Three Photographers, Three Visions of Hong Kong

Tanka women getting water - Photo by Lee Fook Chee ©The Estate of Lee Fook Chee

Edward Stokes was playing tourist on the Peak when a chance encounter revealed a talent that had remained hidden for decades. “My brother and sister were back in town for a visit,” he explains. When they alighted from the Peak Tram, they encountered an old man with a camera bag, dressed in a simple white t-shirt, holding up photos for sale. “I could tell they were from the 1950s,” says Stokes, and while the photos were interesting, the prints weren’t of particularly high quality. He bought a couple and thought nothing of it – until he later received an email from the old man’s niece. “I must have given him my email address,” he says. 

The niece had discovered that Stokes was a well-known photographer and publisher. After publishing a book of photos taken by German photographer Hedda Morrison when she lived in Hong Kong in the late 1940s, he founded the Photographic Heritage Foundation, which seeks out historic documentary images of Hong Kong and other Asian cities. Explaining that her uncle was a former professional photographer named Lee Fook Chee, the Peak photographer’s niece insisted that Stokes visit him at his home in a public housing estate. 

 

He did – and found a miniature darkroom in the flat’s corner, where Lee was producing the prints he sold to tourists on the Peak. “He was using a Dairy Farm ice cream chest covered with a piece of wood as a developing table,” says Stokes. Lee had spent years hawking ice cream outside a New Territories primary school, but before that, he made a living by documenting Hong Kong for people visiting the city in the days before Kodachrome film made photography cheap and accessible for the average person. Lee had a trove of negatives taken in the 1950s that showed a city in the midst of its postwar transformation from colonial backwater to bustling industrial port. Stokes teamed up with scholar Patricia Chiu to interview Lee and put together a book of his work, Lee Fook Chee’s Hong Kong, that was published in 2012. 

Lee died in 2011, before the book was completed. But his photos—and life story—are once again being showcased, this time in an exhibition that Stokes has curated at the Asia Society Hong Kong Center (ASHK). Recovery, Resilience, Resurgence: Thirty Years of Hong Kong Photographs, 1940s–1970s, brings together an unlikely trio of photographers to reveal Hong Kong in three of its most transformative decades. Along with Lee, the show features the work of Hedda Morrison and Brian Brake, a New Zealand-born, Hong Kong-based photographer for Life magazine. The three photographers have little in common, but it is precisely this contrast that makes the pairing compelling. 

The personal circumstances of each photographer shaped the images they produced. “Photographers don’t—or can’t—exist in a financial vacuum. We all have to make a living,” says Stokes. Morrison was born as Hedda Hammer in Stuttgart, and she trained in photography at the prestigious Staatliche Fachakademie für Fotodesign in Munich. In the 1930s, she fled Germany’s increasingly perilous economic and political situation for Beijing, where she found work in a German-owned photography studio. She was laid off after Japan invaded the city, but as a German national—Germany was of course allied with Japan at the time—she enjoyed relative freedom compared to her counterparts from Allied countries. She began travelling China, documenting the people and places she encountered. 

In 1941, she married Alastair Morrison, the son of an Australian foreign correspondent, and after the war they ended up in Hong Kong. The marriage gave Hedda Morrison something few photographers enjoy: the financial freedom to spend her days roaming the streets, taking photos as she saw fit. What she produced is an extraordinary collection of intimate street portraits and urban landscapes that evoke a city emerging with exuberance from the hardship of a devastating war. She also ventured into more remote corners of Hong Kong, places that would have required hours of walking along country paths – time that few other photographers could afford to spend.

Brian Brake also enjoyed a certain freedom as a photographer. Life was a weekly general-interest magazine known in particular for its photography, and as one of its correspondents during its heyday in the 1960s, Brake enjoyed a generous budget that allowed him to document Hong Kong in ways few other photographers could. “There are a lot of aerial photographs,” says Stokes. “Brian Brake wants a small plane? He sends a telex to America. ‘Go get it.’” His photos are lively and confident, like one immersive image of a family enjoying a banquet dinner, or another that depicts a young boy in a sailor’s cap, perched on his father’s shoulders, gazing with interest at Chinese New Year oranges trees for sale in the street.

Stokes notes that both Brake and Morrison were fascinated by everyday life. “They had a great empathy, a really deep respect for people, people on the street,” he says. Lee was one of those people – a working-class Hongkonger whose photography was less a form of personal expression than a savvy way to make a living. Like millions of other people at the time, Lee lived in a squatter hut and struggled to get by. Born in Singapore, he became a sailor and ended up in Hong Kong in 1947. The following year, his cousin, who owned a photography studio, helped set him up with a camera and he began taking photos for tourists. 

He had a keen eye. “Lee transcended his background to do something extraordinary,” says Stokes. Although he was primarily guided by what he assumed tourists would want to see—there are plenty of photos of rickshaws, junk boats and the view from the Peak—he had a knack for capturing evocative moments. In one photo, children swim into the harbour next to fishing boats moored off the Central Praya, rows of shophouses stretching off into the distance. In another image taken on Cheung Chau, a young girl approaches a group of women standing on sampans in distinctive Tanka hats, grinning as the girl looks tentatively at the gap between the boats and the shore. 

Recovery, Resilience, Resurgence is worth seeing as much for the stories of each photographer as it is for the photos they created: this is Hong Kong reflected through the eyes of three very distinct people.

The show runs until September 30, 2022. For more details regarding pandemic restrictions, click here.

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