Over the past year, you have noticed an Instagram account packed with fascinating street scenes from Hong Kong’s past. In one photo from 1941, a dapper European couple stroll down Canton Road, followed by a South Asian family in the background, the father in a marine uniform, the mother in a salwar kameez; a movie poster advertises the 1940 Hollywood musical Lillian Russell. In another image taken the following year, Queen’s Road is festooned with Japanese flags as a group of four young women stroll past a man reading the newspaper in a wicker chair – a deceptively normal scene that belied the struggle and hardship of the Japanese occupation.
The account maintains an extraordinarily well curated collection of images, one filled with countless small details that bring Hong Kong history to life. And it’s extraordinary in another way, too: it’s all in colour. Each of the old photos posted by the Old HK in Colour account has been painstakingly restored and colourised by a loose collective of young academic researchers who work on the images in their spare time, as a hobby. Since they launched at the beginning of 2020, they have posted more than 400 images, with more on the way.
“Since we could not find any IG pages promoting the culture of old Hong Kong with colourised images [or] animations and bilingual descriptions, we tried to establish our own for non-commercial, educational purposes,” says the group’s founder and coordinator, Loka Siu. Their process is straightforward but technically challenging, drawing from the group’s broad base of academic expertise, which Siu describes as “cultural history, digital humanities, artificial intelligence and intersemiotic translation.”
First, they find a compelling image from a public collection, whose images tend to be in the public domain because copyright long ago expired, or which otherwise permits non-commercial and educational use. Some of their favourite sources include the photos of John Thomson, a Scottish photographer who documented Hong Kong in the late 19th century, and Harrison Foreman, an American photojournalist who often passed through Hong Kong, capturing everyday streetlife on his visits to the city. Then they start the process of colourisation.
It’s easier said than done. First, they improve the image quality with “the latest technology of machine learning and artificial neural networks,” drawing out details that had been blurred or obscured; one recent post demonstrates the difference between the original 1941 photo of Canton Road, taken by Forman, and the enhanced version, which is impressively sharp and lifelike. The fog of history has been removed to reveal a scene that feels startlingly current.
The next step is to colourise, which is done manually. This is the most labour intensive part of the process and the one that relies the most on subjective judgement: should that sign be red or white? Is that man’s suit a summery pastel blue or a wintery grey? Siu says the group’s members refer to “a wide variety of historical sources, such as newspapers, magazines, official documents, memoirs and video recordings,” to decide on an appropriate palette.
In recent years, colourised historical photos have become a social media phenomenon, with hobbyists around the world dedicating themselves to altering monochromatic old photos. It’s easy to see why they are popular. In an interview with the Irish Times, Brazilian artist Marina Amaral explained the appeal of colourised old photos. “It definitely helps us to develop empathy and connect in a more intimate way with the subjects,” she said. “We are instantly more open to hearing and understanding the stories behind the pictures.”
That’s certainly the goal behind Old HK in Colour. Instead of simply celebrating the city’s past, the group hopes to start a critical discussion of Hong Kong’s history. When we look at a grainy black-and-white photo from a century ago, the distance between then and now is obvious; colourising it flattens the timeline, making the past feel more urgent and immediate.
“The architecture of Victoria City was undoubtedly magnificent, splendid, and breathtaking, but many commoners suffered from poor living conditions and struggled for their livelihoods with indomitable spirit,” says Siu. “There are many incredible stories behind the historic images and buildings, and we have been introducing them via IG stories and quizzes.”
They hope the images will pique the curiosity of their followers on Instagram, who currently number 37,100 – but they also want to demonstrate their utility in studying Hong Kong history, which has long been a neglected topic in local education. “Traditionally, textual resources, including newspapers and official documents, are fundamental sources for studying history, [but] some people may find them boring to read and lose their interest easily,” says Siu. It’s hard to lose interest when you see a full-colour photo of a little girl studying on the street, or of a lively conversation between two street hawkers – even though both photos were taken 66 years ago.
There’s plenty more material to work with. Beyond the treasure trove of old photos contained in historical archives, Siu says the group is interested in colourising old black-and-white film reels. They also plan to host livestream discussions on Hong Kong history tutorials on colourisation. In the meantime, a scroll through the group’s Instagram page is highly recommended: it makes history feel as real and relevant as all the other images on your feed.