Dr Ivan Polunin: his rare images of Singapore to be preserved

National Library Board to archive the late Ivan Polunin's photos and films in digital format
Boon Chan, Straits Times 23 Dec 10;

THE late British-born Dr Ivan Polunin had amassed a unique archive of colour images of Singapore from the 1950s to 1960s. This collection will now be digitised and preserved by the National Library Board (NLB).

Dr Polunin died peacefully at home on Tuesday at age 90 after a heart-related illness.

In March, he and his daughters, radiologist Nadya Polunin and artist Olga Polunin, signed a memorandum of understanding with the NLB.

Under the agreement, the library would digitise the collection of more than 500 film reels and audiotapes recording the social and natural history of Singapore and South-east Asia in the 1950s and 1960s.

An NLB spokesman said: 'As the collection contains important heritage material of Singapore and South-east Asia, the National Library Board is digitising the collection to preserve and make it accessible. Time is needed for this process, and we will inform the public in due time about its availability.'

Dr Polunin shot almost 100 hours of colour film footage showing scenes as diverse as New Year sea sports events held at Collyer Quay to scenes of everyday life in Chinatown to the way of life of the Muruts of North Borneo.

Ms Olga Polunin said: 'When he was making these colour films, there wasn't even colour television in Singapore.'

She said that she had wanted the material to be made available while her father was still alive so that people could appreciate what he did.

The film archive had been kept in what Dr Polunin called his 'toy room' at his bungalow home in the western part of Singapore. There was a dehumidifier to protect the film reels, audiotapes of tribal music and four filing cabinets containing 30,000 photographic slides.

Ms Olga Polunin said: 'My priority was the film, to preserve and digitise it and make it accessible to the public and to professionals. In its current state, it can't be seen.'

The film reels will have to be cleaned before they can be digitised.

But even the toy room could not contain all of his hobbies and interests.

As his granddaughter Farrah Isaac, a 22-year-old student, observed: 'He squeezed several lifetimes' worth of experience into one lifetime.'

He was featured in film-maker Tan Pin Pin's documentary Invisible City (2007), about the people who chronicle different aspects of Singapore's history.

Dr Polunin's tenure as a medical lecturer at the then University of Malaya started in 1952, and he retired as an associate professor in 1980.

Former student Rexon Ngim, a plastic surgeon in his 50s, recalled: 'During the 1970s, he would take medical students to kampungs in Johor, and to Pulau Tekong and Ubin, so students could study the social aspects of public health.

'We got to see how worm infestation was transmitted. As a lecturer, he wasn't the strict sort.'

Dr Polunin was also a great lover of nature, and he wrote the authoritative guide Plants And Flowers Of Singapore (1987) and a Malaysia edition about the same topic.

Dr Shawn Lum, 47, current president of Nature Society (Singapore), said: 'He had a phenomenal recollection about botany. He was one of those who inspired me.

'It was wonderful to see people who were so driven, and he had a ferocious capacity to learn.'

While Dr Polunin's interests varied, there was one constant in his life, his wife Fam Siew Yin, 87.

She made the nets for him to catch fireflies, made the suit when he dressed up as Santa Claus to bring cheer to the Singapore Convalescent Home and did the packing when he went on his many trips and expeditions.

Madam Fam, cousin of the late war heroine Elizabeth Choy, said of her husband: 'He lived long and was very curious.'

Ms Olga Polunin added: 'She was the facilitator for his dreams. They were very devoted to each other, and daddy used to say, 'The best thing I did in my life was to marry that woman.''

As a father, he encouraged his daughters' creativity.

Ms Nadya Polunin recalled that they used to draw on the bathroom walls as children, but he did not scold them.

'Instead, he would take photos of the tiles and send them out as Christmas cards,' she said.

Ms Olga Polunin recalled fondly: 'He didn't do things by half measure. When he did something, he went all the way. Everything was done with a lot of passion and love.'

Additional reporting by Tay Suan Chiang