chit-chat and rushed outside to see what this strange man was doing, apparently photographing the prettily-tiled wall. Would he like the umbreallas moved away? No, no! So let’s put a few more umbrellas for him then…”-Ilsa Sharp


“Decay is a macabrely fascinating feature of the older parts of Singapore town….But amid decay, life with a capital ‘L’ goes on, as the open window reveals, bananas and all.” – Ilsa Sharp


“The ubiquitous condensed milk-can is of immense utilitarian value in practical Singapore: slung on a pink plastic string, it is most often used to carry coffee and tea home from the street-side stalls, a splendid example of un-selfconscious recycling. Here, it has a semi-scared function – as a joss-stick holder for incense offerings to the gods dwelling in a spirit-tree.”-Ilsa Sharp


“Easily passed by, this scene is repeated myriad of times all over Singapore. Once frozen in view, however, it seduces your eyes to linger over the colours, the sharps, the textures o daily life – in this case, even in the backyard of the gods, a temple.”-Ilsa Sharp


“The interplay of light and shadow gives this still-life of clogs on a ceramic-tiled floor its special feel. once upon a time, most Singapore resounded to the clip-clop of clogs like these, especially in the wet markets, where vendors used them to raise themselves above the messy floors.”-Ilsa Sharp


“Recycling is natural to traditional and poorer, simpler societies. The newly-born ‘Greens’ of sophisticated modern Singapore will find they have much to learn from the old pre-Green ways. Anything – a plastic bag, a soft drink bottle – is a potential carrier for a ‘pot-plant’, a special herb treasured for its flavour or medicinal properties. The Singer Oil bottle seems to add a certain something to the picture, although Philip is not quite sure what.”-Ilsa Sharp


Philip Little

Philip, his book, and the little red sailboat he called his second wife.

Philip, his book, and the little red sailboat he called his second wife.

24 thoughts on “In Remembrance of Philip

    • Thanks Lizzie. Yes, when a form of expression is seen just as it is and not competitive, we get to see how uniquely special and different each of us are and yet see that there is something that still connects us.

  1. Only just found today about Philip having kicked the proverbial bucket today (7th August 2013). I worked with Philip in Singapore throughout the mid 80’s. So many stories…all funny…all strange. He did my wedding photos for free in his studio when he lived in that house under the Sentosa cable cars. Trouble was, they didn ‘t come out because of a loose cable to the flash unit.( This was before digital and laptops etc); The five foot monitor lizard that appeared in his garden one day, hissing and angry; The wonderful photo he took of a bum for a client, B&D, which no magazine in the republic would use citing it as too risque for 1984.; only found out his real name Pring, years later ….a week we spent shooting in Sarawak for a new hotel for Sheraton, who then turned round and said it had actually sold the whole thing to Holiday Inn;.. I gave him a tape of Voyage Round My Father, which he would quote at every available opportunity for years…..RIP

    • Hi George, thank you for dropping by and sharing your thoughts and memories of Philip. I did not know Philip very well but he had struck me as such a free spirit, so spontaneous and enthusiastic, that I felt the world had lost something when he passed on.

      • He was the Spike Milligan, the Peter Sellers, the Ben Gunn, the millionaire and the homeless man all rolled into one; the expat, the local, the dyed in the wool Englishman with his pot of marmalade and his tweeds, by turns. I keep remembering things. At my wedding dinner ( at the Hyatt, Scotts Road ) I gave him my nightingale call, I don’t know what possessed me. This was made by a venerable company in Covent Garden and as supplied to the Royal Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic etc. It does sound very authentic and is used in the classical repertoire in some frivolous pieces by Haydn, and lesser known Italian composers etc Throughout the video of the dinner, you can hear Philip blowing this thing almost continuously, especially during speeches…….

