Is there a city other than Hong Kong that inspires a sense of nostalgia on your first visit? It’s a peculiar sensation, mourning the loss of a place you don’t even know, but one that Cody Ellingham recognised the very first time he came here in 2018, when he was living in Tokyo. “The avalanche of change was already starting to fall by the time I got to Hong Kong,” says the New Zealand-based photographer. “There is this idea that you should do things as if it might be the last time you will ever do them, and in a way things would never be the same again in the city.”
That experience underpins his new photobook, Fantasy City by the Harbour, a moody collection of nocturnal scenes that aims to capture what Ellingham calls “dream-like memories of Hong Kong.” It’s a city in which he has never lived, although he does have a personal connection – his father worked here in the 1990s doing pipeline construction, and “he would tell me stories about what it was like back then,” says Ellingham. But for the most part, the photographer approached the city with the fresh eyes of a neophyte.
“I was of course overwhelmed with the verticality of Hong Kong, which made Tokyo seem tame in comparison,” he says. “But more than that, I got this sense that there were many layers to the city for me to uncover. I stayed in the infamous Chungking Mansions on Nathan Road, and it became clear to me very quickly that there were stories behind every window.”
Ellingham roamed the streets, trying to make sense of its densely layered urbanity. “My photographic process is part wandering, part divination,” he says. “I lug around my architectural lenses and tripod like a madman and set shots up as if I am shooting a building for a magazine, but instead of being brand new, more often than not I am shooting the oldest and most run-down building on the block. I think of it like being the needle of a record player: I drag myself across the streets of the city looking for moments and stories that resonate and tell the story.”
Although he carried multiple lenses, he most often used a 50-millimetre tilt-shift “that plays with the light in a certain way which I think captures a cinematic quality.” Many of photos he created certainly feel like a throwback to the grittiness of classic Hong Kong films: ghostly blue lights glowing behind construction netting and bamboo scaffolding, laundry hanging out to dry from bamboo rods, cast in the eerie glow of a massage parlour’s LED sign, a brightly-lit swimming pool framed by hulking towers bathed in the sunset hue of a neon sign. These scenes are contemporary yet somehow timeless, evoking a certain idea of Hong Kong that lives in the imagination of everyone who has passed through it.
As he explored the city, Ellingham was amused by certain urbanistic details that reminded him of New Zealand. “There is a certain providence in the buildings that speaks to a shared Commonwealth history and urban planning paradigm that I found fascinating,” he says. “Even little things like the old post boxes or art deco buildings felt like they could have been interchanged.”
That feeling followed him back home, where he maintains a photography studio in Wellington, in a 1930s building that wouldn’t be out of place in Sham Shui Po (“Perhaps with just a few more air conditioning units hanging from the windows,” he notes.) Every so often, he catches “a glimpse of something that reminds me of Hong Kong.”
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020 and New Zealand sealed its borders, Ellingham yearned to travel, and he turned his attention to the photos he had taken in Hong Kong in 2018. That’s what led to the photobook, which is imbued with the spirit of wanderlust: it even contains a mock plane ticket to the old Kai Tak Airport, whose abandoned remnants Ellingham documented during his visit to Hong Kong.
The book is also a response to just how much Hong Kong has changed over the past four years, between the 2019 protests, the National Security Law and two years of closed borders and Covid restrictions. “The name Fantasy City by the Harbour comes from the idea that there are two Hong Kongs: the one in reality and the one that we fondly remember in our memories,” says Ellingham. “I often wonder how we can get back to that other Hong Kong, of which only dreams remain.”