Sim Chi Yin had a cushy expat life in Beijing working as a reporter for The Singapore Straits Times, writing long feature stories and sometimes taking photos. The company paid for her education at the London School of Economics in exchange for eight years of employment. She had health insurance, a pension and job security.
So why did she walk away from that after nine years?
“I wanted to be a photographer but the editors at The Straits Times said I was overqualified,” she recalled. “Almost every year I asked to be assigned to the photo desk but they didn’t take visual journalism seriously.”
Ms. Sim — an ethnic-Chinese, middle-class child from Singapore whose family had risen from humble roots — had wanted to be a photographer since she was a teenager. So as grateful as she was to her newspaper, she took a gamble on photography.
Her decision, which meant slashing her expenses and moving to a smaller apartment, has paid off: Last month she joined the cooperative photo agency VII as an interim member, after being mentored for the past three years by Marcus Bleasdale as part of VII’s mentorship program.
“Most importantly, she is great photographer, a great journalist and a really good person who is dedicated to issue oriented storytelling,” said Ed Kashi, who is on VII’s board.
He also acknowledged that VII, like Magnum and other cooperative agencies, have had too few women and people of color as members and that Ms. Sim’s background is a welcome change. Ms. Sim, who has freelanced for The New York Times, Time Magazine and the New Yorker, speaks fluent Mandarin.
The interim membership is like a two-year trial marriage for both sides, during which Ms. Sim wants to organize group projects and expand the agency’s presence in Asia.
Chi Yin Sim grew up in Singapore in an ethnic Chinese family that had lived overseas for three generations and almost never spoke of the past. As a teenager she devoted herself to being “a useful person”, working with disabled people and volunteering as a Salvation Army Christmas bell-ringer at shopping malls.
Her parents were not interested in politics or civic engagement. Ms. Sim always felt that her parents didn’t understand or approve of her interest in social issues, activism and eventually journalism.
But she did not fully understand their disapproval at first.
After receiving a masters in Chinese history she delved into her family’s past, especially curious about her grandfather, whom no one ever spoke of. Her mother showed her a photo of a man with a box camera slung around his neck.
Over the next eight years she discovered he had been a school principal, businessman and eventually the editor of a leftist newspaper in Malaya. She learned that he had been active in Malaya’s Chinese community and was arrested and tortured by Japanese occupying forces during World War II. When the British returned, he wrote anti-colonial editorials, which led to his arrest. Given the choice of staying in jail or being deported, he left to his ancestral village in Guangdong province, leaving his family behind temporarily.
Ms. Sim only learned this hidden family history in full when she visited her relatives in Gaoshang, a farming village in China, in 2011. Her grandfather is revered as a martyr for the revolution: a six-foot tall obelisk marks his burial place. A month after arriving he joined the Chinese Communist Party guerrillas, he was captured by Nationalist forces and was executed shortly before the Communist victory.
Ms. Sim often wonders what her grandfather would think of the “New China” he fought for. She is “sure that he would be disappointed” with a lot of aspects of it. But she also suspects he would have approved of her interests in journalism and social issues, as she tries to do what she can “to be useful.”
“It’s an enormous place with enormous problems,” she said. “But I have come to really care about China and its people. After all, it’s the place where my grandfather died for.”