Heritage Volunteer

Billy Wong

5 min read
Billy, NHB Volunteer

For 67-year-old Billy Wong, photography has been a passion and his one-and-only job since he completed National Service in 1975. He learnt photography from a professional photographer by serving as his assistant for five years before becoming a full-fledged photographer himself. Back then, aided by his background in Graphic Design, he took pictures for events and of commercial products.

Billy, NHB Volunteer

Today, he still does freelance photography and, with more flexible working hours, contributes his talent as a volunteer as well.

“I started volunteering because of my wife’s keen interest. She said I had too much free time, and wanted me to get busy,” he recalls with a chuckle. His wife, Susan, is a freelance tour guide. She is a Heritage Volunteer who organises and helps out with the logistics of museum events.

Together, through an online portal, giving.sg, they embarked on a volunteering journey to do something meaningful. He adds simply, “We just see what organisations need and try to meet the need.”

Rich experiences

Billy started off as a volunteer guide in 2014, giving tours to children and senior citizens. Later, he started volunteering his expertise in photography, and has since been serving actively as an event photographer.

nhb-volunteer-billy-077Apart from volunteering with the National Heritage Board, Billy also volunteers for the Singapore Red Cross Society during its road shows and blood donation drives. He helps the Very Special Arts (Singapore) with their art classes, music lessons, and speech-and-drama sessions for children. He finds working with children with special needs very meaningful, and is awed by the children’s expressions of their unique talents in various art forms.

Through shared experiences like these, he has made friends with other volunteers, with whom he often keeps in touch after the events. Billy finds that volunteering keeps him connected with what is happening in the world.

Challenging and fulfilling

The dim lighting conditions of a museum and not being allowed to use the flash, yet needing to capture that perfect fleeting moment, truly put his skills as a photographer to the test.

“My friends ask, ‘Why spend so much time taking a photo?’ They don’t know the most challenging part is concentrating, paying attention and trying not to miss any action. In events, things happen very fast. You really have to anticipate the next move — what’s going to happen next. You need to spend time preparing and concentrating. That’s how you capture a nice picture.”

Besides the technical challenges, what Billy really loves about volunteering is interacting with visitors both young and old.


“Sometimes, there are senior citizens on wheelchairs. They need extra care. It’s also challenging because many speak different dialects like Hokkien and Teochew. I only know Cantonese, and not too fluently. And so, usually end up speaking in Mandarin,” he explains with a rueful smile.

Despite the language barrier, Billy manages to connect with them. He is also grateful for the many foreign volunteers, for instance, from India and the Philippines who can communicate with visitors in their native languages.

Connecting with the past

One of his favourite places within the National Museum is the Singapore History Gallery. It showcases the living quarters of the working class in olden-day Singapore, life along the Singapore River, and stories of the forefathers of Singapore.

“It is the senior citizens who will relate their experiences to us, docents! They can relate with the exhibits and it brings back memories to them: carrying rice, going through hard times to feed their families... When you talk to them, they feel emotional about the past. Some of their stories are quite sad as their lives were very tough.”

“I learnt a lot in the process — we should be quite happy (with life) and not complain so much now. I also learnt more about the exhibits. The ACM (Asian Civilisation Museum) changes their exhibits often,” he explains. “We acquire new knowledge after every change!”

Joy in connecting

As a father to a grown son and a grandfather to a five-month-old baby, Billy has a soft spot for children. He finds interactions with young visitors especially endearing. He explains that the children are very curious and often make funny faces when he takes pictures. After photographing them, they clamour to look and get excited about the shots.

“Some will exclaim, ‘Wah, very nice!’ Sometimes, you will encounter very shy children. When you try to take their photo, they will hide from you. When I manage to capture a special moment and show it to them, they start to open up and interact.” He finds this heartwarming because breaking the ice and connecting with a stranger is probably not easy for them.

“I hope that when they see the photos, they will recall their time at the exhibition and remember this uncle. Maybe one day, they will also want to be a volunteer and give back to society.”

Own favourites

Of the pictures he has taken, some of his favourites include captured moments of funny gestures when children talk to one another and volunteers enthusiastically interact with children. He fondly recalls a tour of Little India with the young ones.


“Little India has very nice, colourful buildings. Volunteers were interacting with the children and showing them the five-foot way of pre-war shop houses. In the backdrop, there was a mural depicting the Indian vanishing trades: like the fortune tellers, dhoby men, flower garland makers... I took some nice shots there.”

Perhaps it was the contrast between a present moment against the backdrop of a nearly forgotten era that made the pictures especially poignant and nostalgic for him.

Billy continues to use his camera not just as an aesthetic tool or a means to chronicle history, but also as a bridge between himself and a younger generation. “As long as I am fit, I will continue volunteering. This is a good way to spend my time instead of hanging around aimlessly.”

To others considering volunteering, Billy has this to say, “When you volunteer, you need to come with an open mind. Don’t expect too much. Instead, see how you can help. After that, just enjoy the experience.”

By Linda Yew