We feature some of the brightest Instagram storytellers in the Passion Passport community through our Instagram Spotlight series. This week, James Kuan (@ohsnapjames) takes us through his electronic scrapbook, made up of some of his favorite recent travel memories.
James Kuan photographed Marina Bay in Singapore.

Singapore

Singapore, the country I’m from and where I still reside, is a small, tropical city-state that’s home to about six million people. Having grown up here, I’m very impressed by how fast it has developed in such a short span of time, as well as how clean and safe the streets are. Exploring Singapore is rather easy, given that public transport can get you almost anywhere, and if you’re in the city, it’s pretty walkable. One thing unique about Singapore is its urban landscape — it seems somewhat incongruous with its mixture of modern and traditional architecture, but I think that reflects the diversity of the city. As Singapore is home to a multi-ethnic society, there is a lot to experience and see with regards to the different cultures. If I had to recommend just one place to visit, it would have to be Marina Bay — there’s just so much to see, from Merlion Park to the Marina Bay Sands Hotel and the Gardens by the Bay.

Speaking of which, one of the most popular photo spots in Singapore is at Marina Bay, with the iconic cityscape. While most flock to the Marina Bay Sands rooftop bar for such views, I actually prefer the sights from One Altitude Bar, which is much higher and offers a view of all sides of Singapore. I absolutely love the perspective offered there, as you can see both the water and buildings in full view. If you go in the evening on a clear day, you’ll be greeted with a gorgeous sunset. But if you wait a little longer, you might just see the Marina Bay Sands light show from above. As I spend most of my days down on the bustling streets, being able to see Singapore from above with the city illuminated while transitioning from sunset to night always refreshes and amazes me. I’m lucky to live in such a beautiful place.

Stained glass and church rows, as photographed by James Kuan.
Singaporean James Kuan photographed the Old Hill Street Police Station.

I took the second photo you see here at a Catholic church called the Blessed Sacrament Church. In my opinion, it is the most unique and architecturally beautiful church in Singapore. I had stumbled upon an article on Singaporean architecture and decided to make a trip there one day when I was in the vicinity. As I stepped inside the church, reality exceeded my expectations, as it was much bigger than what I had perceived from photos online. What I love most about the architecture there is the combination of the textures, wooden interior, and edgy lines from the ceiling and pews.

Another architectural gem in Singapore is the Old Hill Street Police Station, as it’s unique for its vintage architectural look and colorful window frames. Shooting this building was a challenge because I had to stand on the opposite side of the road to be able to get a wider frame of the shot — not to mention all of the traffic passing to and fro. I prefer getting a wider shot of this building as it shows its facade with all the window frame colors. Given that its location is rather central, it really sticks out, especially compared to the surrounding buildings. It’s one of those mandatory Instagram spots in Singapore, so it’s not surprising that people flock there to get a photo. I think the building is a great example of how Singapore takes its colonial past and transforms it into something new.

James Kuan loves people-watching at Shibuya crossing in Tokyo.

Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo, the capital city of Japan and the world’s most populated metropolis, also features a vibrant blend of the modern and the traditional. I’ve been to Tokyo on a couple of occasions, and each time, I discover something new. As it is a densely populated city, one of the first images that comes to mind when I think about Tokyo is the crowds. There’s something unique about experiencing and being a part of the daily bustle, as it offers a glimpse into the ordinary rhythm of an average person living in the city. What’s more, I think most photographers would agree that Japan is a photographer’s paradise from the urban sights, sceneries, and iconic streets it has to offer. As a street photographer, myself, I find it useful to make time to simply wander around a district or an area I’ve researched, and then wait for the unique moments and scenes to unfold unexpectedly.

I took the first photo you see here at the observatory deck of a shopping center in Shibuya. I had previously spent a few days shooting on the street level and, noticing the observatory, decided to return another day during the evening to try and take a shot of the famous scramble from above. As I started snapping photos, I felt like I was momentarily detached from the busyness, which gave me the privilege of seeing Tokyo a little differently.

