Lethal Snakes and Hong Kong Neon: The Work of Photographer William Furniss

It’s a hectic morning at the Furniss headquarters in Aberdeen. Photographer William Furniss and his wife Jacqueline, a biochemist turned photography maven, are making arrangements in the run up to Affordable Art Fair, which will showcase around five works of William’s, all inspired by the city that envelops him. The pair manoeuvre their way around large abstract prints waiting to be shipped, alongside bulky printing machinery. The bright, airy space overlooks Aberdeen Harbour, part of an industrial complex that is now filled with a number of creative and arts-related operations.

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Hong Kong Harbour Contact 2014 – Photo by William Furniss

Furniss is at the workshop tinkering with his latest fine art photography project, but some days he might be elsewhere on assignments that take him across the city. A disarming gentleman with a deftness for swiftly taking elegant shots, he is particularly in demand as a portrait photographer for Zolima CityMag and plenty of other publications. But his real passion lies with creating personal projects that reflect his observations and insights as an urbanist obsessed with the life and textures of the metropolis. “I’m interested in the things that are fundamental to a place,” he says.

Over the years, he has put together a number of concept-driven projects of this ilk, among them a  that captures the city’s skyline from Victoria Peak, assembled on a grid made from contact sheets and 60 rolls worth of film. A book on Queen’s Road West depicting the distinctive disappearing shops that line the storied street is another project that reflects Furniss’ investment in documenting fading phenomena of a city that is in constant state of renewal.

Originally from the UK, Furniss first arrived in Hong Kong 25 years ago. He continues to draw inspiration from the city’s myriad man-made and natural wonders that make it the ever mercurial spectacle that it is. “When you’re interested in urbanism, Hong Kong is a very compelling subject, it’s always changing, and it’s a very mixed place,” he says. He counts Hong Kong among the best cities in the world, he adds, reeling off its selling points with an enthusiasm that is testament to his refreshingly optimistic outlook.

That the city tends not to be recognised internationally along these lines, that it is not mentioned in the same breath as Western metropolises for example, is something Furniss attributes to a Euro- and Americentric mindset that favours the familiar worlds of London and New York over those of vibrant and ever-changing Asian cities. These attitudes are hopefully starting to change, which could bring about greater appreciation for the hallmarks of Hong Kong life, heritage and its environs, alongside a greater sense of urgency for the need to preserve these hallmarks and prevent them from being forgotten amid the rapid development happening across the region.

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Lethal Serpents – Photo by William Furniss

One icon that is particularly close to Furniss’ heart is that of the neon sign, once so ubiquitous to Hong Kong but now in increasingly short supply owing in part to a government clamp down on dangerous and unwieldy structures that have brought about the removal of iconic insignia, like the vast cow that used to hang outside Sammy’s kitchen in Sheung Wan. The beloved signs, which have for decades been part of the fabric of Hong Kong, have diminished along with the industry of talented craftsmen, though efforts to preserve their memory abound. Meanwhile, the sign makers that persist in plying their trade are switching to using LED technology owing to its being cheaper, despite its saturation range being narrower than that of neon and its overall effect quite different to the bright, baudy signage of older times.

“There’s a style to Hong Kong neon,” says Furniss. “They’re charming and fun, and very, very  beautiful designs.” Six years ago, he and a friend who owned a gallery in London thought about commissioning sign makers to create pieces that could sell internationally. The project didn’t take off, but it piqued Furniss’ interest in neon. That interest turned into something of an obsession as Furniss wandered the streets snapping sign after sign. He resolved to create an alphabet made entirely of letters derived from neon, a project that turned into an almost quixotic quest for the surprisingly scarce letter Q.

“I kept thinking, where is Q? They used to have it in banquet halls, but those were some of the first ones to go because the signs were so big and dangerous,” he recalls. Finally, a Q surfaced Jordan, alongside another in Wanchai, after which point he decided to turn that lettering into projects involving word searches – the first of which being spelling out the ten lethal snakes in Hong Kong, a testament to his enthusiasm for the wilder side of the city. “One of the great things about Hong Kong being right next to nature. The fact that ten snakes in Hong Kong could potentially kill you, I think that’s amazing. It’s the urban jungle versus the jungle jungle,” he says.  Jacqueline, who is hugely fearful of snakes, grimaces nearby.

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InThe Shadow of Lion Rock – Photo by William Furniss

Continuing on the vain of keeping Hong Kong themes central to his neon themed project, Furniss went on to create another word search inspired by a speech given by the late Sir David Tang at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in 2016. In that speech, Tang disparaged then-Chief Executive CY Leung’s annual policy address, which had skirted real issues in favour of mentioning the much hyped One Belt One Road initiative, the Beijing-led project that seeks to expand China’s economic influence abroad. Tang criticised Leung’s speech as a deflection from Hong Kong’s real issues. Furniss brings these two ideas together by creating a word search that mentions names of countries associated with One Belt One Road along with keywords from Tang’s erudite speech, among them the rather evocative phrase “rotten political dust.”

“I am not seeking to be political. I just reflect what people are interested in – we all care about these things,” says Furniss. He says he hopes new governance will bring about more optimism in his fellow citizens. “I want viewers of my work to feel joy and pleasure.” That’s always been an aim that has underpinned his work and fixations, which seek to find answers to the question, “What makes people in cities happy?”

It’s a worthwhile question to ask, albeit one that might not always been seen to carry the so-called gravitas of more hard-hitting commentary. But that doesn’t bother Furniss, who believes that what’s more important is remain true to oneself and one’s own interests. “People have good bullshit meters. if started doing work just to please art theorists people would be able to tell. One has to go with one’s gut,” he says.

William Furniss’ latest works can be seen at the Affordable Art Fair, which runs from May 18 to 20, 2018. Click here for more information.

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