Gretchen So’s Evolving Territories: Hong Kong in the Midst of Change

There’s a photo in Gretchen So’s series Evolving Territories: Hong Kong in Transition that is remarkable at first glance – and even more striking when you look closer. 

Taken from a rooftop in Tai Kok Tsui, the image depicts the vast West Kowloon reclamation project, which took 340 hectares of Victoria Harbour and turned it into land for the road and railways leading to the new international airport on Chek Lap Kok that opened in 1998. The skyline of Hong Kong Island rises in the background; in the foreground is a vast desert dotted by idle construction equipment and traversed by a river of silty-looking water. And right next to the river, barely visible unless you look closely, is a family: three tiny figures dwarfed by the massive banks of sand around them.

“They were sightseeing,” says So. “It was the most amazing thing.”

So is an acclaimed fine art photographer whose work is a meditation on everyday life and landscape. Evolving Territories was one of her first projects, shot over a six-year period between 1994 and 2000, just as Hong Kong was transitioning from British to Chinese rule. It was a personal project—“like a diary,” says So—that has never been properly exhibited. Until now. For the first time, 25 images from the series are being shown together in an exhibition that runs until July 20: one photo for each year since the handover in 1997.

It’s the first time the series is being shown as a collection because, until now, nobody seemed much interested in it. When the series was first completed, So says that people in Hong Kong greeted it with befuddlement; it was just a bunch of ordinary street scenes. Even when So exhibited some of the photos in Germany, she says the audience didn’t understand what she was trying to do. “I felt a little bit disappointed and discouraged,” she says. “That’s why I’ve never really shown this work before.”

Today, the photos hit differently, and not just because of the handover anniversary. Hong Kong has changed enormously over the past two and a half decades, both physically and politically. But So’s photos are a reminder that, in Hong Kong perhaps more than anywhere else, change is the only real constant. This is a city that has been frenetically remaking itself since the day it came into being – even if at some times more than others, the changes are more fundamental.

So started work on the series when she was studying photography in Canada. She came back twice a year during the summer break and Christmas holidays and was astonished at how her hometown felt different with every returning visit. “My frequent absence from Hong Kong made me become an outsider looking in,” she says. “I saw that things were already very different even in just a few months. It was a dramatic change all the time.” 

It felt especially poignant in the leadup to the handover, when the city was in the midst of an economic boom but also gripped by uncertainty over what would happen after the end of 175 years of British colonial rule. “There were all sorts of sentiments about the handover,” says So. “A few years before, people were moving overseas. Some people were very pessimistic, some were indifferent. I was getting nervous – my city was changing so fast and I didn’t want to miss those scenes.”

On her trips home, So began wandering around with a medium format camera, capturing anything that struck her fancy. She was particularly fascinated by construction sites, with their constant motion and heavy machinery. (“It’s strange for a woman to like these things, but I do,” she laughs. One can’t help but think of the umarell, an almost invariably masculine figure, which comes from a word in the Bolognese dialect of Italian that describes the men who linger at construction sites, observing the work as they clasp their hands behind their backs.) 

It was hard work—So developed a bone spur from the weight of the camera around her neck—and So’s mother often insisted on accompanying her, worried about her safety. But it was a chance not only to document Hong Kong but to better understand it. “I’ve lived on Hong Kong Island my entire life and I would hardly go to Kowloon side or the New Territories,” she says. “So I would just hop on a bus or a minivan, or the train, to go to new places. I would make plans with friends just to have an excuse to go somewhere.”

So continued working on the project even as she finished her undergraduate programme and moved onto master’s degrees at Yale and Columbia universities in the United States. When she finally returned to Hong Kong permanently, she rented a flat in the freshly-built Tin Shui Wai New Town so she could more easily explore Hong Kong’s rural fringes. 

Although the series works well as a documentary project, So says her intention was simply to create captivating images. “On a macro level, I was documenting this once-in-a-lifetime historical event, but on a day-to-day level, I operated as an artist,” she says. “I’m not a documentary photographer and I’m not a photojournalist – I’m an artist. I wanted each image to be a fine art photo rather than just a photo that contributes to a bigger project. I was driven by my artistic and creative aspirations.”

Perhaps that’s why the images have a certain stillness about them, even when they depict the frenzy of a vast land reclamation site, a plane roaring over Kowloon City as it approaches the old Kai Tak Airport, or a street filled with a cacophony of shop signs projecting into the street. There’s a kind of spaciousness about them, too, which lends itself to lingering in front of each photo, absorbing all of its details. 

Unlike the first times So tried showing photos from the series, the audience at the opening reception for Evolving Territories seemed to absorb the images with rapt attention. “I was quite surprised,” says So. “They really spent time looking at them.”

No wonder: Hong Kong is weathering another period of upheaval and uncertainty not dissimilar to the handover in 1997. The city in So’s photos is instantly recognisable, but it’s also different in ways both small and significant. It’s a chance to consider what change means in a city that never sits idle. 

Evolving Territories: Hong Kong in Transition runs at HKI Gallery until July 20, 2022. Click here for more information.

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