Hong Kong ephemera

Submitted by David on Sat, 10/16/2021 - 11:00

The recent UK trip ended on a Sunday with a visit to the Bloomsbury Ephemera Fair in London. The fair is held on the last Sunday of the month, and if I finish a UK trip in London I usually try and arrange the dates so I can go along.

The postcard fair I'd attended the previous week is mostly postcards with a few photos, but an ephemera fair has a much wider selection of material. Letters, tickets, catalogues, and programmes are just some of the old paper items you'll expect to see. On previous visits there have been plenty of postcard sellers too, which is why I go. Here's my first postcard purchase of the day:


"Chinese life, boy carrying baby"

Chinese life, boy carrying baby


Does it look familiar? Compare it with this postcard I'd bought at Woking the week before:

"Poor Chinese Children"


Clearly they're both based on the same black & white photo. It's a little example of the many ways that "the camera never lies" isn't the whole story: scenes are posed, people want to look their best, photos are edited, colours are added.

This turned out to be the first and last postcard purchase of the day. Very few postcard sellers attended, so this visit's Bloomsbury fair was a disappointment. I hadn't originally planned to go to the Woking fair, but I was very glad I did!


Hotel Miramar's luggage label

Hotel Miramar luggage label


I did find a few items on the ephemera stalls though, including this one. It looks like a postcard, but is actually printed on much thinner paper, to be stuck on luggage.

I was also happy to find a stall selling pages from the Illustrated London News (ILN). The ILN's engravings are still very sharp even after 150+ years, and let us see Hong Kong in the years when photos were much less common, and postcards weren't yet available.


"Chinese waterproofs "(ILN 1875)

Chinese waterproofs


I wouldn't be surprised if the ILN's engraver based this engraving on a copy of the photo shown below.

1870 Straw Raincoats.jpg
1870 Straw Raincoats.jpg, by federalfred


"Coolie chairmen at Hong-Kong" (ILN 1857)

Coolie chairmen at Hong-Kong


Older engravings like this one were based on sketches that were drawn in Hong Kong and sent back to London. If we're lucky the page also includes a description of the scene:

OUR Special Artist has sketched, as one of the agremens of Hong-Kong, a pair of coolies bearing a bamboo chair, or sedan, through the streets - a similar mode of conveyance which has disappeared from London almost in our time. As a sketch of the street life of Hong-Kong, this is spirited and characteristic. We agree with the Times correspondent that the turn-out has somewhat of a Guy Fawkes air; but, with the open blinds, it must be pleasant enough in the hot days of the island. The large hats, and umbrellas, and fans, of the street passengers are indicative of heat; as does the portrait-painter's name, Sunqua, who may be a sort of rival to the photographer.


"Chinese nursemaids on the parade-ground, Hong-Kong" (ILN 1857)

Chinese nursemaids on the parade ground


This was published a few months earlier than the previous engraving, but in the same year so the original sketch may well have come from the same artist. Turning the page we find the artist's notes:

I have sketched a few Nursemaids at Hong-Kong: the British children, as usual, overdressed, and taught the use of crinoline at an early age. Even in China you see we have perambulators. Coolie is indulging in a quiet whiff. The gentlemen in chintz mitres are Parsees, without whom Hong-Kong would not look itself. In the distance part of the barracks is visible. I have a peculiar predilection for this spot in Hong-Kong. It is very amusing to gossip with these girls - their Anglo-Chinese is delightful.


"The race-course, Happy Valley" (ILN 1858)

The race-course, Happy Valley


The races merited a much longer piece:

In the Times, April 15, appeared a letter from its special correspondent in China, from which we take the following extract relating to the races at Hong Kong:-

"The Englishman's holiday followed. If any one is desirous of seeing good, steady, old-fashioned-racing, where there are no crosses, and where every horse is started and ridden to win, I am afraid he must go to Hong-Kong. A Londoner cannot conceive the excitement caused in this little distant island by the race week. It is the single holiday of the merchants. They spend weighty sums in importing horses from all parts and training them for the contest. We may smile at this truly English mania struggling against strong discouragement; but the means of amusement are not numerous at Hong-Kong.

When we first see the racecourse in the 'Happy Valley' we are half-tempted to declare that it is the most picturesque spot in the whole world. The scenery, however, must not distract our attention while Snowdrop is making the running. The Grand Stand, and the booths, and the stables, and all the properties of the turf, and by no means forgetting the luncheons and the champagne, are all in first-rate order. The one and a half mile road between the 'Happy Valley' and the city of Victoria is at the proper time crowded with vehicles and horsemen and pedestrians, and sometimes the pace is rapid, and sometimes one of the party blows a horn.

The Wong-nei-chong Stakes are of foreign sound, but also are the Cesarewitch. Six Arabs come forth to dispute the Canton Cup, the most important of the six races of the first day; if the pace is not very fleet the contest is severe and the run honest. Enthusiasts from Shanghai sometimes come down and win away the honours from the great stables of Victoria; the Capulets and Montagues of China meet here in friendly emulation, and 'Sir Michael' and 'Snowdon' are important champions. So also are the 9st. 7lb. men, the gentlemen jocks, who, principally supplied by her Majesty's army and navy, seem wonderfully brilliant to the eyes of the clustering thousands of Chinese. Three days of crisp sunshine, the only three days of really glorious weather I have seen in Hong-Kong, crown the spectacle. Jove looks down propitious upon the holiday of the exile, and smiles to see that his best happiness is to cheat himself with some semblance of his home."

That's a great written description, but a close look at the engraving shows it is only a rough approximation of the real scene. I suspect that some of these early scenes were conjured up by an engraver who was passed the written description and told to do their best!



The last purchase was a stock of the polythene sleeves that will protect any future purchases, and should be enough to last me a few years.

Polythene sleeves


Then it was off to the airport, where I discovered that my PCR test certificate was missing my middle name - grounds for being refused entry to Hong Kong! Fortunately the testing company had a branch at Heathrow, and I got the updated certificate just a few minutes before check in closed.

There was another test and more forms to complete on arrival at Hong Kong, but it was all very well organised. Three to four hours after landing I walked into my hotel room, and read the instructions on the table:

According to the Quarantine Order, you are required to stay in your room at all times. Your key card is for one-time use only. Should you leave your room, you will not be able to re-enter and will be observed by our CCTV cameras at the corridor. Please hold the door when you would like to collect meals or dispose garbage.

This room was to be home for the next three weeks.