A Passion for Birds: Lady of the birds

Adeline Chia, Straits Times 6 Jan 08;

Cancer hasn't stopped Ong Kiem Sian from compiling a book on bird photography which comes with a foreword from Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew

SHE has been dubbed the 'first lady of bird photography in South-east Asia', but Ong Kiem Sian cuts no imposing figure.

The veteran bird photographer is a petite 62-year-old with a shock of white hair. Her 1.53m frame barely tips the scales at 38kg.

She hardly looks strong enough to lug around almost 10kg worth of camera and video equipment, let alone wade in thigh-deep waters, trek for hours in the wild and spend mornings baking under the sun - all for the perfect shot.

But the optometrist by profession, who was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2006 and is still suffering from it, has published a book of bird photography. It features 262 species of birds from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Titled A Passion For Birds, the book spans 16 years of work and comes with a foreword from Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, for whom she has made spectacles for 30 years at F.J. Isaacs, an optometry clinic in Clifford Centre.

In it, Mr Lee says he first discovered Ong's passion for birds when she passed him a DVD she made of birds feeding their young. He then asked her to do a photo record of the birds in the Istana grounds, but she said that nearly all the birds there had been recorded.

On the bird pictures in Ong's book, he said: 'These photos are the products of painstaking efforts. I wish the book success.'

Ong says the book was a way to explain to her patients why she left her job suddenly after her illness.

She tells LifeStyle in her semi-detached home in Goodman Road in Katong: 'I have patients I saw since they were teenagers, and now their children come to me. This is a way to tell them about my condition.'

One thousand copies of her book, priced at $45, are on sale at F.J. Isaacs, nature bookstore Nature's Niche at the Botanic Gardens, Genesis Health Food Restaurant in Lorong Telok in Boat Quay and Revelation, a book shop in Beatty Road. Proceeds will go to charity.

Bird photography may be a niche interest in Singapore but Ong is a prominent figure in the field. Her book is one of the few coffee-table books of regional bird photography printed here, and her images have been used in Nature Watch, the Nature Society's magazine, and international bird reference books.

But in the veteran's house, only one print of her countless images hangs on the walls.

She is practical about this. 'I blow a print up, hang it up, but I have a better shot later. If I keep doing this, my house will have so many pictures.'

Strange influence

SHE came into birdwatching later in life. Born in 1946 in Solo, Central Java, to a well-off family of four children, Ong started work as a secretary with oil company Caltex in Indonesia.

In 1969, she left to study optometry in Holland.

Following her family who had already set up a peanut butter factory in Singapore, she moved here to work at F.J. Isaacs in 1972, where she worked for more than 30 years until she left her job due to her illness.

When she was 42, she married a school principal, now retired and aged 78. They have no children together, but he has two children from his previous marriage.

The call of the wild came when she attended a talk on bird photography by bird expert Morten Strange in 1990. The Danish-born Mr Strange, 55, is the co-owner of Nature's Niche and the author of four bird books.

He is also a partner of nature book publisher Draco Publishing, which put out her book.

Recalling her excitement then, Ong says: 'He said you had to climb a tree, wade in water, for a picture - it seemed so interesting.'

So she invested $450 in a lens - she already had a camera - and started photographing birds which landed in her garden. She has not looked back since.

She started exploring other places in Singapore, such as Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and Mandai Orchid Garden; Malaysia's Panti Forest Reserve and Fraser's Hill; and more recently Indonesia, in Sulawesi and Halmahera.

As her enthusiasm grew, she also started venturing into video, and bought a video camera to record nesting birds.

In her archives are rare footage of the Rusty-breasted Cuckoo usurping a Pied Fantail's nest, a behaviour which is rarely seen and even more rarely recorded. She also has close-view photos of the hard-to-spot female Violet Cuckoo and photos of the feeding habits of the bright orange Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher, gobbling up frogs, bugs and crabs.

On her passion for rare images, she says: 'It's like collecting stamps. You want to have something you don't have yet.'

Rarity comes at a price. When she goes 'birding' - short for birdwatching, as the enthusiasts call it - she wakes up at 5.30am to get to a forest by dawn, when the birds are most active, to make full use of the daylight hours.

If she has to travel further, she wakes up at 4am.

She once waded through part of MacRitchie Reservoir to get to the opposite bank for a glimpse of a Black-capped Kingfisher. She then had to set up a camouflage screen in front of her and stay still for hours to wait for the kingfisher to come.

Another time, she sat under Sime Road forest bridge, in ankle-deep water, to stalk a Blue-eared Kingfisher.

Why go to all these lengths for birds?

She says with a laugh: 'Friends ask me why I don't go to Jurong BirdPark and shoot the birds there. Birdwatching is a challenge. If something is easy, it's not worth doing.

'Birds are interactive. When you come near, they turn to look at you. When they're scared, they fly away. No offence to my friends who are interested in insects, but if you photograph a caterpillar, they just stand there and chew.

'I prefer challenges.'

Cancer shock

BUT her illness has brought her birdwatching to a standstill.

In June 2006, she discovered painful lumps around her waist. She consulted a doctor, who diagnosed it as lung cancer. It had already spread to her waist and chest, and nodules in her brain.

This came as a shock to her and her friends as she has always been a vegetarian and a non-smoker.

She underwent radiotherapy to treat the nodules in her brain, and did not continue with chemotherapy for her body as she felt miserable. She says: 'I lost weight, I had no appetite. I'm very sensitive to smell and chemicals and react very badly.'

She sought alternative treatment at a health farm in Malacca, where she fasted, underwent enemas and went vegan, which means avoiding all meat and dairy products.

She still visits a doctor every two to three months. The cancer is not in remission as she says her lumps are still growing.

'More radiotherapy and I'll be gone. It's better not to know and let it be,' she says. 'But if you don't feed the cancer the food it eats, it might slow down and stop.'

Last year, a fellow bird enthusiast asked if Ong would write a book and 'leave her legacy behind'. So she assembled her best photos and got Mr Strange to shortlist them and write the captions. Her sister, an anaesthetist, and skin specialist brother-in law sponsored the $35,000 it cost to publish the book.

Says Professor Ng Soon Chye, 57, an avid bird videographer and Ong's friend for some 20 years: 'For a bird coffee-table book, this is a significant publication because it has some very nice and rare photographs.'

Adds the obstetrician and gynaecologist: 'Sian is dedicated to her craft and pursues it with a lot of passion.'

Mr Strange admires Ong's focus and discipline and has dubbed her the 'first lady of bird photography in South-east Asia'.

He says: 'When she's on the field, she has no lunch breaks and doesn't diddle-daddle. She is very patient.'

Ong is modest about her achievements. She says: 'I never think about achieving something or dream of writing a book or starting a collection.'

She adds with a toothy grin: 'I did it for fun. I am happy to share this with people around me.'