Inside the Wattis Collection: Vintage Hong Kong Travel Guides

This is the second article in a series looking at the treasures on display in Jonathan Wattis’ collection of historic objects. Read the first one here.

The arrival of British antiquarian Jonathan Wattis in Hong Kong was a somewhat unnerving one in the summer of 1984. His Air Lanka flight landed bumpily at Kai Tak while a Typhoon Signal 3 was hoisted, and this experience made him think twice about how long he wanted to stay. Wattis was coming in as a tourist, planning a passing glance of the place that has been his home for nearly 40 years. In those initial days, he recalls buying a couple of street maps to find his way around, heading to Stanley for some art and buying postcards from the time that sometimes featured the neon and other work of photographer Keith McGregor.

Tourism is a theme that features throughout his current exhibition at Wattis Fine Art. (As you have probably guessed at this point, Wattis’ short stay became a very long one, and he opened his gallery in 1988.) Hong Kong Around and About, a collection of pictures, ephemera and memorabilia, 1842-1983 includes photographs showing a changing Hong Kong — particularly from the 1950s onwards — that was keen to attract international travellers, who were coming increasingly by air. There are shopping and sightseeing guides as well as travel posters, and photographs that show a city that is undergoing change with the construction boom after World War II.

The brochures, guides and maps are sometimes products sold independently by printing houses here with the advertising provided by local businesses keen to attract these travellers, at other times they are brochures passed to tourists from hotels or the Hong Kong Tourist Association. These were aids for people navigating their way to the attractions of Hong Kong of the time, mostly paper ephemera to be thrown away afterwards, but those items that were kept act as a guide to the reader of today on what constituted tourism over the decades, and also provide an insight on the advertising, publication style and artwork in the 1950s and 60s here.

One of them, “Shopping and Sightseeing in Hong Kong,” is a paperback guidebook from the first half of the 1950s, its title done in a red ink calligraphic style. There were a number of editions written by someone named Helen Eva Yates. Printed and published by Cathay Ltd Hong Kong, which was based in the old Prince’s Building, the guide is full of information about where to go during this period and also has maps at the back. For the earlier couple of editions, it is the time of the Korean War and inside there’s an explanation for American tourists about how they were not allowed to buy products from China, but there were special rules about how they can buy items from Hong Kong. In fact, Hong Kong, as a then-British colony, did very well economically out of the US embargo on mainland Chinese goods at that time. 

This would have been just a few years after the end of World War II, a time when Hong Kong was getting itself back on its feet and when mainland refugees were expanding the population after the Communist Revolution in 1949.  Commercially, businesses were keen to get on the map and this guidebook, along with newspapers, would have been a way to gain attention. In “Shopping and Sightseeing in Hong Kong,” every second page is a full advert and some of the names that would feature become far bigger later on. They show the foundations 70 years ago of family firms that went on to become huge in Hong Kong: there’s the Harilela family’s tailoring outfit, for instance; Hari Harilela was not quite at the start of his business, but certainly a few years before he would establish the Harilela Group in 1959.

Also featured in the book are adverts for the Peninsula Hong Kong and the long-gone Gloucester Hotel. Alongside the adverts are small pen and ink illustrations, a map at the front and back, and also an interesting selection of black and white photographs of street market scenes and rural areas. The photos come as a surprise as they are not showcasing Central but showing life in the New Territories or on the outlying islands, which would have been quite a trek, with limited road options.  

Mandarin hotel brochure, circa 1963

Also featured in the Wattis exhibition are brochures from the mid-1960s. Just over a decade on from “Shopping and Sightseeing” and the change in Hong Kong is substantial. In 1963, two five-star hotels opened on Hong Kong Island, the Hong Kong Hilton and the Mandarin Oriental. The Hilton introduced a new concept called the minibar to its rooms, which proved very successful. The Mandarin Oriental features on a brochure from the time showing sophisticated 1960s chic in the fashion worn by the models photographed in the lobby. A new feature at the Mandarin was the public pedestrian walkway that connected it to the Prince’s Building and the shopping mecca within. This was quite a revolutionary design by the people at Hongkong Land at the time: a way to connect its sophisticated international clientele to retail opportunities with wonderful ease

Three other brochures at the exhibition are part of a series put out by the Hong Kong Tourist Association highlighting shopping, travel and vacation. As tourists came by cruise ship and increasingly by air, the tourist association used an artist with a real 1960s feel to show Japanese ladies loaded up with parcels from a shopping trip. That brochure, “Hong Kong for Shopping,” and a second, “Festivals and Fun,” feature the delightful work of Czech illustrator and author Miroslav Šašek, best known for a collection of children’s books of either capital cities or countries around the world: This is London; This is Paris; and a number of others, including This is Hong Kong, which he did alongside the tourist brochures and travel posters when he visited Hong Kong in the mid-1960s. Among his work is a watercolour of a conductor standing smiling at an angle on the Peak Tram, a green delivery truck loaded with kumquat trees, and a scene of Aberdeen with its floating restaurants, all depicted in Šašek’s trademark naïve style.  

The 1960s were an interesting time: Hong Kong still retained many of its old buildings around Central, there were squatter camps on the hills, water shortages and social unrest. At the same time, Hong Kong is becoming much more of an international destination and even more so by the end of the decade when Kai Tak would expand to allow for Boeing 747s — the original jumbo jet — in 1970.  

Hong Kong Around and About, a collection of pictures, ephemera and memorabilia, 1842-1983 is on show at Wattis Fine Art until June 3, 2023. Click here for more information.

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