Michael Rogge’s Hong Kong: A 1950s Time Capsule

In Hong Kong, the past can feel so distant as to be unfathomable. Few other cities have changed as much over the past century, reshaped by war, mass migration and the endless churn of redevelopment. But in a cluttered basement in a quiet part of Amsterdam, a vital part of Hong Kong’s history lives on forever. 

That’s where an amateur filmmaker named Michael Rogge keeps the film reels he shot in Hong Kong between 1949 and 1955. He has digitised his footage and uploaded it to YouTube, where more than a thousand clips offer an extraordinarily rare glimpse at everyday life in Hong Kong in the first decade after World War II. 

“I feel that my time in the colony was the best of my life,” says Rogge, who is now 92 years old. “I entered manhood, as it were. Became president of the Hong Kong Amateur Cine Club, Sino British Film Group and became quite well known – even lunching with the Chief Commissioner of Police, Colonel Maxwell. In the following 30 years after leaving Hong Kong, I remembered it as a Shangri-La.”

Rogge was born in Amsterdam in 1929, but anyone with a romantic notion of fate could argue that the path that took him to Hong Kong began long before that. In the late 19th century, Rogge’s grandfather worked as a Protestant minister in Indonesia, which was then a Dutch colony, and his father joined him there at the age of 16. He spent the next 30 years in the country, prospecting for gold, diamonds and oil. By the time he returned to the Netherlands, he had amassed a small fortune, but he lost everything in the Wall Street stock market crash, just a few months after Rogge was born. 

The family moved from rented room to rented room as Rogge’s father desperately tried to make a living. For a time, he tried to sell tea imported from Java, but he couldn’t find any customers. “Our house was full of tea dust,” recalls Rogge. The Depression was followed by the even worse years of German occupation during World War II. Rogge lost friends to the Nazi death camps. He left school to help his family scavenge for food. 

But he was able to resume his education after the war. At the same time, he was developing his interest in film and photography. One of his earliest memories as a child was of his father operating a hand-cranked movie projector. He gave him the machine as a gift when he turned 10. A few years later, Rogge was given his first camera, a simple Kodak Brownie, followed by a more sophisticated Kine Exakta camera a few years later. In 1947, he managed to save up enough pocket money to buy a used 9.5mm movie camera. 

Rogge graduated from school in 1948 and hoped to study philosophy or psychiatry—or maybe even film—at university. But it was far too expensive; his parents were barely scraping by. They urged him to look for a job. Rogge’s aunt referred him to an opening at the Asian branch of a Dutch bank. He applied, got the job, and after attending a training course, was sent off to Hong Kong. “It was a heartbreaking farewell for my parents,” writes Rogge in his self-published autobiography. “My father was 74 years old and I realised that it was a goodbye forever, as he was in bad health and would not live long.” 

But he promised to record everything he saw on film and send them the reels. And that’s exactly what he did, starting with the long ocean journey from Genoa to Hong Kong, via Singapore and Manila. When he finally arrived in Hong Kong, he was bewildered. In contrast to gloomy, struggling Amsterdam, here was a hot, colourful metropolis of two million people, heaving with life and commerce. “In 1949, we had just come out of the war,” recalls Rogge. “Everything in Holland was rationed – no goods and appliances were available. And here in Hong Kong the shop windows were filled with them.”

He still remembers the ripe smell of the fish markets, the incense that wafted through the air from temples and street altars, and the briny scent of the sea. And he was stuck by the way the harbour bustled with junks and ships from all over the world, which he could watch from the flat he shared with two colleagues at 62 Macdonnell Road, in the Mid-Levels. 

Rogge didn’t have much free time, working six days a week, with a fortnight of holidays every two years. But whenever he could, he roamed the city with his film camera, recording anything he found interesting. “I spent most of my income on cinematography,” he says. He captured footage of the original Victorian-era Prince’s Building being demolished for a new version in 1960; the pomp and ceremony that greeted the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953; and the devastation that occurred later that year, on Christmas Day, when the shantytowns of Shek Kip Mei burned to the ground, a seminal event that led to the massive public housing programme we have today.

