Visit 1970s Hong Kong Through a Surprising Photo Archive

In 1972, a semiconductor expert named Nick DeWolf visited Hong Kong and took nearly 2,500 photos. Today, all of those images are available online in an archive maintained by DeWolf’s son-in-law, Steve Lundeen.

“These [Hong Kong] rolls were among the first images added to the archive, and what struck me straight out of the gate was Nick’s sense of wonder and discovery as he wanders the city,” says Lundeen by email from his home in Seattle.

What we see through his eyes is a city that is at once foreign and familiar. The floating villages that once occupied Hong Kong’s typhoon shelters have disappeared, but the jumbled cityscape is instantly recognisable. There are no more rickshaws today, but the street markets are still packed with boxes of fresh greens and imported fruit. DeWolf’s images of dai pai dongs — steaming vats of broth, black metal fans, pots hanging from hooks, customers perched on folding stools — could almost have been taken yesterday.

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Queen’s Road Central, with 14-seat minibuses in the background

DeWolf (no relation to this particular author) was born in Philadelphia in 1928. He studied computer science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is where he met a classmate named Alex d’Arbeloff. The two eventually founded Teradyne, a company that makes automatic test equipment, an early pioneer in computer automation. DeWolf married a writer named Maggie Lemle and they had six children, two dogs and 10 cats.

All the while, DeWolf took photos. “Nick managed to document so much of his life,” says Lundeen. “Always shooting. Multiple cameras. Developing his own film. As a college student, an engineer, an inventor, a founder of Teradyne, a husband, a father of six. How did he find the time?”

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Women in silk jackets shopping at a street market

DeWolf had begun to take photos soon after he moved to Boston, shooting at first with a cheap Brownie camera before moving on to better equipment. He even devised his own system of using motion picture film, which he bought in 400-foot stretches and spooled off into 35mm rolls. That allowed him to shoot colour negatives, as opposed to the slides that were more common at the time, giving him greater control over exposure and more flexibility in processing the image.

And there were a lot of images. DeWolf shot obsessively, first at home, and later as he travelled the world. “Conservatively, I estimate there are 200,000 [images], but 250,000 is possible,” says Lundeen. When DeWolf died in 2006 and it became clear just how many photos he had left behind, Lundeen quit his job with the US Postal Service to become a full-time archivist. He hired a lorry, loaded it with boxes full of negatives and drove west to Seattle.

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A dai pai dong on a street lined by shophouses

Lundeen has now uploaded 98,729 photos to Flickr. A typical day starts by answering image use requests and user comments. “Then I fire up the twin scanners and begin feeding the machines – primarily 35mm black and white and colour negatives, but also a fair number of black and white medium-format negatives, also color slides, some prints. Meanwhile, on a third computer, I’ll work a different batch of photos – Photoshop for processing, Google for researching, Flickr for adding the metadata, then move files to hard drives, and finally post online. Repeat, repeat, repeat.”

There are still unopened boxes. “I recently discovered several thousand black and white negatives from 1970-71 buried in a box mislabeled “’8×10 Color Prints,’” he says. “Who knows what else might turn up? Sometimes it seems as though Nick is still shooting.”

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Entering the Star Ferry pier

DeWolf left Teradyne in 1971 and travelled to Asia the next year. Hong Kong was his first stop. In retrospect, it was a particularly good time to visit. Hong Kong had just emerged from the tumult of the 1960s, and it was on the cusp of refashioning itself as a more modern, equitable and civic-minded city under Sir Murray MacLehose, who was due to arrive the year after DeWolf’s visit. Hong Kong was a yarn only half spun; you could tell what it was to become, but you could still see the raw source of its creation.

What makes DeWolf’s archive so fascinating is that he didn’t only focus on the remarkable – he shot dozens of images of things that other people must have found utterly banal. And yet it’s these glimpses of everyday life that are now the most compelling photos in his collection. An elegantly-dressed woman passes through the Star Ferry turnstile, shopping bag in hand. (A sign announces that a first-class fare was 25 cents.) On Queen’s Road Central, a crowd of expatriates waits to cross the street, red minibuses — a recent innovation stemming from the 1967 riots — idling behind them.

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The Hong Kong Camera Club, which hired young models to photograph

DeWolf visited Shek Kip Mei and documented Hong Kong’s earliest public housing, balconies overflowing with drying laundry and scrap wood and anything else that couldn’t fit into the 100-square-foot living spaces. He explored the floating village in Yau Ma Tei’s typhoon shelter, rural settlements in the New Territories, the fashionable stretch of Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui.

The past felt more present than it does today. There are young women in traditional Hakka attire, girls with their younger siblings tucked into patterned baby wraps – scenes that are far removed from today’s crowds of smartphone-clutching MTR commuters.

And yet there are also images that feel remarkably contemporary, even half a century later. One series of photos documents DeWolf’s time with the Hong Kong Camera Club, whose members — apparently all young men — hired a pretty young model to shoot. Aside from the fashion, the gathering looks no different from today’s long4 jau5 (廊友, “salon friends”), who hire leng1 mou4 (𡃁模, “young models”) for racy photoshoots in scenic areas.

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Workers at a dai pai dong

You can spend hours delving into DeWolf’s photos – and Lundeen hopes you do, because many of them have yet to be identified, and he often relies on crowdsourced information to be able to properly caption an image. “Some photos have been identified via the content and details – a street sign, perhaps. Or a building, maybe a bridge,” he says. “I’ll search the internet for a match. This detective work can be time-consuming, often frustrating, occasionally fruitless, but the ‘aha!’ moments of finding a match make it all worthwhile.”

Even when the search for information runs dry, though, spending his day with DeWolf’s photos is reward enough. “[Nick] had a gift for interacting with the strangers he encounters and putting them at ease, regardless of any language barrier,” he says. “It’s there in the faces of the residents of Hong Kong, also the faces of so many others in the archive. Children are children, people are people. The smiles aren’t forced.”

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Neon signs in Tsim Sha Tsui

The Nick DeWolf Photo Archive is available on Flickr.

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