James Kuan spent a peaceful day in Odaiba, near the Rainbow Bridge.
It was rainy when James Kuan visited the Imperial Palace.

The setting of the second photo is obviously much quieter and more peaceful. I specifically chose to spend the day at Odaiba when the sky was clearer so that I could hopefully catch a shot of the sunset. I made use of a neutral density filter to take a long-exposure shot of the bay, with the rainbow bridge and city in the background. I fell in love with the sights from Odaiba, as it’s a great place to take in the sunset and get away from the city. I guess being in the center of chaos all the time does make me feel overwhelmed and restless — hence, being able to slow down, relax, and photograph the sunset in Odaiba was a nice, quick getaway to recharge.

In the third photo, you’ll see what is probably one of the most popular points of interest for tourists in Tokyo, as it gives you a glimpse into the Imperial Palace. It was rather challenging to take this photo because it was raining at the time, and I was holding an umbrella with one hand and my camera with the other. I actually loved the weather, though, because it gave the photo a moodier, older feel. It adds some unique character that a bright and sunny day could never provide. When traveling, as well as photographing, weather is a factor that is beyond our control. Shooting in the rain may be tough, but I love how the moisture disrupts the regular pattern of how people interact with their environments and forms unique scenes. It also feels pretty therapeutic to walk around listening to the cool breeze and the raindrops trickling down.
James Kuan's friend sits at the edge of a boat.

Malaysia

Johor, one of the states in Malaysia, is just across the border from Singapore, making it a popular day-trip destination for Singaporeans, who go there to shop, eat, and relax. I joined a friend of mine on a trip to the outskirts of Johor to spend a couple of days on a kelong — a floating fishing village. It was quite an experience for me, coming from the city, to be able to experience living off the coast and to see a different side of Malaysia. I thought that it was a unique sight, too, as kelongs are usually found in countries around Southeast Asia, but rarely do you hear of people being able to stay on one. Although there wasn’t much to do there, I enjoyed being able to slow down and soak in the scenes, all while capturing life on the kelong.

I shot this first image on our boat ride to a small fishing town in Johor. This moment felt raw and rural, and on top of that, the people also seemed more carefree and laidback with the way they went about their jobs and activities. It made me appreciate what it meant to rest without feeling the compulsion to do something else.

The second image is a sunset shot taken during our stay in the kelong. I’ve always felt that cloudy sunsets have their own unique looks, as there seems to be a better blend of colors. When I took this photo, I loved the vibrant hues displayed across the sky and the way they reflected on the sea. I don’t think I had ever been far enough away from the shore to view a sunset while completely surrounded by the ocean.

I took the third photo toward the end of Golden Hour, when the light was still soft. It was probably one of my favorite shots from my stay at the kelong. I think it shows a good glimpse of what a kelong looks like — nothing fanciful, just rough and basic, very much like a fish farm. In fact, the people in this photo were fishing from the wooden boardwalks. I felt the moment revealed a very seldom seen side of Malaysia, especially compared to all of its popular tourist spots. It was a good reminder that normal life goes on, even in tourist-oriented countries.
A thick branch in New Zealand's Lake Wanaka, which James Kuan recently explored.

New Zealand

I’ve always been interested in exploring New Zealand, as I have heard many great things about the scenery and landscapes there over the years. I finally decided to make a trip to the South Island, and I was blown away by the majestic views of mountains, landscapes, lakes, and vast, open fields while driving from Christchurch to Queenstown. I loved how tranquil New Zealand was, especially when I stopped by Lake Pukaki and was greeted with a turquoise glacial lake with ice-capped mountains in the background. I think this is definitely a place you could spend a good month road-tripping and exploring, and even then, it would still be worth returning.

This first image is from the famous Lake Wanaka, where there’s a lone arched tree out in the water (you’ve probably seen photos of it on Instagram). Apart from getting that mandatory shot, I was drawn to this interesting, thick branch lying right at the shore of the lake. What led me to capture this scene was the clarity of the sky and water, as well as the glittering rocks and shells. I made use of a wide-angle lens set on a smaller aperture to get in as much detail as I could. It’s often easy to go for the “iconic” shot of a place and forget about the surrounding scenery, but I wanted to capture things that other people often leave out. Looking at this photo now, I’m reminded of the other sights I saw there and I’m provided with a wider context as I reimagine Lake Wanaka in my head.

