Stefen Chow Takes Fatherhood on the Road


Stefen Chow's attraction to adventure started early, before he could even remember it. At the tender age of two, he moved from his native Malaysia to live in Singapore with his mother and two older sisters, while his father stayed behind for work. "I have no recollection of growing up in Malaysia," he says.

While child development experts might warn of separation anxiety, Chow believes that young children possess a natural resilience. "It was certainly a bigger challenge for my mother, raising three kids in a foreign land," he asserts.

After about ten years with her children, Chow's mother returned to Malaysia, leaving her then 12-year-old son under the care of his elder sisters, themselves only teens. "We didn't have a guardian, so I pretty much ran around by myself," Chow recollects. "And very luckily, I didn't get into bad company. But, I think this experience taught me about independence, and standing up for things that you believe in," he adds.

According to Chow, this unorthodox family situation and his lack of adult supervision were far from the norm. "But having said that," he explains, "I come from a complete family with parental love and support. It's just that they were not there physically most of the time."

Chow also credits the school system in Singapore for its role in his successful development. This enabled him to excel in his studies, from preschool all the way to the National University of Singapore, where he earned a degree in mechanical engineering.

Becoming an Everest Explorer

During his third year of university study, Chow signed up for the university's Everest Climbing Team, which marked the start of a long, grueling training process. "It was very challenging to be part of the team," he notes. "We started with 100 people and went down to five who eventually went to Everest."

Photographs © Stefen Chow

Two climbers ascend Mount Everest near the Yellow Band, with the mountain peak visible in the background.

During two and a half years of arduous training, Chow and his teammates completed six Himalayan expeditions. While everyone took pictures of their mountaineering adventures, he took on the responsibility as team photographer, "pretty much from the start," he says, using a Nikon F60 purchased with money from part-time work as a photography assistant.

"Although this was considered an amateur-level film camera, it was the most expensive thing I had ever owned at the time," recalls Chow. "I hadn't used it as much as I wanted, but once I was on the climbs I started using it more regularly. That was when I realized photography was more than a hobby," he points out. "It was also a way of communication, and it was extremely important because I was recording our memories, both for the team and for the public who were interested in our climb. It was a way to explain our adventures that was better than words."

After returning from each climb, Chow would show his pictures to professional photographers passing through Singapore, asking for tips to improve his craft. "My engineering background allowed me to see things in a rather systematic way," he explains, "and I knew that if you wanted to do certain things, you needed training to get from step 1 to step 10."

Back in Singapore after successfully summiting Everest, Chow realized that photography was something he was incredibly passionate about. "I didn't want to do it as a pastime," he says. "At that point I felt I could not leave photography, so I decided to make it a career."

Mount Everest base camp at night

While the novelty of his Everest portfolio did hold people's attention back home, he quickly learned that the pictures did not translate well in an environment devoid of mountains, snow, and winter. "I got my foot in the door, but that's about it, and then I had to find a way to prove myself," he says. "I also had to quickly work on my fundamentals in photography, which I didn't have at the time."

His mountaineering background also proved crucial to the pursuit of his photographic dreams. "I saw that it takes hard work, and some form of smart planning to gain the relevant experience you need," he explains. "I took on photography as a challenge, and I knew that if the correct steps were taken, you would end up a far more experienced practitioner of the craft than where you started."

New York Sojourn

To jumpstart his career, Chow set his sights on New York City. "I knew that I wanted to be a good photographer, and I had ambitions of being a photographer of international standard. I realized that the world's best photographers very often either live, pass through, or establish themselves in New York. So, I bought a one-way ticket, and I started emailing anyone that might be interested to take me in as an assistant."

He eventually found a photographer to work for by day, while taking night classes at the International Center of Photography. He immersed himself in the local photo community, submitting his pictures to opportunities for emerging photographers and pitching stories to magazines. In 2007, he applied to the Eddie Adams Workshop without success, but he was selected on the second try, in 2008. "That was when I realized what a big deal that workshop is," he notes.

After close to a year away from home, Chow began to feel the tug to return to Asia. "When I told friends in New York that I was going back to Singapore they all said OK, and didn't seem very excited," he notes.

Chow (left) on a New York City rooftop with the author (right) and a friend

With his curiosity piqued, Chow began asking what location would excite his new friends and make them want to keep in touch. "Eight out of 10 times, they would say China," he says. "Back in 2007, China represented a country that was still very unknown to Westerners. It was very mysterious, and it also was going to hold the Olympics the following year. So, I think for New Yorkers, China was this place that seemed scary, mysterious, and yet somewhat interesting at the same time."

