Western photographers in 19th century Hong Kong

Terry Bennett has written a three-volume history of photography in China in the nineteenth century. He has previously shared a chapter about early Chinese photographers in Hong Kong, and today he is back with two chapters about the Western photographers.

The first chapter documents the very first commercial photographers in Hong Kong, starting with Mr George West. Sadly, none of his photos are known to have survived, but his watercolours remain as evidence of his abilities:


HOPIC 1 Fig 7.jpg

Fig. 7. George R. West. ‘Chinese Blacksmiths. Macao,’ 1840s.
Watercolour. Caleb Cushing Papers, Manuscript Division,
Library of Congress.


West sailed to China in 1843 as part of Caleb Cushing’s diplomatic mission from America. He was given the title "Artist to the Expedition".

After China and America signed the Treaty of Wanghia, the diplomat's work was done. West could have sailed home with him, but instead stayed on. That decision led to him becoming the first commercial photographer in China, starting out in Canton in 1844, but moving to Hong Kong soon after:

Mr West begs leave to inform the inhabitants of Victoria that he has opened a Photographic or Daguerreotype Room in Peel Street, near Queen’s Road. His room will be open from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Single miniatures $3. $2 charged for each additional head in a group.
China Mail, 6th March 1845.

Sketching was his first love, so he went back in to China to continue his work. He tried his best to travel unnoticed:

... he was obliged to disguise himself and adopt the Chinese costume and habits. Having a clear olive complexion, dark eyes and hair, his transformation was complete. Securing the services of a faithful native servant, and generally affecting to be deaf and dumb, Mr West wandered for seven long years through various parts of the Chinese Empire, visiting places never before seen or known to Europeans.

But sometimes even his best precautions weren't enough:

City Hall, Coolies, and the Peak Tram

City Hall

A few weeks back we saw a view of Pedder Street, one of a set of four photos. Today we'll look at the other three, starting with this view of the old City Hall [1] and Dent's fountain [2].

City Hall straddled the sites of today's Old Bank of China and HSBC buildings. The HSBC end of the building housed a theatre, the Theatre Royal [3]. You can see a couple of "TONIGHT' signs for the theatre's shows on the columns at the left:


There's an interesting note on the back of the photo:

Going Home: The Baglin – Shelley photographs

Mother & Daughter (2)

Back in 2014 I posted the photo shown above, and wrote:

“I bought a collection of photos recently, hoping they'd have lots of views of Hong Kong. Instead they're almost all photos of people, that really belong in a family album. I'd rather see them back with the family, so I'm hoping one of Gwulo's readers can help put them in touch.”

The post generated a lot of interest on Gwulo and Facebook, and we identified the mother and daughter as Ms Baglin and her daughter Marie. Readers remembered Marie was also known as Vickie and that she married Tony Shelley, a Hong Kong policeman.

Several people said they knew the family and would get in touch, but I never heard back. I guessed that, for their own reasons, Marie’s children didn’t want to make contact. Still, I hoped another relative would be searching the internet for family information, find the page and get in touch.

That’s where we left the story, til a few weeks ago when an email arrived from Jean Louis Lecoeur in France. He included this photo:

Senora Baglin and her daughters

It was an exact match for one I’d posted in the original article!

Baglin-Dubois family

Over to Jean Louis:

1919-20: Photos from Warren Swire's third visit to Hong Kong

Warren Swire’s third visit was delayed by the First World War. He had joined a territorial army unit in 1907 (the Royal Buckinghamshire Hussars), and so was mobilized with them in 1914. He served in Egypt until 1916, then returned to the UK to work in control of shipping, a fitting use for his skills [1]. By 1919 he’d returned to the commercial world, and was back in Hong Kong to check on the company’s operations.

Before we look at his photos, what was the company’s place in Hong Kong at that time? The 1920 Juror’s list gives us an idea of its significance: of the 1,546 jurors listed, 132 or roughly 1 in 12 worked for either Taikoo Dockyard & Engineering (TD&E) or the Taikoo Sugar Refinery (TSR).


Taikoo Sugar Refinery

We’ve seen the Dockyard in photos from his earlier visits, but this time he also took photos of the Sugar Refinery. The first photo is titled “H.K. TSR Village”, and shows some of the workers’ housing. 


Taikoo Sugar Refinery Village


You can see the tram tracks running along King’s Road at the left. If you look closely, you’ll see that Quarry Bay only had a single track service at this time. Just where the tram lines disappear from view there’s a junction and road running off to the left. That is Mount Parker Road.

He also took photos of the Sugar Refinery’s recreation club, and the houses for its European staff:


Taikoo Sugar Refinery Recreation Club


Taikoo Sugar Refinery Foreign Houses


A look down the list of Taikoo Sugar Refinery men on the jurors’ list gives an idea of who lived there. It includes

c.1908 Pedder Street

c.1908 Pedder Street


Where: The lamps on the building show the word "Hotel".

Hotel lamp

They light up the Hong Kong Hotel [1], so we're looking north along Pedder Street from near the junction with Queen's Road. The curved building in the distance was the Hotel Mansions building, later called the Union Building [2]. At this time it housed an extension of the Hong Kong Hotel.


Who: It's a fascinating scene, with so many people coming and going. A few caught my eye...


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