When Dutch photographer Ed van der Elsken was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, he embarked on one last project: he retrieved a collection of negatives from his 1959 visit to Hong Kong and developed them into an extraordinary series of prints.
Those prints formed the basis of his posthumous book, Hong Kong the Way it Was, which was published in 1997, seven years after his death. And they have now returned to Hong Kong thanks to collector Douglas So, who purchased them from van der Elsken’s widow, photographer Anneke Hillhorst, when he opened the F11 Foto Museum in 2014.
Van der Elsken is known for his freewheeling style and his photos of Hong Kong (which were taken on a round-the-world trip with his first wife, photographer Ata Kandó) embody that spirit. “It’s not just the old Hong Kong, it’s the way he captured it,” says So. “It was a Hong Kong without cosmetics, very genuine. Ed was very interested in the daily lives of ordinary people.”
What’s most intriguing about the images is that the city they depict is instantly recognisable, even if the buildings, fashion and other surface details are fundamentally different. Van der Elsken’s Hong Kong is a crowded place where the rich and poor collide, where local and foreign coexist and intermingle, a place of vertiginous scale that clings to the most unlikely landscape.
So though it was a particularly appropriate collection to display in celebration of the fifth anniversary of F11, which occupies a distinctive Art Deco townhouse in Happy Valley. Just over 130 black-and-white prints are on display across three storeys of the museum’s space, each packed with detail and augmented by boxes of substances that are meant as olfactory complements to the images: sea salt next to some photos of Victoria Harbour, and salted fish next to photos from the Tai Po Market.
It’s a cheeky acknowledgement of van der Elsken’s dissatisfaction with the inability of photography to fully capture the essence of a place as stimulating as Hong Kong. “Ride an open window tram and sniff the fresh air, salty from the sea, perfumed with so many of the scents and flavours of a Chinese city,” he wrote on the back of a photo of a moving tram.
Born in Amsterdam in 1925, van der Elsken studied sculpture before he was forced to abandon his studies during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. After the war, he became interested in photography and moved to Paris, where he worked for the Magnum photo agency, printing photos for renowned photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa. He absorbed their love of everyday life and immersed himself in the postwar bohemian culture of Paris.
He photographed what he found interesting and his work has an off-the-cuff quality that feels remarkably contemporary; a self-portrait he took with the artist Vali Myers in 1952 feels like it could have been created yesterday. Fan Ho was another accomplished photographer who documented Hong Kong’s streets in the 1950s, but his photos are far more formal, driven more by aesthetic concerns than by sheer impulse. By comparison, van der Elsken’s photography feels like a predecessor to the phone camera snaps that dominate today’s visual culture.
“He wasn’t concerned with getting the perfect picture,” says So. But he was adept at capturing the decisive moment. In one image, a young expatriate boy looks back at a blind beggar, about the same age, as they pass each other on a Central street. In another, van der Elsken follows a rickshaw from behind a breezeblock wall, capturing the texture of Hong Kong’s streets as well as their restless energy.
His obsessions are apparent. There are many photos of people carrying things: a giant porcelain vase, a rickshaw loaded with a corpulent white man, twin bundles of parcels hanging in balance from a bamboo pole. He loved Hong Kong’s trams, and he was fascinated by a particular building that once stood at the corner of Queen’s Road Central and Wellington Street. Wedged into a narrow, triangular plot of land, van der Elsken describes it as a “strange, ‘cut in half’” structure.
In one series of photos, he stalks a striking young woman dressed in a cheongsam. In some frames she looks surprised and flattered; in others she is clearly irritated. She eventually fled the scene by hopping onto a rickshaw, according to the caption van der Elsken wrote on the back of one of his prints.
It would be creepy if van der Elsken wasn’t so transparent about his foibles. One afternoon, he was taking photos at the Happy Valley racetrack when his gaze lingered on some cheongsam-clad women in the stands. He was “quite fascinated by so many exposed thighs and garters,” he notes in a caption. He was “snapping away like mad” until he was confronted by a police officer who told him off. “You are disturbing the ladies, sir – please concentrate your photography on the horses,” he said. Van der Elsken was “ashamed and embarrassed,” but not enough to avoid snapping a photo of the policeman, who stares back sternly.
Such photos are undeniably compelling. “Sometimes when you have your camera you know no fear,” says So. “You want to capture the subject that catches your eye at the moment.”
So appreciates the artistry of van der Elsken’s photos, which are brilliantly and engaging composed, despite their ad hoc quality. But he also loves getting lost in the details. Some of his favourites are the photos van der Elsken took from the Star Ferry as he crossed the harbour for the first time. Rows of shophouses line the harbour, behind which rise layers of tenements and ornate stone townhouses – all of which are gone. It’s a Hong Kong that is foreign in form yet somehow still familiar in spirit.
Hong Kong the Way it Was runs until 28 February 2020 at the F11 Foto Museum. Click here for more information.