It was in 1974 that photographer Greg Girard first saw Hong Kong from the deck of a freighter. “It was an astonishing scene to see this matter-of-factly vertical place,” he recalls. “The skyscrapers looked very run down, like they’d been there already for quite awhile. They would have been built in the early 60s but they didn’t weather well back then. It wasn’t shining and gleaming. It was a real workaday verticality.”
Hong Kong had been on his mind for awhile. Girard was 18 at the time, fresh out of the Vancouver suburbs, and he was eager to see something new. “When people were finishing high school, they were mostly going to Europe, and that didn’t interest me,” he says. He had been captivated by a photo of Hong Kong’s skyline taken in 1962, when new towers were just beginning to rise from the foreshore and red-sailed junks still bobbed in the waters of Victoria Harbour. Girard remembers feeling intrigued by the neon billboards advertising familiar international brands — Sony, Pepsi-Cola, Rolex — in such a foreign location. “It wasn’t this old-new or East-West thing” that caught his attention, he says. “It was more the way the photographer made the exotic look ordinary and the ordinary look exotic.” So off he went, beginning a decades-long journey through the changing landscapes of Asian cities. Girard’s first book, City of Darkness, was a groundbreaking document of the Kowloon Walled City, the Chinese enclave that became an astonishing vertical settlement before it was demolished in 1993. He then went on to photograph the redevelopment of Shanghai in the early 2000s, the everyday streetscapes of Hanoi, and the unique dynamics of the American military presence on Okinawa. Along the way, he became known for moody, nocturnal images that revel in a kind of urban in-betweenness. Girard’s work is defined by an attraction to unloveliness — to scenes that conventional taste considers messy, grimy or outmoded — and his ability to turn repulsion into attraction.
That was evident even in those teenage photos of Hong Kong. Some of them can be found in Girard’s latest book, HK:PM, which documents the city’s nightlife between 1974 and 1989. The book launches on October 27, which will be accompanied by an exhibition at the PMQ that runs until November 12.
It’s a homecoming for Girard, who lived here from 1982 to 1998. “Hong Kong swept me off my feet straight away. I just completely fell for it,” he recalls. He wandered through the half-light of the city’s concrete canyons, using a Canon FTb and Nikon F1 to photograph delivery workers, doormen and Vietnam-bound American sailors. As night fell, he made long exposures of streets bathed in a sultry neon glow.
“Coming from the outside, you see all this stuff and it looks amazing to you,” says Girard. “You’re not doing it because you think in 20 or 30 years it will be interesting, you’re doing it because it’s powerful and it moves you in the moment. You’re young and everything is new, you’re probably making quite clichéd things, but when you really fall for something there is a kind of intensity that you bring to the clichés. You’re not stopped by thinking, ‘Have I seen this before? Could I do this better?’ You just kind of throw yourself at it and keep going.”
Girard had been taking photos for a few years already, journeying downtown from his family’s home in the Vancouver suburbs. At the time, Vancouver wasn’t the glossy urban resort of today; it was a hardscrabble port town with rain-slicked streets and mouldering wood houses. It was also a city filled with neon – underappreciated at the time, but candy for the eye of a young photographer. “In one way I never really thought of it as night photography,” says Girard. “I just saw it as other kinds of light. Daylight’s gone but there’s everything else.”
Girard’s nighttime perambulations took him through Vancouver’s Chinatown, which was flourishing in the 1970s. “It was very alive and open very late,” he recalls. It served as a preface to his time in Hong Kong. “There was a sort of allure – what does the original look like? I understand this is a sort of transplanted version of it and changed by being where it is. But really, what is the original?” After a few years back in Vancouver, Girard returned to Hong Kong in 1982. “I didn’t have any story to tell – it was about the city,” he says. It can be hard to imagine today, given the mobs of Instagrammers and amateur photographers that fill Hong Kong’s streets every weekend, but few people took an interest in Hong Kong’s urban landscape in the 1970s and 80s. “I was trying to make pictures that I thought would be revealing about Hong Kong, the kind of pictures I wasn’t seeing at the time,” says Girard. “You’d probably have to go see a Hong Kong gangster film to get any sense of what the city was like at night.”
Girard landed a job as a sound recorder with the BBC, then started working as a photojournalist, which is what led him to the Kowloon Walled City. He says his style of photography changed to suit the needs of his editors: fewer seductive nighttime shots, more descriptive wide-angle photos. “I did it happily but it took me on a detour for a while,” he says. It wasn’t until he left Hong Kong for Shanghai in 1998 that he returned to his original style of photography. He began shooting long exposures of a city in the throes of manic redevelopment. Many of his Shanghai photos have a ghostly quality, depicting the glowing windows of houses standing alone in fields of rubble. Even if many of the neon signs Girard depicted in his early photos of Hong Kong have vanished, he thinks the city has retained its essential character – especially compared to the wholesale change he witnessed in Shanghai. “In a way, it’s more of the same, just intensified and cranked up,” he says of Hong Kong. What has changed is Hongkongers’ interest in their own city. Whereas it once took an outsider’s point of view to see what was remarkable about Hong Kong, the city now has no shortage of people who are eager to explore its landscape.
“I had the advantage of growing up just a regular suburban kid without some of the struggles that would have been true for Hong Kong people in the 70s and 80s,” he says. “People were trying either to make money or emigrate. Hong Kong has [since] evolved. I’d say it was a generational change – young Hong Kong artists and young Hong Kong photographers are interested in the city in a way they weren’t back in the 80s for the most part.”
At the same time, photography has become accessible and ubiquitous in ways Girard could never have imagined. “We’ve seen everything and we’re denied nothing,” he says. And yet, despite the flood of imagery that now pervades our lives, Girard still has a feeling similar to the one he had when he first visited Hong Kong and realised there was an entire aspect of the city nobody had bothered to document. “There are things I want to see I haven’t seen,” he says. There are still pictures to be made.
HK:PM is organised by Blue Lotus Gallery. It runs from October 27 to November 12, 2017 at room 507s in the PMQ. For more information, click here.