Ming Poon: the Path from Beijing Businessman to Pro Photographer

Tahoe-based athlete and cameraman Poon applies the hard-work ethic he learned in China’s capital to his photography business

By Chris Van Leuven

Brennan Lagasse captures Poon and Jeremy Jones at the office on a particularly beautiful sunrise (Brennan Lagasse).

It wasn’t long ago that Vermonter turned Tahoe resident Ming Poon, 34, lived in Beijing, a bustling city of 21 million people, hashing out business deals. Though today he’s found the balance of work and play as a professional photographer — even winning Powder magazine’s prestigious Photo of the Year — if it weren’t for a death in the family, he may have ended up in a much different place.

He was 26 when his father died and he was asked to take over the family business overseas. Up to that point, his days were filled with rock climbing, backcountry snowboarding, and mountain biking. He got outside at least 150 days a year. He also photographed Phish (the Vermont jam band) shows with his mother’s Minolta film camera, took trips with his girlfriend Mollie, and, to make money, worked as a server at a restaurant and as a librarian at Sierra Nevada College where he studied international business.

A few months after his father passed away, Poon got on a plane to China to take over his business affairs. As the Boeing 747 descended into a thick wall of smog, the reality of his surroundings began to settle in. He was scared, overwhelmed, having no idea what he had signed up for; luckily he had the love of his life, Mollie, by his side.

The young man was thrown into a business he knew nothing about: distributing high-end electronic components, such as capacitors and resistors. I had a “super steep learning curve,” Poon says, but he stood up to the challenge. Within weeks, he took charge of buying the highest quality components on the market from outside China and selling them to manufacturers in China and Hong Kong; out of necessity, he learned Mandarin. He grew increasingly concerned over the effects of pollution in the air and in his food and worried that he or Mollie might get sick. But he carried on and soon he was negotiating million-dollar deals.

Black and white portrait of Poon (Clayton Boyd of The North Face).

With the responsibility came long hours, an increasingly unhealthy diet and escalating stress levels Poon had never experienced. But on every weekend and for every holiday, he and Mollie traveled all over Asia to go climbing. It was within the surroundings of steep mountains that he felt most like himself.

“I got fed to the wolves for a year and a half in Beijing,” he says. Poon finally reached a breaking point and began his plan to get back home to Tahoe. He pinched his trunk sides and felt muffin tops where once there were strong muscles. He looked at Mollie — whom he aimed to marry — and decided he owed her more than the life they started in China. The gears began to turn.

He had a laundry list of connections to tap back in Tahoe: world-class athletes including Cody Townsend, JT Holmes, Jeremy Jones and Michelle Parker, and adventure photographer Corey Rich. He also worked closely with Pulitzer prize winning journalist Jonah Kessel.

He called them up and asked if they could help him get on his feet when he arrived back in the States. Not only did they agree to help him, they said they’d also take him under their wings. They knew he had a unique skill set as a top-end rock climber, splitboarder, and mountain biker, and he could access spots few other pro photographers could reach, including steep ridgelines high in the alpine. All Poon had to do was take his photography skills to the next level; his plan was to mentor under his friends—to fast track his way to the top — rather than attend college courses. So he and Mollie took the leap of faith, flying back to the States and settling in Tahoe City.

“I need stress and challenge to be my best,” Poon says. “I love adventure and I’m not afraid of the unknown because I’m a climber. Not knowing if I could succeed or not was never something I was afraid of.”

But he didn’t leave everything behind in Beijing; the painfully long days, the great responsibility … he kept those, as he knew applying a similar mindset would allow him to get things done and negotiate big deals. He set a goal: go pro within two years.

“I went out and shot everything. I also focused on the business side,” he says.

Brennan Lagasse skiing Lake Tahoe, NV on another blue-bird powder day (Ming Poon).

The Call

Poon picks up on the first ring, with passion and drive pouring out through his voice. There aren’t breaths; I can’t slow him down and for an hour I don’t even get the chance to get to my list of questions. He talks about how crazy his life is: what it was like buying his house in Tahoe; marrying Mollie; the mountain bike ride he took that afternoon. It’s like a train chugging along and I think, immediately, that he applies this motivation to everything, from relationships and family, to work, climbing and snowboarding.

He tells of his childhood, growing up with his mother and older sister in Shelburne, Vermont; occasionally with his father in Stowe, Vermont. Then Poon details his teen years, when he connected with his dad and all the teachings he picked up from him.

Then he shares what he learned from his mother. “My mom is super loving and nurturing and encouraged me to be healthy and happy. The only thing she said to me when she dropped me off at school was ‘be kind to people today.’ I’ve always wanted to be kind. In Chinese business that was hard.”

Today Poon shares everything with Mollie. “She draws my purpose too,” he says. “She’s first; we’re first.” The two want to start a family. He says his philosophy of life and love comes from his Chinese culture and Confucianism, which focuses on duty and community.

“Last winter was bonkers. It was so good,” he continues. “I made a goal to get published in the biggest publications, with an eye on Powder first.” He says he also nailed a feature story for Vermont-based Backcountry Magazine’s 2018 Photo Annual. Additionally, he has covers on Tahoe Quarterly, Tahoe Weekly, and features in Standup Journal, Backcountry Snow Journal and Vermont Life Magazine. He also works with brands Hestra, Jones Snowboards, Intuition Liners and Protect Our Winters.

Then he draws everything we talked about together. “Poon Ming-Tung,” he says, emphasizing that in Chinese, Poon comes first. “My full name means ‘Remember the East;’潘銘東. My family never wanted me to forget where I’m from—the Far East. As a kid, I didn’t like being so different. Then I embraced it.”

“My dad taught me that your mind is the most important thing. Protect your mind …”

Check out some of Poon’s latest work in TGR’s ski/snowboard film, Rogue Elements. In the video, Poon teams up with Mike Hatchett in a Tahoe segment featuring Jeremy Jones and Sammy Luebke.

Jeremy Jones riding Lake Tahoe, NV (Ming Poon).

 

Jeremy Jones (Ming Poon).

Jeremy Jones and Jim Zellers nearing the summit of Mt. Whitney (Ming Poon).

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