Hong Kong’s History Is Kept Overseas: Wong Kan-tai Delves Into Archives

It is the worst of times, it is the best of times. It’s one of the most abused passages in literature, and yet, there doesn’t appear to be a more fitting way to describe present-day Hong Kong, with the rapid erosion of basic freedoms, and people from all walks of life sacrificing their weekends—and in some cases risking their lives—to march for democratic reforms. The line also came up as former news journalist Wong Kan-tai, and his partner Carol Lai, also a journalist, met at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in early August.

“When you see the journalists who are at the frontline, day and night – people might not be reading the same platforms, but as a profession, journalism is not going to die,” says Wong.

Although he is one of Hong Kong’s most famous photographers, Wong is self-effacing, often refusing to acknowledge his own achievements. A journalist for Wen Wei Po in the late 1970s and 80s, Wong long ago hung up his newsboy cap, but he remains an ardent photographer. In the last few years, he has released five photo books, covering wide-ranging topics from the Fukushima nuclear disaster to the Buddhist temples of northern Asia.

His latest volume is Secrets 1842-1997. It features 114 photographs of documents, letters and pictures of Hong Kong material found in British archives, dating from the mid-19th century to the end of the 1990s. Published by Mahjong, it was released in March in a limited run of 200 copies.

Wong’s idea for the project was sparked in 2005, when he accompanied Lai to the British National Archives in London. There he discovered a treasure trove of previously sealed materials, including a map detailing how the British navy found fresh water in Pok Fu Lam, and a letter issued by the Qing government to the British colonial government, informing them that Sun Yat-sen had arrived in Hong Kong. “They must have wanted the Brits to arrest Sun and send him back up north,” chuckles Lai.

As with Wong’s other photo books, Secrets has no captions, nor are the photos in chronological order, allowing viewers to focus as much on the aesthetics—the handwriting, the seals, the quality of the paper, the way portraits were taken—as on the content of the documents.

“Many of the documents were signed off by hand, so you could tell which British governor knew Chinese, and which didn’t,” says Wong. “Actually, everyone aside from Patten knew Chinese. [Murray] MacLehose and [David] Wilson had the best Chinese writing.”

Lai compares the experience of looking through an archive to “digging through a treasure chest. There are a lot of secrets,” she says. “It can be addictive.”

Secrets – and many surprises. Wong notes that, in one letter, the 文 character in Sun Yat-sen’s birthname, Sun Wen (孫文), was written with the water radical (氵). “But today, ‘wen’ is only written with the semantic component (文),” he says. “I’m surprised by the amount of stuff they kept, more than anything. For example, they not only kept a copy of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, but also the stamp used by Margaret Thatcher to sign it.”

Secrets also features a seating plan of the time when MacLehose hosted a dinner in Guangzhou before the signing of the 1984 declaration, which laid out the terms of Hong Kong’s handover from British to Chinese sovereignty. Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun, who was part of the senior leadership in Guangdong province in the late 1970s and early 80s, was in attendance. 

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Memo of the Qing Government

Hong Kong currently does not have an archives law, so the government and other public bodies are under no obligation to preserve their records for posterity. Despite repeated calls from activists, scholars and journalists, the Law Reform Commission only called a five-month public consultation on the enactment of an archives law last December. The consultation paper itself was criticised for being inadequate, with fuzzy positioning on the penalties that would be levied if records are destroyed. Lai and Wong both support an archives law, but they aren’t sure why it is taking the government so long to introduce one.

“It might be due to political considerations,” says Wong, noting that many believe the civil service are reluctant to air their dirty laundry. “Or it could be due to laziness.”

“Right now, the government can just burn or throw away any historical documents,” says Lai. “Even if these documents still exist, the public has no way of accessing them, as Hong Kong does not have the freedom of information law.”

