Victoria Peak seen from Kellett Island
Last week, an exhibition of images by 19th century Scottish photographer John Thomson opened at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, including 22 photos of Hong Kong in the 1860s that have never been exhibited here before. I’ve written a story about the photos and their journey to Hong Kong for the Wall Street Journal, which you can read here.
The photos are remarkable not only because they are rare — photography was still in its infancy — but also because, despite the technological handicap, Thomson was able to create some very engaging landscapes and portraits. When I spoke with curator Betty Yao, she told me her initial attraction to Thomson’s work came from his sensitive images of women in China, whether a rich Manchu girl or a Cantonese boatwoman. But his images of everyday urban life are just as striking, capturing as they do a Hong Kong that is recognizable only in its broadest outlines. Below, a selection of images; you can see more here, and if you happen to be in Hong Kong sometime before February 16, it’s well worth a trip to the Maritime Museum to see the rest of the collection, which also includes some very intriguing photos of the cities once known as Canton (Guangzhou), Swatow (Shantou) and Amoy (Xiamen).
This was the photo that stood out to me the most. At first glance, Hong Kong is completely unrecognizable – it looks like it belongs somewhere on the Adriatic. Then you recognize the profile of the mountains and wait – that church tower looks familiar. St. John’s Cathedral, built in 1849 and visible in the centre of the image, is one of only two surviving structures in this scene, the other being the former French Mission Building just to the left of the cathedral. Even if you know the history of land reclamation in Hong Kong, it’s still shocking to see just how close the water was to areas that are now a 10-minute walk inland. And it’s remarkable how seamlessly the city was connected to the harbour, with its elegant praya (a local colonial word that has sadly fallen into disuse) around which are crowded sampans and other small boats. That was pretty much the situation until the 1970s, when Hong Kong began to wall itself off from the water with highways and giant office blocks.
Looks like a relaxed afternoon on the terrace of a teahouse, probably somewhere around Sheung Wan.
While Lyndhurst Terrace gained its English name from a British official, its Chinese name, Baai fai gaai — “Flower Arrangement Street” — speaks to a far more intriguing history. In the mid-19th century, Lyndhurst Terrace was a European red-light district lined by shops selling bouquets to men on their way to (or from) one of its many brothels. (Hong Kong was racially segregated at the time and there was a separate Chinese red-light district to the west, around Po Hing Fong.) The ceremonial arch and decorations you see here were erected to celebrate the Duke of Edinburgh’s visit to Hong Kong in 1869, the first time a member of the British royal family had visited the colony.
This photo of Pedder Street says a lot about British imperial ambition in the 19th century. Less than twenty years after gaining control over Hong Kong Island, it had been transformed from a rugged fringe of empire (both British and Chinese) into an impressive facsimile of a European city. Of course, facsimile is the key word here — Pedder Street was Hong Kong’s showpiece, not its real heart, which lay further west in the crowded, fast-growing districts of Chinese migrants. The colony’s European precincts were designed essentially to isolate soujourning British residents from the reality of where they lived. (Not unlike the Central of today!)
Incidentally, the elegant Pedder Street clock tower you see in the photo above was demolished in 1912. It seems Hong Kong has a long history of destroying iconic clock towers.
Look closely at the familiar mass of Victoria Peak and you’ll notice something surprising: a complete absence of trees. The Peak is now one of the most verdant parts of Hong Kong, but when the British first arrived in the 1840s, it was entirely barren. (“Debate still surrounds whether the Peak was naturally barren or stripped by man,” reports the South China Morning Post.) It seems that increased settlement on the north side of Hong Kong Island — which naturally included the planting of trees — led to the inadvertent greening of Hong Kong’s previously denuded slopes. Rather than an example of unspoiled nature, could the Peak actually be an urban forest?
This is Cochrane Street, the dividing line between the European and Chinese parts of town, something reflected in the typically Cantonese style of the houses; you can see similar buildings in the old villages of the New Territories, the backstreets of Guangzhou and some of the older parts of Macau.
Queen’s Road East looked like a sleepy village high street back in the 1860s. Notice the pawn shop sign on the right — unchanged after all these years.
This photo is captioned “A poor Canton family, Kowloon,” which suggests these are migrants from further inland. Their skin is noticeably darker than Thomson’s other subjects, which seems to indicate a life of outdoor labour, though it’s also worth noting that the glass plate technology he was using tended to exaggerate ruddy complexions.
This last photo depicts a regatta somewhere in the harbour. Based on the hills and the spit of land to the left, my guess would be Lei Yue Mun.
Tags: Hong Kong, John Thomson, Kowloon, Then and Now, Victoria Harbour