The Milky Way appears in a New Zealand sky shot by James Kuan.
James Kuan recently visited the Edith Cavell Bridge near Queenstown.

Believe it or not, the second image was actually taken right outside my hotel in Alexandra, a town near Queenstown. It was a perfect spot for astrophotography since it was really dark. It wasn’t that difficult to take this photo, other than knowing how to find the Milky Way, which I did with the help of an astro map. Although this wasn’t my first time photographing this section of the sky, it was probably the clearest I’ve shot it — the previous pictures I’d taken were in a cloudier, windier environment. As I live in the city, shooting the stars is a rare chance, so being able to see and photograph the Milky Way is always a breathtaking and emotional experience for me. I can’t help gazing in wonder at the stars above and realizing how small I am.

Finally, the last photo shows the Edith Cavell bridge, one of the famous old landmarks near Queenstown. I made a short detour to pass by the bridge while driving back from Alexandra and felt amazed by how beautiful it was in person. A path led down to the river below, since there were speedboat rides there as well. I followed the path to find a better perspective, as this angle gives a good sense of scale from below. I felt like I was in a scene from “the Lord of the Rings.” It was quite a unique moment, as I had never seen or been so close to such a landscape.
A building featured in "Doctor Strange," one of James Kuan's favorite movies.

Hong Kong

What I absolutely love about photographing Hong Kong is that the city has so much character and contains so many interesting scenes. The streets teem with signs of local history, as well as more modern events and grungy alleys. Moreover, when night comes, the city lights up with neon signs, which changes the mood and character of each photo drastically. If you’d like to mix up the subject matter of your photos, Hong Kong also has many great hiking trails, beaches, and landscapes to explore.

The first photo you see here was taken at the Hong Kong Baptist University of Chinese Medicine. A friend of mine who stayed nearby showed me this building, and I instantly recognized it as the Hong Kong Sanctum from the Marvel movie “Doctor Strange,” where the final battle takes place. As there were a lot of railings and traffic lights getting in my way, I chose to shift to a different angle that had a clearer shot of the building. I ended up using an ultra wide-angle lens, as I was rather close to the building and needed a wider field of view, and decided to include people crossing the street to fill the frame. I love doing this since it’s fun to show how people interact with the space around them — and, for this photo, how people interact with iconic structures.

A woman making an incense offering, as observed by James Kuan.
A busy pedestrian crossing in Hong Kong, a city James Kuan enjoys photographing.

I took the second photo at the famous Man Mo temple, which is rather unique as it’s filled with red spiral incense that hangs overhead. I lingered for a while in the temple to figure out a composition for a shot, and finally found a spot where soft light was falling on a giant offering bowl in a smoky atmosphere. I waited for someone to put an incense offering in, as I felt that would provide a better context of what goes on inside the temple. As I waited for the moment, it occurred to me that what often seems so interesting and unique was regular and routine for people of that faith. I found the thought beautiful.

As I began to visualize a crowd-heavy photo that I wanted to take from a higher perspective, I scouted an overhead bridge in central Hong Kong. Hong Kong is known for its interesting vantage points, which allow photographers to capture some cool road markings, as well as a bigger picture of its crowded streets. So, it’s even more incredible when that all comes together and people cross those markings. For that reason, I love the composition of this photo. It felt like I was a spectator who was able to see and interact with a place more meaningfully as I considered all the unconscious forces that I succumb to. It was definitely a great reminder of learning to use a space without it using you, and learning to be aware of the busyness of life so that I can unplug and revel in the smaller moments.

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James Kuan
James Kuan is an undergrad psychology student and an avid street and travel photographer from Singapore. He has a passion for capturing life’s everyday moments and exploring the world slowly but thoroughly. James also loves coffee and craft beer, and enjoys both over a good theological or philosophical read.