Steel Beams and Lots of Danger: How John Nye Photographed Hong Kong’s Building Boom

Atop sheer glass, John Nye perched on the knife edge of a newly completed Bank of China Tower. Light glinted across Hong Kong’s rising skyline, finding its way to him. Standing on virtually nothing and buffeted by high winds, Nye aimed his camera down the vertiginous drop. With a judicious snap of the shutter he captured the flush glass cladding. But making to leave, the photographer suddenly felt his grip begin to go. 

With the surface made slick by dust, Nye could find no purchase and his feet slid out from under, sending him hurtling towards the edge. He was forced to make a split second decision: fall over the side and trust that his tether would catch him, or scrabble desperately towards an open access panel and fall inside the building. Moments later, Nye found himself dangling from 12 feet of rope over a three storey drop. He’d thrown himself through the hatch.

“[The team] were looking up from the concrete floor below, pissing themselves laughing,” Nye recalls. Now reclining comfortably in the Mandarin Oriental’s Clipper Lounge, he is able to laugh it off. “They’d been taking bets on whether I’d go over. There was no way I was going over the side, no way.”

To anyone born after the 1980s, the images captured throughout the dangerous career of John Nye will look uncanny. Simultaneously familiar and strange, Hong Kong through Nye’s lens lacks many of the distinctive landmarks that have become visual shorthand for the city as a whole because it was Nye who was tasked with photographing them as they were being built. Through the 1970s to the 2000s, Nye captured the HSBC Building, Bank of China Tower, Jardine House, Pacific Place, Bond Centre, Tsing Ma Bridge, Stonecutter’s Bridge, Hong Kong International Airport, Kai Tak Cruise Terminal, various tunnels and key MTR stations. His photographs are a record of buildings that now seem familiar – but few have seen them the way John Nye has.

Trained as a graphic designer before becoming an art teacher, Nye never set out to become a photographer. On his way to completing an industry experience requirement at RMIT in Melbourne, Nye spent two years as a survey draughtsman in Papua New Guinea, at Rio Tinto’s sprawling copper mine on Bougainville Island. Prior to boarding his chartered flight into the unknown, Nye came into contact with the noted architectural and industrial photographer, Wolfgang Sievers. The elder man pressed a viewfinder camera into Nye’s hands and urged him to “shoot everything.” Setting him on a path towards photography, this would not be Sievers’ only gift to Nye.

In 1968, Nye found himself in Hong Kong on the tail end of an Asian grand tour. Struck by the energy of the place, he returned in 1970 looking for a job. He was promptly advised by John Prescott, a senior lecturer at the University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Architecture, to “forget teaching and go where the money is – advertising.” With a letter of introduction from Sievers, Nye set up an appointment and this was how he came into the orbit of Henry Steiner and his firm, Graphic Communication. 

“We had lunch at the Hong Kong Club,” says Nye. Steiner was bearded and nattily turned out in a double breasted navy suit; as with his adopted city of Hong Kong, he was on the ascendant.  “I was 23 and Henry 33,” says Nye. “He was dynamic, absolutely professional. Very precise. Very direct.” Though nothing immediate would come of this meeting, it was the prelude to a creatively fruitful collaboration that would see Nye contributing to some of the graphic designer’s most iconic works.

Freelancing with Steiner on the 1973 annual report for manufacturer Textile Alliance, Nye’s first stint in Hong Kong was short. But in that brief time, Nye became art director at Pacific Enterprises, a mail order business serving American GIs in Vietnam. It was there that Nye received his first formal photography training, learning to wield the formidable large format Sinar P2 in taking beautifully staged product shots and still lifes of jewellery, HiFis, cameras and all manner of things that an American serviceman might wish to buy with hard won wages. 

Decamping to Singapore after just a couple of years, Nye rose to creative director at the United Overseas Bank-owned Fortune Advertising, where he applied knowledge gained at Graphic Communication in creating annual reports. These skills would soon come to the fore as he was summoned away from the Lion City.

“Henry gave me a call one day, asking me to come down to photograph the Marco Polo Hotel for their annual report. This was actually a ruse,” he says. Luring Nye back to Hong Kong, Steiner assigned the photographer to document Queen Elizabeth’s 1975 visit for the Trade Development Council and to lay out an accompanying publication. The graphic designer’s true agenda would soon become clear. “I’m a bit short of good designers,” Nye recalls Steiner saying. “Would you consider coming back?” 

Nye accepted on the condition that Steiner set him up in an apartment near Graphic Communication’s offices. There, Nye established a photography studio and film laboratory with the help of a contact from 公仔麵(gung1 zai2 min6 Doll Noodles) which had just set up a film lab of its own. Focusing Steiner’s concepts as though through a lens, Nye contributed both technical ability and even objects that have featured in Steiner’s work. One such item is his great grandfather’s pocket watch which appears on the cover of a Hong Kong Telephone business directory. 

Drawing on skills learned taking product shots, Nye conveyed themes through visuals. His photograph for the telephone book tells its story through the artful arrangement of an abacus, Chinese seals, calligraphy brushes and ancient coins evoking the romance of commerce from a bygone age. Showing rather than telling, Nye invites the viewer into a story. 

“You’re making so much money with your photography, have you considered starting your own business?” suggested Steiner to Nye one day. “If you decide to go ahead, I’ll support you with work for two years or until you get your feet on the ground.” In this way, Nye transitioned into being a full time photographer.