      • Haha. You should have known better than to give that to him, especially before your wedding dinner. Now the nightingale’s call would be etched permanently in your mind. Philip has left an unforgettable tune behind. : )

  2. I too am very sad to learn just today that Philip Little died recently. I wasn’t privileged to know him well but met him once on one of his visits to the British Council where we chatted about photography and motorcycles – both passions of mine. I’ve kept a copy of “Singapore by the Backdoor” on my bookshelves ever since it was published and it has been a constant reminder that there is much visual treasure in the commonplace and the everyday if one only has eyes to see it. As John Hedgecoe once said, “Good photographs are everywhere and all around you”. Philip saw it so much clearer than I ever could. Those images are a fond record of the Singapore I first encountered when I came in the late 70’s and which has all but disappeared now.

    Just last week, I picked up the book and while turning the pages, it occurred to me to try and look Philip up. He probably wouldn’t have remembered me but I thought why not send an email just to say hello? Alas, I shall always regret having left it too late but will always treasure Philip’s book.

    • Hi Trevor, thank you for dropping by and sharing your thoughts about Philip and the Singapore we knew not too long ago. Yes, much has changed here. But Philip had frozen some moments of time for us in “Singapore by the Backdoor”. It is wonderfully strange that a few of us thought about him recently -unfortunately he had just left us. But it seems the spirit of Philip lives in his book and in those who remember him and this has brought us to this common place in cyberspace. I am so glad I posted about Philip : )

  3. Hi,ter
    I knew Phil Little in 1966/1967 in London..I spent many hours with him and his dog called Scrapps.We lived in Hampstead. We spent hours in the Flask and The Holly Bush..I learnt a lot from him. He was good company..Then he went away at the end of the sixties.I never saw him again.
    All best wishes,
    Michel Prigent

    • Hi Michel. Thanks for sharing. I can imagine what a wonderful and magical time you and Philip must have had in swinging 60s London. With Scrapps trotting along. Free spirits. Thanks for dropping by.

  4. Hi Monica, I just came across your site while browsing for further information on Philip Little. I am from the professional photographic fraternity and am currently writing a book on three post war generations of professional photographers of Singapore. Philip will be among the 50 featured. Sadly I have briefly met Philip only once in the late 80s, but my many photographer friends who know him well were always full of his stories. For my article on him, I have spoken to a few of them and also Vernon Cornelus of the 1960s’ The Quest, in whose house Philip had lived for three years. I tried to talk to Eric the butcher to whom he bequeathed his estate but he was evasive. I sincerely appreciate if I can help me by putting me in contact with people who remember the times and life of Philip; especially his final days on Earth, and his funeral.

    Thank you and best regards
    Henry Tan

  5. Thank you, George, and thank you Monica.
    My article on Philip is done; all of almost 2,800 words which is the longest among the fifty professionals to be featured in my book. My average for the others are about 1,500 words. I was, since my post here, able to talk to quite a few mutual friends; with the aforesaid Vernon contributing the most bits & pieces which I painstakingly stitched together. That said, I will still drop a line to Glenn Bruce. I have earlier tried to contact shanlung at his blog but my numerous attempts failed to get through. I have no idea why.
    What I lack is photos, preferably those not published before in print and electronic media. A friend is arranging to bring me to his last home in Batu Pahat to see his former neighbours next week. Hopefully, they can dig out some images. Vernon is also going to ransack his own home for his old missing collection. If these two avenues fail, I will resort to lift some from Philip’s book which another friend has an autographed copy. (I am sure Philip won’t sue me for “stealing” his pics, haha). I would like a couple of his funeral pics as well, and the only available source (pending my visit to Batu Pahat which might not be fruitful), right now is shanlung’s blog which I am hesitant to use without his permission. Maybe you can help me by seeing if you can contact him. Its rather urgent now, as the book is undergoing editing and layout for publication hopefully in December.
    I am also late in my reply as I was away in the Philippines chasing after another subject; George Gascon, the late Lee Kuan Yew’s favourite photographer who is now leading a retired life as a farmer in the province. Thankfully, I got what I want on him.


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