At the same time, on a purely personal level, Chow had found that living in New York had caused his own concept of Asian identity to shift. "Growing up in Singapore, I felt the cultures of Singapore and China were further apart," he says. "But when you're in New York you suddenly realize you are, well, Asian, which puts China and Singapore in the same bracket. So, I think it was being in New York that made me realize I had more in common with China than I thought."

Bound for Beijing

Another factor contributing to Chow's return to Asia was a girl he had met at university, Singaporean economist Hui-Yi Lin. "We met during freshman year, so we had been dating close to ten years by the time we got married, he says. "She was working in Singapore, but when I broached the idea of moving over to Beijing, she was quite excited at the prospect. I think for us, China represented an exciting new challenge."

Chow's enhanced technical knowledge and international contacts in photography served him well in his new surroundings, allowing him to quickly become a sought-after location-based photographer for commercial and advertising clients. Time passed quickly, and five years later, Chow and his wife welcomed their first child, a daughter, whom they affectionately refer to as Little Chow. A son, Littler Chow, followed two years after that.

One consequence of Chow's successful assignment career is an extensive travel schedule, which has required him to spend up to six months away from his family annually. While many of these trips last only a few days to a week, Chow speaks of a large travel assignment for Geo magazine, during which he spent five weeks in the Himalayas when his daughter was only three months old.

Little Chow walks along the edge of the sea in Asia. Her father pointed out their location on a world map, noting that if you could look far enough across the horizon you would see the west coast of the United States.

Not surprisingly, Chow's penchant for travel has spilled over to family trips, the first of which was a pleasure trip to Norway and Denmark, when Little Chow was still an infant. He notes, "The trip was very fun for my wife and I, but I think my daughter has no recollection of it. Subsequently, we brought her to cities around Beijing. We like to explore smaller cities and townships in China."

Solo Adventures with Dad

These early experiences made Little Chow accustomed to traveling, from an early age. By the time she was 2 1/2, her father was anxious to introduce her one-on-one to the type of travel and the inspiring places that he knew and loved. "I realized that children grow up very fast, and they really develop in stages," he explains. "It occurred to me that we could hold a simple conversation and she could comprehend the things I explained to her. That's when I realized she had a very keen awareness of her surroundings, so I felt that it was a good time to bring her on a trip."

While Chow and his wife initially worried their tiny daughter might be shocked to suddenly set off on a trip without her mother, they were heartened to discover that she understood and was agreeable to the concept when they presented it to her. "This was very surprising for us, because even if we were to go for a meal, she would always want to sit beside her mother," says Chow. "If I was sitting beside her, she might not like it as much."

Little Chow devours a Christmas dinner special among the local clientele of an open food court.

Despite Little Chow's readiness to travel, her father remained hesitant, since it would be his first time traveling alone with a child. "Toddlers seem so small, and I'm definitely a hardy backpacker myself," he says. "To travel with a child, I needed to make sure that I could control some of the circumstances if need be."

As a skilled mountaineer, Chow has always disagreed with the notion that climbers are risk takers. "I would rather say we are risk managers, and I think traveling with my own child is the same thing," he explains. "Traveling with a toddler, you need to be a risk assessor." His most essential tips for managing risk include purchasing travel insurance, as well as knowing the location of the nearest hospital. He also recommends bringing medication along for common ailments.

Toddler in Tow

After careful thought and planning, Chow decided to take his daughter on an eight-day trip to an Asian country he knew well. "I also knew rather confidently that the people are very warm to children, so it's a rather child friendly place," he points out. "I basically picked a spot where I knew that we would get a soft landing when we arrived."

As it turned out, a soft landing was hardly needed, since Little Chow was happy from the moment they departed on the plane. "We were having so much fun on the trip, we only did our first Skype call with my wife on day six," Chow recounts. "Of course, I was communicating with her privately before that, to let her know everything was OK, but we saw no need for all of us to communicate until late into the trip."

A kiddie ride at a local amusement park never ceases to bring a smile to a two-year-old toddler.

While introducing his daughter to the wonders of travel, Chow referenced his past experiences as a backpacker. "The spirit and overall feel of the trip definitely felt like my old days, except that I had a toddler in tow," he recounts. "It was relaxed, and we were constantly exploring, and learning, and absorbing the things around us, and I think that she certainly understood that portion of the trip."

He differentiates the experience of traveling one-on-one from taking a trip as a family or in a larger group, when decisions become group-think, based on what the group needs. "When it's just two travelers, me and my child, I find it's a rather balanced relationship, so I can really let my child dictate or suggest what we should do next and follow their decisions," he notes. "I completely let go of my own expectations of what a trip should be."

