Warrnambool's Perry Cho picture perfect passion

Since retiring on July 1, Perry Cho focused on doing the things he passionate about - and one of those things is photography. He spoke to KATRINA LOVELL about family, photography and his drive to succeed.

If he hasn’t done your tax, then the chances are you’ve seen Perry Cho’s photos somewhere – whether it is in the cancer centre foyer, on the new whale tourism signs or in the Australian Geographic magazine.

Most likely you have seen his spectacular whale shots on the front of The Standard recently, and you are probably likely to see him at the whale viewing platform trying to capture his next whale shot.

After all, he has spent three to four hours there most days this bumper whale season – a passion he has been able to indulge since he retired as senior partner/chairman of accounting firm Sinclair Wilson in July.

“I’m always very passionate in what I do. I don’t believe in half doing things,” Perry said. “Photography has always been my passion.” His love of photography started when he was in high school in Malaysia. “I had four beautiful sisters as subjects to photograph,” he said.

The youngest of five children, Perry lived with his grandmother for the first five years of his life. “My grandmother lived about 140 miles from my parents and I only saw my parents once a month,” Perry said.

“That was the way it was. That was the way we were brought up. Your grandparents look after young children. I was very close to my grandparents.”

He still remembers the road trips to his grandparents’ house as he got older – memories of standing in the front seat of the car in front of his mum and hanging on to the dashboard watching his father drive (there were no seat belts back then).

Perry Cho's dad Peter was a talented singer and named his son after famous crooner Perry Cho. You can hear Peter sing on this clip showcasing Perry's photos.

One of his childhood highlights was seeing his father sing on national television. “It was quite an honour,” Perry said. “He was a very good singer, that’s why I was named Perry, after Perry Como.”

His father was also the assistant secretary to the Minister of Defense in the Malaysian Government, a job that eventually won him an AMN – the Australian equivalent of an OBE. “He used to work for the British Army and when the British left he went to work for Malaysian Defence,” Perry said.

It was in that government role that Perry’s father was invited to visit Australia, a visit that attracted media attention at the time. He had travelled all over the world but Australia had left a lasting impression.

“That’s why I came to Australia to study,” Perry said. “My mother wanted me to go to England, my father wanted me to come to Australia.”

In Malaysia at the time, it was harder for children who didn’t have Malaysian heritage to get into university. Both Perry’s grandparents had moved to Malaysia from China – one grandfather a tin miner and the other a tailor.

“He was such a famous tailor the British had him in their books - Ahsai the Tailor,” Perry said. “He died of diabetes when my father was five, so my grandmother brought up seven children. Times were tough through the Second World War.”

Perry arrived in Warrnambool in 1971 and was among the second group of international students at the Institute of Advanced Education.

“We were allocated to host families and they renovated the Turn-Inn Motel, so we had a little community there too,” he said. One of his teachers in Malaysia had suggested he apply to come to Warrnambool – telling him it was a small university and the people were very friendly.

That teacher was married to a doctor who, through his connections with Rotary, used to come to Warrnambool and stay with George Phillpot. “The first family I visited was George Phillpot. His son eventually ended up employing me at Sinclair Wilson,” he said. “It’s a small world.

“It was pretty traumatic when I decided to settle here in Australia.” Times were different then – children in Asia usually stayed close to their families and their only son had decided to build his life in Australia. 

Perry Cho has combined 129 photographs to make this clip of four breaching whales in a row. His camera takes 14 shots per minute.

“When I first came to Australia I wrote seven letters in six days because I was so homesick. It was the first time ever I had left my family,” he said. “It didn’t take me long to adapt. I loved the people here, the environment, the country, the atmosphere. It was a friendly town.”

When he first arrived in Warrnambool, there were not very many people from different cultures. “Because I came to a very white society, it couldn’t be whiter than Warrnambool, I was always conscious of being Asian so I tended to work extra hard to satisfy my clients not knowing that people here are pretty good anyway,” he said. “People in the south-west have been most welcoming, I cannot stress that more.

“I was quite honoured. For a young Chinese boy who’d come to Warrnambool to end up being the chairman/senior partner at Sinclair Wilson.”

Perry said he was touched by the many letters, phone calls and cards he got when he retired from the accounting firm - one of the largest country practices in the state. He also said he received tremendous support and understanding from his clients and business partners while his wife, Rose, battled cancer.

Rose was diagnosed with stage 3a non-smoking lung cancer the weekend of a charity ball to celebrate raising $5 million for Warrnambool’s cancer centre – a project Perry had worked on as part of the committee. “There’s no justice in life,” he said. “She developed a cough and fractured her ribs and had a couple of x-rays. The lump was the size of a mandarin.”

Doctors in Melbourne told them they don’t usually operate on stage 3a lung cancer but because she’d never smoked, they did. Radiation and chemo treatment followed, but 12 months later they found six tumours in her brain. After removing one which was the size of a golf ball, they did radiation on the brain. A year later another tumour grew which was also removed. Radiation has shrunk the five remaining tumours which have stabilised. 

Perry and Rose married 38 years ago after meeting in 1975 as next-door neighbours. “My wife has been most supportive to my career. Without her I wouldn’t be where I am,” he said. “She has given me the freedom to work as hard as I can to achieve my goals.” Together they raised three children – a daughter who works in advertising and two sons who work in finance.

With everything you do in life, passion leads to success. If you stick at it long enough you will get there

Perry Cho

Perry’s work as a taxation specialist inspired him to developed a cash flow program for Solutions 6 (now MYOB) - the largest accounting software provider at the time – despite having no background in programming. 

“I was lucky my nephew worked for Microsoft in the USA and he assisted me in learning visual basics which is the coding language used in writing the program,” Perry said.  Perry’s work was recognised in 1997 with the business achiever of the year award. “I was quite honoured to win that,” he said. 

Retirement also means Perry has more time to spend in the garden – another of his passions. He was once the treasurer of the horticultural society and won an award for best garden in Warrnambool.

Perry said because so many people had been so generous with their time to help him – he even learnt how to use Photoshop over the internet from someone in the US - he now wants to give back. He plans to hold photography workshops for beginners.

He also shares his photography passion with Aaron Toulmin and Engin Torun and together they call themselves Patient Eye Imaging – an apt word to describe Perry. To capture the photos that Australian Geographic chose to publish in their magazine and coffee table book, Perry spent eight hours a day for three days at Tower Hill watching a dripping tap.

“With everything you do in life, passion leads to success. If you stick at it long enough you will get there,” he said.