Sometimes a change of scenery is what it takes to spark a creative impulse. That was the case for Justin Wong, who moved from Hong Kong to Toronto to finish high school. “The environment was completely different – there was snow and it was so spacious compared to Hong Kong,” he says. That inspired him to begin taking photos. “I wanted to capture even minor things like drinking a cup of coffee in Tim Horton’s, as opposed to Pacific Coffee.”
He kept up the habit through his studies in sociology at the University of Waterloo, and then when he returned home to Hong Kong in 2016. Now his Instagram feed, @justinwongjw, has nearly 18,000 followers. And he has just launched his first exhibition, Nostalgic Times, an ode to the neon signs and sultry nightscapes that have defined Hong Kong in the popular imagination for so many decades.
Wong began using Instagram in university, but his focus has sharpened since then. “Back then I was taking very general subjects – food, travel, some other random snapshots,” he says. Today, he keeps a compelling record of Hong Kong’s urban environment. His latest work—the photos featured in the exhibition—consists of film photos with distinct halation over lights, giving neon signs or streetlamps an eerie, gauzy glow, like a scene from a distantly remembered dream.
Wong says he wanted to capture the visceral feeling inspired by the night. “In the daytime, I play with the light and shadows, but at night it’s about emotions and reflections,” he says. “You know, living in a big city as a small person leaves a big impression.” Anyone taking a red minibus home from Central at three o’clock in the morning can relate to the feeling: the city epic and mysterious as it passes by in a blur of light.
Wong captures a similar mood in his aerial photos, which he takes both from the upper levels of buildings and by drone. These aren’t bland postcard shots: Wong has a knack for capturing the interplay between light and landscape, as when a thin band of fog passes over Victoria Harbour, or a narrow shaft of sunlight punctuates a densely-packed neighbourhood like an exclamation mark.
He hopes his photos inspire a critical reflection of Hong Kong and what makes the city unique. “We keep building new things but there are a lot of valuable things that are already around us,” he says. That’s what inspired the work on show in Nostalgic Times. When Wong left Hong Kong in 2007, the city was still full of neon. When he returned nine years later, it was quickly disappearing.
It stirred something in Wong. He recalled how his parents used to take him to a Chinese-style Western restaurant in Prince Edward when he was in primary school. “It had a big neon sign. I still remember it as my first impression of seeing such a beautiful signboard,” he says. As Hong Kong loses its neon, it is losing a part of its identity. “When people think of Hong Kong, they picture it as full of neon signs. And when you look back to the 1980s, basically all the businesses, whether you’re a noodle shop or a nightclub, you had a neon sign.”
Nostalgic Times is moody and—as its title suggests—steeped in a nostalgic vision of the city. But Wong hopes his photos will encourage people to look forward, too. “I’m so passionate about Hong Kong as a place,” he says. “But there has been a lot of substantial change. I want society to have more consideration about protecting those things that have historical meaning to us.”