The Pleasure of Simple Things

According to Chow, the pleasure is in the simple things. "I travel rather widely, and I must admit that I've become a rather jaded traveler sometimes, and do the safe, easy things," he says. "But when I travel with my child, I know that their own discoveries matter more. I've always encouraged my children to ask me as many questions as possible, and when we are traveling like this I can really take time to explain, or to bring them to whatever situations they're looking at."

At one point in their journey, Little Chow discovered buskers on the street, and she became fascinated by their performances. "I explained to her that these people are performing to make us happy, so if we feel happy we should make them happy by offering a token, a coin or a bank note as an appreciation," Chow explains. "So, we started looking for buskers on the streets, and that just became our thing."

Little Chow helps a local fisherwoman gather prawn shells after drying in the open for the day. For her father, this is what makes a solo parent child trip so special. They had no particular travel agenda other than observing the rhythm of the locals and engaging when possible.

During a second trip, when Little Chow was four, the pair were walking by the water in a small village when they saw an elderly lady collecting dried prawn shells from the pavement. "My daughter just went over and started helping her gather the shells and place them in a bag," he explains. "Not a word was exchanged between them, but there was this acknowledgement that my daughter was helping her. The lady was accepting the help, and it was just a process which seemed so natural."

Once all the shells had been gathered, the lady smiled, nodded to Little Chow, and left. "That's when my daughter asked me, 'Why would the lady dry the prawn shells?' And it really got me thinking," says Chow.

After approaching the woman to ask, he learned that the town is famous for its prawn crackers. "Suddenly that gave us another thing to do, to look for the best prawn crackers in the town," he points out. "We eventually found some, and when we ate them we knew that they were made from the same kind of prawn shells she picked. It's all about the process," he adds. "And again, it's such a simple thing. But for a child—and for a parent to discover that with a child—the small things are a lot more beautiful."

Traveling Out of a Backpack

One basic rule Chow follows when traveling solo with his daughter or son is that everything needed for the trip is limited to a single backpack. "That means I'm very mobile, I can travel like any adult could," he says. "The moment you bring a rolling suitcase, or if you're tempted to bring a stroller, you can't just walk up the stairs as easily, you can't eat in a street-side stall. It limits mobility a lot more."

Little Chow perfects her levitation skills in a European city square, while Littler Chow looks on.

Chow uses the same backpacks he carried during his mountaineering days, made by the American company Osprey. He notes, "I have three backpacks, which fit 40 liters, 55 liters, and 80 liters. So, it really depends on the length of the trip and how many logistics we have that determines the backpack I'll strap on."

When traveling with a toddler between 2 and 3, the items in his pack consist largely of diapers and milk powder. "My wife always overpacks clothes, so I have to pare it down to a bare minimum, but I would say the backpack is made up of mostly their stuff and just a bit of my own stuff."

Yet, despite space limitations, he always makes sure to pack some photo gear. "I use all kinds of cameras, but for each trip I just bring one set of equipment," he says. On one journey, he brought along a Xiaomi smartphone and documented the entire adventure with that. He has also used compact cameras, such as the Nikon 1, and the Sony RX1R II, "An amazing camera with a fantastic lens," he says.

Image sequence from a trip to Japan with 4-year-old Little Chow, in June 2017.

Since Chow works very hard as a professional photographer, he admits to being rather lazy when it comes to making pictures on a holiday with his child. He notes, "As we did more trips, I realized that the documentation is rather important, because it's actually good material. So, my professional side started bugging me, and I started demanding more from myself in terms of how I documented my travels."

These days, he finds the Nikon D810 or Nikon D850 and NIKKOR 35mm f/1.4 lens to be hard to beat. "This combination offers very good image quality, plus you can do fantastic videos, as well," he says. "It's a bit heavier than a compact camera, but the image quality is really good, so when you look back you don't regret your choice."

In addition to photo gear, he usually brings a 13-inch Apple MacBook Pro, "Simply because I still have to reply to my emails when I'm traveling with my children, so I'm never on a complete break." Yet his children do not use electronic devices themselves. "So, no iPads, no smartphones for them," says Chow. "They play in the sand at the beach, or with whatever is in front of them, or they play with an adult or another child, so their accessories are kept to a bare minimum."

