Images Through Time: Photos of Old Hong Kong

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The earliest known image of Kowloon Walled City (in the distance) c. 1870


I
t has taken the curators at Hong Kong History Museum an entire year to put together the massive exhibition of archival Hong Kong photographs that opens this week – Images Through Time: Photos of Old Hong Kong. “I assure you that the process [of selecting the images] was very painful!” says Susanna Siu, the museum’s chief curator, with a laugh. We can tell she isn’t joking. 

The sweat and tears have stemmed from the sheer scale of this endeavour. Last year, the museum was lent a collection of 20,000 old photos by the Moonchu Foundation (a charity supporting culture and education), which had been bought from a private collector in London. This, bolstered by the museum’s own collection of 14,000 photos, provided the curators with a huge haul of images, which were slowly whittled down to the roughly 700 that now feature in the exhibition. Multiple trips to London were made by the curators in order to see all the photos in person. “We had many hot debates on the storyline of the exhibition,” recalls Siu. Although the photos on display span from the 1860s to the 1960s, the team decided to focus somewhat on the introduction of photography to China and Hong Kong, in the 1860s. “Early photography here really records the development of the city shortly after the British arrived, so it’s very exciting,” she says. 

Queen's Road East, looking from Stone Nullah Lane c. 1870

The Moonchu collection provided the museum with plenty of previously unseen material. “This is a very significant photo collection. We were very impressed and amazed by it – some of the photos we had never seen before!” says Siu. “We discovered a lot of traces of old Hong Kong. We really wanted to put up the exhibition, without caring how much work we were going to have to do.”

Looking through these photos is endlessly fascinating. In between glimpses of familiar mountains and the odd colonial building that remains standing, the city we know and love nowadays is pretty much unrecognisable in most of the pictures. However, there are some things that haven’t changed. “This is a sushi restaurant,” explains Wong Nai-kwan, assistant curator at the museum, as he points to a photo of Wan Chai in 1920. “There were many Japanese restaurants in Wan Chai back then – it was known as ‘Little Tokyo’. We also spotted a fish and chips restaurant in Central called Liverpool Restaurant; it was open 24 hours a day.”

One picture of Cochrane Street in the 1870s sums up a seedier side to the nostalgia. Siu explains that the area around Cochrane Street housed several brothels, and at that time it was customary to bring flowers when frequenting these establishments – and this is why the Chinese name for Lyndhurst Terrace (baai fa gaai) still translates as ‘flower-arranging street’.

Cochrane Street looking towards Lyndhurst Terrace c. 1870

There are also stunning images of the Pedder Street clock tower, which, despite its grand presence, had to be demolished in 1913 because it had been constructed slap-bang in the middle of the road and was blocking traffic. “The mechanisms from the Pedder Street clock tower were installed into the clock tower that still remains standing in Tsim Sha Tsui,” Wong tells us. 

Overlooking Queen's Road Central from Murray Barracks, with
partially constructed Pedder Street Clock Tower c. 1861

It is easy to become absorbed in this black-and-white world as we look through the images. That is thanks, in part, to the range of ways they are displayed – alongside prints, there are display panels, large wall murals, some (very cool) 3D stereographs, real historical photo albums and, conversely, e-albums on digital screens, which visitors can flick through using their fingers. 

As Siu says: “It’s probably the biggest exhibition of old photos of Hong Kong, ever. Every picture tells a story, and there are hundreds of stories to be told.” Layla Ho

 

The Peak, 1926

 

The Peak, 1986

 

Images Through Time: Photos of Old Hong Kong Until April 21. Hong Kong Museum of History, Tsim Sha Tsui, 2724 9042; hk.history.museum. $20. 

 

All images courtesy of Hong Kong Museum of History

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