The arc of Graphic Communication closely traces that of Hong Kong and its major industries. With this comes a close association with architecture and from his time at the firm, Nye had gained some experience photographing buildings; one of his earliest assignments with Steiner had been to capture images of the newly built Connaught Centre, now Jardine House. It would be another iconic building that would serve as Nye’s real entrée into the world of architecture. 

“He’s just wedged in there.” Photo by John Nye

Completed in 1985, Norman Foster’s HSBC Building was the most expensive edifice in the world. Sometimes waggishly compared to the back of a fridge because of its visible structure and machine-like appearance, the revolutionary building still stands out on the skyline. But it posed a big problem for the photographers trying to document it. 

Nye recalls being introduced to Foster’s Hong Kong representative, Roy Fleetwood, who said they were having trouble photographing the distinctive “Foster’s grey” shade of the building, particularly in its interior. “They kept getting colour cast – unwanted tints of magenta and cyan,” explains Nye. “They couldn’t get pure grey. The problem was there were four or five different light sources. I had a long think about it. Used different film, different filters. With my camera at the time, you could go backwards and forwards with the film and so you could have multiple exposures on the same frame.” With the aid of an electrical technician who switched each of the light sources on and off in turn, Nye combined five exposures to produce the perfect grey. “They were really happy and Roy asked, ‘Have you ever done work on high steel?’” The foundation of Nye’s career as an architectural photographer had been laid.

This was a time when some of Hong Kong’s most notable building projects were about to get underway. “I virtually got the lot,” says Nye. “I don’t think any other photographer in history has handled so many major projects in a city over a 50 year period.” Through his work it is possible to see a nascent Hong Kong coming into tighter focus. More interesting still is the way in which Nye’s photographs show us the city that Hong Kong could have been. 

In a time when sophisticated 3D modelling, CAD tools and graphics software weren’t widely available, architects were obliged to build scale miniatures to help clients visualise concepts or to demonstrate safety to regulatory bodies. Many of these features would never be built for one reason or another but Nye’s documentation of these mockups offers a tantalising glimpse of the wonders that never were. 

“One feature at HSBC was going to be a translucent floor at ground level, lit from below so it looked like you were walking on water. On the other side there was going to be a waterfall that seemingly came out of nowhere – it was a rectangular glass tube pointed up and the water would tumble from out of the top so you couldn’t see the tube.” These never came to pass. “Some directors said it would be far too dangerous and people would feel insecure walking on it. In the end they killed it because of cost.”

Nye says there was also going to be a xenon light display projected up from the building. “They had the Civil Aviation Department fly a plane through the light to make sure it wasn’t going to interfere with navigation. That was also cut because of cost.” He photographed this test run of light piercing the night sky. “Because I’d documented all of this for the presentations, I knew what happened and what was missing and I was very disappointed. That was going to be the icing on the cake for this building and it had all been cut.” 

Many of the buildings that Nye photographed look futuristic even today so it is sobering to see the rudimentary ways in which they were built. Nye’s photographs show workmen operating at nauseating heights, untethered, bare chested, gripping steel beams with feet shod in nothing but baak6 faan6 jyu4 (白飯魚, canvas slip-ons). The human risk at these rising temples of commerce was high. Nye recalls one occasion, 40 floors up on the HSBC Building. With a typhoon bearing down on the city, a lone workman went out on a beam. “He’d remembered that they’d left some steel plates out there and went to get them in case they blew off,” he says. 

Glancing over a set of images, Nye remembers specific faces. “These guys called themselves The A-Team. There were about 12 of them and they pretty much did all the dangerous work.” Nye looks at an image of one worker in particular. “He’s just wedged in there,” he says. Both hands operating machinery, the man relies solely on the grip from his feet to keep him from falling into oblivion. 

John Nye was not exempt from the danger as he “squirrel walked” across I-beams, his heavy camera gear throwing him off balance. “I had nightmares about what was going on,” he says. “The bridges were the worst. 40 people died on Tsing Ma in one go when the Ma Wan Viaduct fell. The government didn’t want it to get out. People only realised because the South China Morning Post went to the morgues, the funeral homes.” One night, says Nye, he had a vision of his grandmother looking over him. “She’d passed away many years ago,” he says, suddenly choking up. “I think she came to check up on me. To make sure I was ok. It was so dangerous.”

Capturing the architecture that exalted Hong Kong in all its dynamism, reality crept up on the photographer. He had seen great heights but as a husband and father there was far too much at risk. Not all achievements can be measured in storeys built and dollars earned. Now happily retired, John Nye looks back on a lifetime of work and regales us with one last tale. 

“One Monday morning in 1988, I was awakened by my mother-in-law at 3am: ‘Mr. Pei is on the phone from New York.’” Unbeknownst to Nye, his images of the Bank of China Tower had been forwarded on to its architect, I.M. Pei. “Thank you very much for these photographs,” Pei had written to his colleague. “They are some of the best I have seen and I would like to know who the photographer is so I may meet him on my next trip to Hong Kong.” He had learned the photographer’s name and on his next visit, Pei could confirm that John Nye stood for excellence and dedication to craft. The images Nye would go on to capture for Pei would count among the architect’s very favourite. Of the experience, Nye is terse. “It was quite something,” he says, smiling quietly to himself.

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