Fan Ho’s Last Photography Book Digs into Vintage Hong Kong Life

On 19 June 2016, Hong Kong photographer and director Fan Ho passed away. Renowned for inimitable, moody photographs of his home city, Ho continued his creative work even after his official retirement, going through his archives and finding new ways to process and present his shots from so long ago. In fact, even while laid up in hospital, he was working on a book that would be the cumulation of a years-long dream.

Fan Ho

Fan Ho’s ‘Master Craftsman (鬼斧神工)’ – Hong Kong 1950s and 60s – Courtesy Blue Lotus Gallery

“He was very attentive to the progress of the book until his very last moments,” says Claudia Siman Ho, Ho’s daughter, during a phone call to her home in California. “We brought things to the hospital for him; he reviewed mockups and discussed photo selections with us.” When Ho succumbed to pneumonia before the book could be completed, his family continued the project in his stead.

The book in question is Portrait of Hong Kong, which was published in 2017. It features around 150 of Ho’s street photographs, narrowed down by Claudia, her family, and the rest of the publishing team from 500 selections Ho had made from his archives. Alongside the photography are quotes from the book Thoughts on Street Photography, penned by Ho when he was 28. This month, Blue Lotus Gallery, which also helped drive the project, will showcase 40 of the photos in an exhibition of the same name. The book will be available for purchase, too.

Fan Ho’s ‘Quarter to Four (三點九・中環街市)’ – Hong Kong 1950s and 60s – Courtesy Blue Lotus Gallery

Working on the book was a multi-faceted journey for Claudia and her family. It was a challenging research endeavour that saw the family wading into waters that were largely uncharted; none of them had any experience with photography or publishing. They lacked Ho’s background in philosophy, which he studied in university, and Chinese poetry. Both subjects largely informed and influenced his work. Claudia recalls the time she spent studying the poems after which Ho titled some of his works. “As Evening Hurries By,” a shot depicting a coolie pushing a heavy cart along the waterfront, was named for a Chinese poem about a general fighting far from home.

But soaking up this knowledge led to a deeper understanding of her father and his life’s great passion. “It was a healing process for all of us,” shares Claudia. “At that time, we missed him so much and working on the book made us feel connected to him. We shared anecdotes and felt his presence.”

While Claudia remembers growing up surrounded by her father’s works, the conversations she had about them with her father remained in the realm of casual chats rather than in-depth, technical discussions. She didn’t truly appreciate her father’s work until later, when she could recognise and understand their impact.

Fan Ho’s ‘Young Musketeers (當年情)’ – Hong Kong 1950s and 60s – Courtesy Blue Lotus Gallery

“As far back as I can recall, many of these photos were hung on almost every wall of where we lived,” she says. She lived in Hong Kong through secondary school, then moved to the States for university. “They were just like any other piece of furniture. I never really paid attention to them. But when I grew up I really started to feel that, oh, those were my father’s first loves.” Now, she finds herself taken by her father’s works for their depth, emotion, and the stories behind them.

Many of Ho’s shots hinged on what French photojournalist and street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson dubbed the “decisive moment” — that perfect moment where various elements of a scene all come together, sparking the photographer’s inspiration and making for an amazing work. Ho was known for his patience in waiting for such moments. And because of this focus on Hong Kong people, Claudia considers his photography to be a “record of Hong Kong society” and its changes as much as they are artworks.

Fan Ho’s ‘Can’t Wait (貪嘴)’ (left) – ‘Mystic Alley (秘巷)’ (right) – Photos courtesy blue Lotus Gallery

Followers of Ho’s work might note that the photography featured in Portrait of Hong Kong is somewhat of a departure from the stylised shots that he is best known for, but this was intentional. Throughout his life, Ho took plenty of more down-to-earth shots that depicted Hongkongers’ daily lives – shots that Claudia describes as showing the fortitude, resilience and kindness of the city’s people. However, the salon shows and award judging panels always seemed to favour his other works. “That was actually one of the things that was at the back of his mind for years — that he wanted to publish a book like Portrait of Hong Kong,” says Claudia. “Publishing this book had been one of his dreams for a long time. That’s why we knew we had to finish it for him.”

Fan Ho’s ‘Four (肆)’ – Hong Kong 1950s and 60s – Courtesy of Blue Lotus Gallery

Portrait of Hong Kong by Fan Ho will run at Blue Lotus Gallery from 22 March to 28 April 2019. Click here for more information.

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