But the most interesting videos are the ones that capture the intricacies of daily life – details that would have seemed mundane at the time, but which have grown exotic with time. One video from 1952 captures scenes of workers chiselling stone by hand, then transporting it in baskets balanced on a bamboo rod mounted on their shoulders. In the same video, children fetch water from a public tap, filling up big metal buckets. Another video, shot in 1951, takes us through Kowloon, past stone shophouses—long ago demolished—to an amusement park filled with whizzing Ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds. The next scene is from Ho Man Tin, where a vast shantytown engulfs the surrounding hills, a rising wave of struggle and aspiration, and muddy wood shacks. 

There are other slices of everyday life that feel oddly unchanged, like a junk boat party in 1949 that, aside from the hairstyles and the cut of the swimsuits, could have taken place just yesterday. Every glimpse of bamboo scaffolding is a reminder of the traditions and knowledge that keep Hong Kong anchored to its past, even if in so many other ways the city has become untethered. 

Rogge says that “surprisingly few people took special notice” of his filming, except for the occasional old woman who demanded a “cumshaw” (an old-fashioned Anglo-Chinese word for tip or bribe) in exchange for an appearance. The only major incident occurred when Rogge accidentally strayed into a British military zone in Stanley while filming the sunrise; he was detained by military police and taken away in a Jeep, but they released him after making a few enquiries and concluding he meant no harm. 

Although much of his footage consisted of short clips that he sent back to his family, Rogge worked on more ambitious projects, too. One of those, from 1952, was a poetic montage of Hong Kong as it awakes. Another film from that year is a moody reflection of the city in the rain. In 1953, Rogge made Turn of the Tide, a scripted short film about a fisher boy mourning the passing of his friend

Not long after that film was completed, Rogge says he planned to make another one featuring a young Chinese refugee whose wit and imagination helped him persevere amidst the hardship of his life. He had already cast a boy when he suddenly got notice from his bank that he was being transferred to Japan. He left Hong Kong in 1955 and moved to Tokyo, where he remained until 1960.

He returned to the Netherlands that year. It wasn’t an easy transition. Compared to Asia, where Rogge had met a diverse range of people and had been exposed to countless new ideas—including a form of spiritualism called Subud—the Netherlands in those early postwar decades had what he describes as “an oppressive mental climate.” It was cloistered and chauvinistic. But it was also a society in transition. Shortly after his return, Rogge’s mother and brother opened an avant-garde art gallery. And he became close with Ed van der Elsken—a globetrotting Dutch photographer who had also spent time in Hong Kong—and his wife Gerda van der Veen, who both encouraged him to pursue film as a career. 

He tried, but it didn’t work out. Despite his efforts at transforming his footage from Hong Kong, Japan and other countries into documentaries, Rogge was never able to make enough money as a filmmaker to survive. He ended up remaining in the world of finance. But he still had his film reels – and soon after YouTube was launched in 2005, he joined and began uploading his material. 

The reaction has been enthusiastic. Although he has never been contacted by anyone who appears in one of his videos—or their descendants—he has received messages from people “who say that they heard from their parents what the city was like but they couldn’t believe it until they saw my clips,” he says. “One lady heard from her grandma that there were buffaloes running in the streets of Macau – you will find that scene in one of my clips.”

In 2014, the Hong Kong Film Archive organised an exhibition of Rogge’s work that was led by film curator Winnie Fu, who visited Rogge in Amsterdam and wrote an article about the experience. “Michael has a keen photographer’s eye,” she says. The everyday scenes he recorded are historically valuable and fascinating to anyone who appreciates Hong Kong. But she is also impressed by the scripted short films Rogge made. “His achievements exceed that of a photographer,” she says. “He is good also in scripting, visual compilations, editing and storytelling.”

After leaving Asia in 1961, Rogge returned to Hong Kong only once, in 1989. It was a disappointing experience. “Everything had changed,” he says. Almost none of the buildings he remembered were still there; the city was hectic and impersonal in a way it hadn’t been before. But he still cherishes his memories. “Hong Kong gave me a broader reach of mind and experience as compared to having spent my further days in Holland,” he says. And the rest of us can cherish a collection of films that capture a restless city at one unique moment in time. 

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