Solo Adventure with Littler Chow

After taking Little Chow on several trips, including a mountaineering excursion to the Mount Everest Base camp when she was three (which also included her mother), Chow decided to bring his son on his first trip, in December 2017. This was at the same time of year as his daughter's first solo trip, but since she was born three months earlier in the year than her brother, he was three months younger. And, as any child development expert can tell you, at two years old, three months of time makes a big difference.

The pair traveled to the Malaysian city of Kuching and, although Littler Chow was happy to be traveling with his father, Chow notes, "He was also feeling very insecure for a good part of the trip, and he wasn't so open to interacting with strangers. During the one week we were there, I can probably count on ten fingers the number of times we were not holding hands. He just wasn't as extroverted as his sister. I was reminded that they have very different personalities," he adds, "even though we try to raise them in the same way."

Image sequence from a trip to Kuching, Malaysia with 2-year-old Littler Chow, in December 2017.

While many people say that girls develop faster than boys, especially in linguistic and personality development, Chow points out, "They are obviously two different individuals, and since my daughter is the oldest, she took on more of a leadership role very early in life, whereas my son has always been a younger sibling."

Although Littler Chow's initial discomfort with strangers caused his father to consider ending the trip early, he ultimately realized, "I can't just give up so soon. As the father, you try to solve things in the most constructive manner, and I knew that staying on and trying to resolve the matter was more important."

So, he set aside the lists of typical tourist sights he had planned to visit, and asked Littler Chow one simple question: "What do you like so far about Kuching?" Reveals Chow, "He said cats, he likes the cats."

The word Kuching happens to mean "cat" in Malay, which has given the city a reputation as Malaysia's cat capital. "There are a lot of cats roaming around in the villages, and the local villagers' houses are built on stilts, so everyone has three or four cats. We ended up spending the next few days just walking around the villages looking for cats under the hot sun. We explored to the point where my son was really interested, and he was touching the cats and looking for different-colored cats."

Chow points out that, from a tourist's perspective, spending entire days just looking for cats would seem like a huge waste of time, "But I wasn't a tourist," he notes. "I was going on a solo trip with my son, and the purpose was to bond, so whatever we did doesn't matter in the end. What really matters are the memories you create, and the communication channels you improve. By following my son's wishes, he became very happy, and we became very cooperative travelers."

Enduring Effects

The positive effects of this trip were also visible once Chow and his son reunited with the rest of the family. "My wife and I noted that my son became a lot closer to me, because he trusted me more," explains Chow. "He suddenly understood that I could do certain things that he had thought only his mother could do in the past."

Littler Chow gets some help from a friendly store owner on how to create the most bubbles with soapy water and a simple plastic ring. Kuching, Malaysia.

After this first adventure with his son, Chow gained a new appreciation for the significance of these one-on-one trips. "They are not very long, compared to school, or to a calendar year," he notes. "It's only a week, but I think that week makes it very intense for both the parent and the child because, essentially, you do things together for every hour of the day, and so you understand each other in a very intense manner. When you are traveling solo with your child, suddenly the interdependence on each other becomes a lot stronger."

With this kind of symbiotic bond, a child's behavior often mirrors that of their parent. "A lot of times the child becomes confident or fearful, or even willing to learn and explore, based on how the parents behave themselves," says Chow. "If I were to impose a lot of restrictions, like, 'oh you can't interact with strangers' or 'you can't pick prawn shells off the pavement because it's so dirty,' I think it creates barriers within the child's behavior."

When traveling with his children, Chow makes it a point to remain happy, relaxed, and positive, no matter the circumstances, and to set failure as part of the whole process. "I emphasize the fact that it is OK to explore, to ask questions, to probe, and interact. When they get to interact with foreign surroundings or with strangers—but obviously with my blessing, and my guidance—sometimes, I feel like I'm more like a guide than simply the parent."

Looking back on his own childhood years, Chow's initial thoughts gravitate to how hard his father had to work when he was growing up. "My father recently told me that he doesn't remember ever bringing me to a playground," he notes. "He was a traveling business man, and was really struggling during my growing years, so he left most of the parenting to my mom. But having said that, I think he did something with me that I have also imparted to my children," Chow acknowledges. "When I was primary school age, as young as 8 or 9, I would go back to Malaysia whenever I had holidays. Because that was the only time we could spend together as a parent and child, my father would bring me everywhere with him—to his business meetings, and to business banquets where he would interact with adults. And he always found time to explain to me what he was doing. I really appreciated that."

Chow does double duty as he carries both Little Chows, one in an improvised backpack, during a six-hour hike to the Great Wall of China.

To learn more about Chow's commercial photography and collaborative fine art projects with his wife, under the name Chow and Lin, click here.

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