Sunday, 26 December 2010

Focusing on Hong Kong's Past

Victoria Harbour, 1880

Today I caught the tail end of an exhibition featuring photographs taken from 1860 to 1870, probably the first real collection of pictures of Hong Kong after it was ceded to the British in 1842 in the Treaty of Nanking.

The show was held in another colonial bygone era -- the former Central police station on Hollywood Road.

It was interesting walking up the ramp to the police complex, with its European architecture that sadly has fallen to neglect with paint chipping off the exterior as well as walls inside. There's been lots of talk over proposals of how to redevelop the site and now it looks like it will become an arts exhibition space as well as area for artists to develop their craft.

But back to the photographs. While we didn't see the originals, they were enlarged and mounted on slanted boards at chest height for easier viewing.

And if those pictures weren't labelled as ones of Hong Kong, I would probably think they were of an exotic place in southeast Asia that was far from the sophisticated city it is today.

The shots had lots of green rolling hills, empty spaces and colonial looking buildings standing majestically out from the trees. They turned out to be Government House and St John's Cathedral, both still standing.

There were also pictures of docks and wharfs, but they seemed rather deserted than bustling with activity.

What was also interesting was that most of the photographs were taken by British photographers, who had their own perception of what Chinese people should look like.

The Race Course taken between 1860-64
Many of the pictures of Chinese people were posed so they were hardly journalistic in nature. There was one where several Chinese people were supposed to be standing around an open-air kitchen, with everyone in bare feet, looking poor and destitute.

Another observation was the way the Chinese posed in studio shots, eager to look modern. Some tried to give the impression they were more western minded by posing with rugs or western furniture, but their dress was still strictly Chinese complete with queues.

The photographs of some streets in Central were really fascinating. They showed shops with signs in English and Chinese, hawking all kinds of things including Japanese curios, medicines, and teas. There was even a clock tower in Central that later caused so much traffic disruption that it was dismantled in 1913.

The streets today hardly look like the ones in the pictures at all -- the changes have evolved into something unrecognizable from over a century ago.

Three Hong Kong men in their 50s were looking at the pictures and periodically would point out they remembered a building in them. So history for some has only changed recently.

It was also interesting to see how many came out to see the exhibition -- people of all ages, particularly young people, curious about their city's history and of course those who take up photography as a hobby.

Perhaps this show should be a permanent one in some way, as a means to preserve Hong Kong's history so that its people can have a better understanding of their past in order to have a better sense of the future.

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