Review of Gwulo talk #4 | Gwulo: Old Hong Kong

Review of Gwulo talk #4

The following review first appeared in the July 2017 edition of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong's newsletter.

Photographs of Old Hong Kong & The Tales They Tell

Written by Russel Harding

The lecture theatre at the Visual Arts Centre was heaving on the evening of the 17 May 2017 with people who had come to see another episode of David Bellis’s photographic tales of old Hong Kong. Though many were no doubt attracted by the prospect of recognising places they had long been familiar with, or which they may remember but are no longer extant, none of the multitude could actually claim to have been present, or even nearby, when the photos were taken.

David’s modus operandi is to put up a large, high quality photo on the screen. Pretty well everyone in the audience can immediately recognise that the picture looks like it should be somewhere in Hong Kong, as there is a sort of instantly recognisable je ne sais quoi to them that says ’Hong Kong’ to the old China (Hong Kong) hand.

But then David asks the (we hope rhetorical) when and where? Some things immediately jump out at the viewer without any guidance – if there are people in the photo with a queue for instance, the viewer can instantly feel a sense of satisfaction in being able to say (probably to himself so as not to disturb everyone else, but not necessarily) ‘Ah, Qing dynasty, pre-1911’. But it’s often not that easy, and David is never satisfied with a date like pre-1911 – he is after greater temporal accuracy.

David would then take us on a journey down into the photo. Since the pictures are so high quality, he can zoom in on an area of the photo, and show us something significant there. Sometimes there was a headline displayed at a newspaper hawker’s stall. He would then show us how his research into HK’s newspaper archives had tracked down the exact date when the headline on the China Mail was the same as that on the hawker’s headline board, and the date could be narrowed down to the exact year, month, day and day of the week. In other pictures there were adverts for cinema or other shows, and he showed how some research on when the film or play was released could date the picture to a year, and possibly a few months after the film was released.

Another way to date the picture was if a building could be identified as being present or absent, and the date of it’s construction or destruction could be found in the records, that, maybe coupled with the presence or absence of other buildings, allows a date range to be established. A fine example of this was when he showed us a picture of a dense group of houses, which he could identify as being cleared at Tai Ping Shan by the government as part of the efforts to fight the great plague of 1894. He was also able to show us the same area with the Bacteriological Institute – the first such laboratory in Hong Kong (now the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences). Other ways of dating can involve such things as looking at the kind of vehicles on the roads (or lack of them) – no cars only rickshaws suggests an earlier date than one with cars in, and the release dates of models of cars in the photos can be traced.

Locations can also be identified by reference to buildings, some of which, like the Shamrock Hotel are still around, others of which, like the ones cleared to allow the Japanese to build a war memorial and monument to their overlordship of Hong Kong clearly are not. Again, it was fascinating how David could zoom in on a particular part of the picture to identify a building or structure, and often cross reference it to another photograph taken at a different angle, or time, to show the same structure which anchored it even more firmly.

David also had a theme running through many of the pictures, where, sometimes by zooming in, and sometimes not as there was no need since it was so obvious, he considered how much of Hong Kong was supplied, built, serviced and generally kept going through the efforts of people, the term ‘coolies’ is often used, carrying things on poles on their shoulders. The characteristics of the pole-carriers could also be sliced and diced – for instance lady pole carriers tended to move things around in mid-levels, male pole carriers tended to do the equivalent on the water-front. Their numbers dwindled of course, in a fairly direct correlation with the number of internal-combustion engine vehicles around.

David noted that it is relatively easy to find high-quality old pictures of places like the peak and Central, and so it is much easier to patch them together into a date and place based narrative. Those areas are also of course much more likely to have things like English cinema or newspaper signs to help with dating. But as he pointed out, at different times in Hong Kong’s development, more than half of Hong Kong’s population, at times well over a million people, were living in what were later called squatter huts, small houses or the H Block redevelopment estates. These areas were much less photographed, and there is therefore much less material around both to identify what was there, and to cross reference them against. Nevertheless, he was able to show us an early example of an ‘H Block’ (remembered well by the author from his early days of working in them in Hong Kong – though not photographing them) though since there were so many of them build to an identical design, it was impossible to identify where. 

But he was also able to show us some pictures of other areas of Kowloon, which were, in general much less recognisable at the detailed level (though Lion Rock is of course a constant if it makes an appearance) to the casual observer in the audience than most areas of Hong Kong because of the surprising (to this author at least) number of small hills that have now either been leveled or completely hidden by the pervasive concrete jungle that now covers Kowloon.

All-in-all, a great presentation which drew the audience in to act as amateur detectives, and reminded them of many aspects of Hong Kong’s past, not least that it was not pre-ordained Hong Kong would become the successful international city it is today (or was that yesterday?) David also reminded people that they could help him by using their detective skills on the photos on his website: and that he is always looking for more pictures to, much as Alice did through the looking glass, dive into.