Meet Andrew Chen, the rock star photographer from Ipoh

Chen (left) and Joey Tempest, the lead singer of Swedish rock band Europe, during the band's tour in the mid-1980s.

Sometimes, not knowing what comes next can be confusing and stressful. And for school leavers and college/university graduates, it is even more daunting.

This was what Andrew Chen experienced in his teenage years. Chen runs an adventure club in his hometown of Ipoh, Perak called Ipoh Adventures, organising weekly activities with people in the community, for free. He is 75 now, but still remembers that feeling of uncertainty and not knowing exactly which path to take after finishing school. In an interview, Chen talked about his past like it had just happened.

Born in Ipoh, Perak, Chen went straight into the working field at age 18 as he did not feel like studying was something he wanted to pursue. Like many young folks back then, he moved to Kuala Lumpur and hopped from one job to another, saving as much as he could so that he could try his luck abroad.

In late 1960s, he finally saved enough to travel to Europe. He also did a lot of research on how to travel cheaply, which was difficult to do as the Internet was still non-existent back then. Chen knew that the road ahead for him was not going to be easy there but he was determined to make something of himself eventually.

These days, Chen spends most of his time exploring parts of Malaysia that he never had the time to visit when he was younger. — CARRIE CHANThese days, Chen spends most of his time exploring parts of Malaysia that he never had the time to visit when he was younger. — CARRIE CHAN

“I actually had no means to call it a day. I wanted to experience life and see the world, and it was enough to keep me fuelled. I was determined to face things head on, no matter what kind of the situation I would find myself in,” he said.

Chen’s first stop was Zurich, Switzerland where he worked odd jobs round-the-clock just to get by. A year later, he moved to Sweden with four other like-minded youths whom he met while living in a hostel. They had rented a car and had driven through Germany, Austria, Lichtenstein, Holland and Denmark, before arriving in Sweden.

After a few years of working in Sweden, Chen finally got his first big break when he met the owner of a local clothing brand called Gul&Bla AB. The owner had wanted to open a skateboard shop in Stockholm and offered Chen the opportunity to be a partner and help run things. While Chen did not know anything about running a business, he at least knew not to turn down what seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime chance!

He learned everything from scratch and was a fast learner. One of his duties included taking product shots for promotional and advertising purposes. This was something he truly enjoyed doing, and kept honing his photography skills anytime he had the chance.

Chen also travelled a lot during his time at the skateboard store, going as far as to the United States.

After two years, Chen again took a leap of faith and started working as a freelance photographer. “Some time in 1973, I was in the Scandinavian Raceway (a motorsport race track in Sweden, which is known today as the Anderstorp Raceway), where I got a taste of the visual world. I had the honour to work with some of the world’s best photographers at the World Championship of Drivers (at the Hitachi Grand Prix).

“After shooting that event, I found myself working for local record labels, as well as a film studio,” Chen revealed. His newfound interest and job soon steered him to an even more exciting life, which culminated in him working with a popular rock band.

“I was the official photographer for Swedish rock band, Europe, in 1986. It was the year it released The Final Countdown, the band’s biggest hit. In fact, the song is still popularly known today,” Chen revealed.

As the band’s photographer, Chen got a glimpse of the lives of these rock stars, and always had front-row seats to their shows. He went on tour with Europe too, and because of this he had the chance to meet a long list of other celebrities, including movie stars.

As Europe's official photographer, Chen had all-access passes to all of its concerts, like this one in Stockholm in 1986.As Europe's official photographer, Chen had all-access passes to all of its concerts, like this one in Stockholm in 1986.

With his career on a steady climb, Chen decided he wanted to take things up a notch and organise a cultural festival in Sweden. He became friends with a Swedish journalist named Pontus Fredriksson, while hunting for a lion dance troupe to perform at the festival. Their shared interest eventually saw them collaborating together, creating content for local travel magazines. Chen took the pictures, while Fredriksson wrote the stories.

The festival itself presented Chen with tons of opportunities, especially in the travel and hospitality industry. Many travel organisations and companies that attended his festival, particularly one from Thailand, were interested in his photos and other work.

“The friendship I made with the Thai travel organisation actually kick-started my career in travel, as it took me to different parts of Thailand. In return, I had to come up with articles and photographs for promotional purposes,” he revealed.

Another company that attended the festival also approached him to work on their projects involving the Hong Kong Tourism Board and Singapore Tourism Board. For these clients, Chen organised various other cultural festivals in Stockholm, like a dragon boat race and Chinese New Year celebrations.

One year, Chen and Fredriksson even worked on articles promoting Perak’s luxurious Pangkor Laut Resort in a Swedish magazine.

Chen (middle) with representatives from the Korea Tourism Organisation at the World Travel Market exhibition in London some years back. — Photos: ANDREW CHENChen (middle) with representatives from the Korea Tourism Organisation at the World Travel Market exhibition in London some years back. — Photos: ANDREW CHEN

After about three years of writing and taking photographs for clients, the duo decided to start their own lifestyle magazine called Asia Food & Travel. This was 12 years ago. They ran the business for a couple of years before the magazine shut down.

“We parted ways when I returned to Malaysia,” said Chen.

After living abroad for more 50 years, Chen finally came back to Ipoh a few years back to enjoy a slower-paced and fuss-free life. But he wanted to still remain active and contribute to the local community as much as he can, which is why he started the adventure club. These days, you are most likely to find Chen hiking or biking around Perak with a bunch of folks with the same adventurous spirit as he has.

His career may have been exciting, but the feeling he now gets after reaching the peak while hiking is what truly thrills him these days.

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