And indeed, one of the catalysts behind Secrets was the rising consciousness among Hongkongers that they need to be aware of their city’s own history. “After I took the photos, I didn’t do anything with it,” says Wong. “They were in two memory discs, just sitting there. But when we live in a world where many things are starting to disappear, I decided to dig up these photos.”

wong kan-tai

Marble Hall, the private home of Sir Catchick Paul Chater who later bequeathed it to Hong Kong (1930)

For Wong, Hong Kong is a city of memories, with a multi-layered history that stretches back hundreds of years. “It’s that colonial history, the negotiation between East and West. Hong Kong is a result of that negotiation,” he says. “And it’s something unique to the city. Contrast that with a place like Shenzhen. Even if its cityscape appears somewhat like Hong Kong’s, it doesn’t possess the layers of history that Hong Kong has.”

Some Chinese nationalists have argued that Hong Kong’s colonial history is a shameful episode and it should thus be suppressed, but Wong disagrees. “It’s history. It happened. Our history is what makes us. There is no arguing with that.”

Wong is in a unique position to evaluate Hong Kong’s history. He got his start in journalism in 1977, when he began working as a news reporter in Wen Wei Po, a pro-Beijing newspaper. “I went to a leftist secondary school,” he says. “Wen Wei Po seemed like the natural choice.”

These days, pro-Beijing and pro-democracy media are seen as enemies, but the situation was less binary in the past. “Journalists from pro-democracy and pro-Chinese government newspapers were very friendly with one another,” says Wong. “We’d share information, leads, and all,” adds Lai. There was also no clear divide between text-based journalists and photojournalists. “Everyone did both. If you are reporting on something , then you are also the one taking the photos. It wasn’t later did I realise I enjoyed taking photos,” says Wong.

If the “decisive moment” in photography refers to the split second when light, movement and subjects come together to make a good photo, the decisive moment in Wong’s career was in 1978 when, sent to report on the Vietnamese refugees arriving on Hong Kong’s Green Island, he snapped a picture of a boatload of people. The visual contrast between the black mass of humanity on the boat and the wide open sea was striking. The picture eventually won what Wong describes as a “little award”—actually the top prize—at The Newspaper Society of Hong Kong Awards. It also made Wong realise that he could carve out a career as a photojournalist.

A HK map showing the city’s boundary at the time of the Convention of 1898. Photo credit Repairing Department.

In 1982, he left his job to study photography in Japan, which was in the midst of its unprecedented economic boom. Just as the country became obsessed with anything modern or high-tech, the arts community saw a revival of interest in Provoke, a 1960s movement that advocated are, bure, boke – grainy, blurry, out of focus. Wong found himself being taught by Eikoh Hosoe, a photographer best known for his erotic images of author Yukio Mishima. Despite his protests of being a “traditional photographer,” Wong managed to absorb some of Provoke’s ideas. His Fukushima project is testament to this: its reddish, noise-infused, and at times blurry Polaroids reflect the unfathomable terror of the nuclear disaster, and follows Provoke’s philosophy that the technique is as much the narrative as the subject matter itself.

A few years later, in 1989, Wong was in Beijing to cover a sports event when popular reformist Chinese government official Hu Yaobang, chairman and then General Secretary of the Communist party from 1982 to 1987, died. When Hu’s funeral took place in the Great Hall of the People on 22 April, tens of thousands students spilled into Tiananmen Square to mourn the liberal leader, as well as to express their grievances against the government. Wong trained his camera on the students who were calling for democratic reforms. 63 of these black and white photos were eventually published in Wong’s 2011 photobook, ’89 Tiananmen. “I wasn’t there when they [the Chinese government] cleared the square,” he says. “So many people told me to leave, to go somewhere safe.”

Three decades later, it is the people of Wong’s hometown who are telling foreign journalists to tell their story to the world. Meanwhile, many in China don’t know, or don’t want to acknowledge, what happened in Beijing on 4 June 1989.

“The most worrying thing isn’t the lack of access [to history],” says Wong. “There are so many Chinese people studying overseas, and it isn’t that difficult to get around the firewall in China. It is that the younger generation simply aren’t interested in learning about what happened.” He sighs. “This is the most dangerous thing. Because if you don’t have an understanding of what and why things are, you’d only know to say yes to whatever the government tells you.”

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