Hong Kong photographer Ric Tse has been documenting Hong Kong’s streets for years, but he couldn’t have guessed what would eventually earn him a solo gallery show at Picture This Gallery  and lots of attention from the public: Lego. More specifically, irreverent renditions of Hong Kong life using the little yellow people familiar to children around the world. There are scenes of taxi stands, tram stops and the tourist hordes along the Avenue of Stars – along with more politically-charged images of last year’s Umbrella Movement protests.

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“I thought it was just funny at the very beginning, but as I worked more and more, I developed some more meaningful ideas,” he says. “Lego is an international language. People anywhere in the world recognise these yellow figures.”

IMG_4745 copyIMG_3909_bw copyThat’s one of the reasons Tse’s photos won him so much attention: by replacing real people with Lego figurines, he makes his scenes approachable to anyone who has ever played with the Danish toys. For non-Hongkongers, Tse’s photos demystify unfamiliar situations, creating a bond between the viewer and a scene they might otherwise find exotic and unrelatable. For those already familiar with the city, the Lego images make us reconsider things we may take for granted.

Tse’s first Lego image was a simple scene of people sitting on a park bench. Later, his technique became more sophisticated: he takes a photo of a background scene, prints it and transforms it into a mini-studio for Lego figures and props. He uses several lights to illuminate the scene. Tse spends a lot of time on the details: for a scene of people lining up at a Mister Softee, he printed miniature versions of the ice cream truck’s logo and menu and pasted them on a Lego vehicle.

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Part of Tse’s motivation is to document a side of Hong Kong that seems to be vanishing with every passing year.

He prefers to set his scenes in old neighbourhoods, with their recognisable landscape of tong lay buildings (three-storey shop houses built between late 19 and mid 20 centuries) .

“Many things in Hong Kong will disappear, not just in 10 years but maybe next month,” he says.

One of his images features a backdrop of neon signs he photographed on Nathan Road a decade ago. When he returned to capture the scene more recently, he found that many of the signs had been removed. “Hong Kong changes rapidly but not always in a good way,” he says.

08 copyPart of Tse’s motivation is to document a side of Hong Kong that seems to be vanishing with every passing year. He prefers to set his scenes in old neighbourhoods, with their recognisable landscape of tong lau buildings (3 storey shop houses built between late 19th century and 1960) . “Many things in Hong Kong will disappear, not just in 10 years but maybe next month,” he says. One of his images features a backdrop of neon signs he photographed on Nathan Road a decade ago. When he returned to capture the scene more recently, he found that many of the signs had been removed. “Hong Kong changes rapidly but not always in a good way,” he says.

IMG_4175_final copyFunnily enough, Tse is one of the few people who didn’t play with Lego as a kid. It was only when his wife Daisy Leung was doing some spring cleaning and came across a box of her own stash of Legos that he got the idea to incorporate them into his photos. He pays homage to Leung in a photo of Lego people lining up at a taxi stand; one of them is holding a magazine that features her as the cover model.

Tse still doesn’t have many Lego bricks, but his collection of little yellow people continues to grow: he says he now has about 120, although Leung reckons it’s more than 150. They have a sixteen-month-old son. I ask Tse if he plans to buy more Lego for him to play with. “I don’t think so,” he replies. “Lego is expensive!” He laughs. “But my son will surely ask for it when he’s older.”

Ric Tse’s photographs can be found at Picture This Gallery