Every year, we scope out 18 women who are driven by a desire to bring positive change and have achieved success in their chosen field as part of the Great Women Of Our Time awards. Meet 2019’s Arts & Media nominee, Karen Chan, Executive Director, Asian Film Archive:


Meet Karen Chan – Great Women Of Our Time 2019 Arts & Media Nominee


Old is gold for Karen Chan, especially when it comes to films.

As part of her mission as the head honcho of the Asian Film Archive (AFA), Karen preserves and promotes the art of Asian cinema by tracking down and digitising old films shot on celluloid, in a bid to save a slice of the region’s cultural heritage.

“There is a hunger for films that speak to Asian heritage, just as there is a need to make sure that Asian films do not disappear just because there is no one to take care of ageing media,” shares the mum-of-two.

Oldham Theatre opened its doors in May 2019 and it dedicated to screening lesser-known Asian films.

“Even though I stumbled rather than entered this industry, I realised that I enjoyed the process of archiving because the work made me feel that I was preserving something for posterity.”

Having joined the AFA in 2006, the 45-year-old had a stint working at the famed Natural History Museum in New York before returning to Singapore where she says she stumbled into, rather than joined, her current industry.

“After I left New York and came back to Singapore, I realised that I enjoyed the job of archiving much more than curatorial or arts administration. When the founder of AFA approached me to help him out, I found that I was re-invigorated by the discussions of the intricacies, issues and philosophy of archiving and preservation,” shares Karen.

Karen (3rd from left) regularly hosts filmmakers from all over the world as part of her push to expose more Singaporeans to Asian films.

“I knew almost nothing about film preservation, but I instinctively knew how to apply the audio-visual archiving principles that I had already learnt to this job. I could stay up till 3am working on a preservation paper in between baby feeds and would still be rearing to go at 7am – I suppose that was the light bulb moment when I knew this was what I wanted to do as a career.”

The AFA has 2,100 titles in its collection today. Slightly more than half are Singapore films while the rest come other Asian countries.

Karen was also instrumental in spearheading the opening of AFA’s new Oldham Theatre, a cinema dedicated to screening lesser-known Asian films, which opened its doors in May.

The 135-seat Oldham Theatre at Fort Canning Rise can screen movies shot on traditional 35mm film format as well as 4K projections.

But like most creatives who work somewhat behind-the-scenes, Karen is ever humble when asked if the theatre and what she’s built of the AFA so far will be part of her enduring legacy.

“While its true that an archive is not built overnight – you must work at it and ensure that it lives beyond you – over the years, I have learnt to give credit where it is due because it takes the strength and skills of many to achieve any success,” says Karen.

“More than anything, I hope that the archive will live on because of the hard work of the staff, volunteers, and supporters of AFA; and I hope I was a positive influence, a source of patient energy and a learning spirit to the people I’ve worked with.”

The Great Women Of Our Time Awards 2019 is brought to you by main presenter, Lancôme, and presenter, PANDORA.

Photos: Vee Chin & Tan Wei Te
Fashion Direction: Aaron Kok
Styling Assistants: Juliet Suen & An Lyn Chee
Hair: Jason Wong/Salon Nu, Grego & Ash Loi/Sonder Salon
Makeup: Keith Bryant Lee, Hongling Lim, Rina Sim, Wee Ming & Jyue Huey (for Shann Sok)
Location: 89NR, The Working Capitol, Botanico at The Garage & The Summerhouse

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