The Seedy and the Debased

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The week I moved to Hong Kong, I went to the Peak. It’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re a first-time visitor or recent arrival to the city: take the tram, bus or (if you’re a little more savvy) minibus up to the cluster of shopping malls that has risen from what was once a retreat for British colonials yearning for the mists and cool winds of home. The view from the Peak is exactly what you expect it to be, because it’s the view that has become the photographic flag-bearer for Hong Kong: a porcupine’s back of skyscrapers riven by the churning waters of Victoria Harbour, mountains rising and falling in all directions. It’s the scene that accompanies news reports on Hong Kong’s stock market, or the latest worries about swine flu. On particularly smoggy days an obscured version of the view is used to bemoan Hong Kong’s chronic air pollution.

It was not smoggy when I visited the Peak. In fact, it was one of those brilliant late-August days when an ocean breeze clears the sky. It would have been possible to see all the way to China, if it weren’t for the mountains on the horizon; in Hong Kong, views are never limitless. As the sun slipped below the horizon, the city lights flickered to life and the harbour glowed turquoise, its surface criss-crossed by barges and ferries that looked from the Peak’s elevation like so many toys. From below, you can always spot the Peak lookout because it seems to sparkle – the result of hundreds of camera flashes igniting at any given time.

As tourists gathered around, cameras chirping and flashing, I turned and walked to a less popular lookout, this one facing west, where the green hills of the Pok Fu Lam Country Park roll towards the East Lamma Channel. That was where I encountered another set of photographers, only this time they weren’t interested in the view – they were taking photos of two young women, one dressed in a short black shirt and low-cut teal top, blonde hair extensions forming curls around her cleavage; the other was dressed like a schoolboy, with an electric blue wig matching the lapels on her uniform. They pranced around the lookout, the blonde girl caressing the blue-haired one, who played indifferent to her advances. The whole performance was being documented by a half-dozen men dressed in jeans and t-shirts, their hands clutching professional-grade Nikons mounted with flashes and reflectors.

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Amateur photoshoot on the Peak

The women were leng mo, I later discovered – amateur models hired for sexy photoshoots. And the men were long yau, a name that translates literally as “salon friends,” evoking the rather quaint image of a Victorian drawing room decorated with oil paintings in heavy gold frames. Instead, long yau occupy a peculiar niche within Hong Kong’s Internet culture, an exclusively male group of amateur photographers who gather online, discussing photography (and girls) on sites like HK Golden — the local equivalent of Reddit or Tianya — and pooling their money to hire young women for photoshoots.

Their socially awkward demeanour and preference for buxom yet baby-faced models have earned them a rather unsavoury reputation. They aren’t well appreciated by other photographers. Once, while walking through the decrepit old fishing village of Lei Yue Mun, I came across a group of young men who were setting up for a photoshoot in a vacant lot. I approached them and asked if they could tell me anything about the long yau community – how photographers found their models, how they chose shooting locations. They bristled at the implication. “We’re not long yau,” one of them said. He gestured towards a Hello Kitty doll perched on a rusty chain-link fence. “We take photos of dolls.” For many people in Hong Kong, long yau are quintessential ham sup lo, literally “salty wet men,” the leering creeps with greasy hair whose gaze is always a few inches too low.

Ever since that first encounter on the Peak, I’ve been fascinated by the locations long yau choose for their photoshoots. They are known in Cantonese as si jing (私影), which literally translates as “private shoot,” but they are not very private at all, usually taking place in public space. Hong Kong’s many “ladder streets” and staircases are popular shooting locations – I have passed by dozens of private shoots on the picturesque Victorian-era cobblestones of Pottinger Street and the century-old gaslamps of Duddell Street. When I studied at the University of Hong Kong, I often had to push past groups of lang mo and long yau who had colonized the steps below Eliot Hall, one of the campus’ original redbrick buildings. Less conventionally scenic locations seem just as popular; some long yau have a penchant for the apocalyptic, organizing private shoots inside abandoned buildings and derelict villages. Earlier this year, walking through an abandoned fishing village on Ma Wan, my girlfriend heard voices coming from inside the mouldering remains of a tile-roofed house. Peeking inside, we saw a girl in a miniskirt posing for photos inside the cockloft.

There are obvious logistical reasons why long yau shoot in public spaces – it’s cheaper than renting a studio, after all. But it’s curious that few private shoots seem to happen in the spaces that define everyday Hong Kong, like the glossy shopping malls that have proliferated in every neighbourhood, the high-rise housing estates where most people live. Instead, they tend towards sites that are old, gritty and abandoned – spaces long shunned in a city that has always valued the new more than the old. When a popular movie highlighted the fate of the 70-year-old shophouses along Wing Lee Street, a small terraced lane that was slated for demolition, thousands of amateur photographers flocked to the street, generating enough public interest that the demolition was eventually halted and the street preserved. For a time, it was impossible to walk down WIng Lee Street without interrupting a private shoot; even Chrissie Chau, one of the few lang mo to attain mainstream success, posed for photos in the neighbourhood.

Searching for greater meaning in the activities of long yau seems like a fruitless endeavour. But their sheer numbers — not to mention their cultural influence, thanks to the leng mo craze of recent years — seems to suggest that long yau are a byproduct of changes in Hong Kong’s identity. Seven years ago, at an international symposium on “Photography and the City,” the German scholar Sergej Stoetzer made an interesting observation. Even as “standardized iconographies of cities become globally available,” he said, these scenes are increasingly undermined by amateur takes on urban space. The view from the Peak is still the view that represents Hong Kong, but it is increasingly lost in a crowd of amateur photos that depict places like Wing Lee Street.

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Photoshoot on Wing Lee Street

In many ways, Hong Kong’s private shoots are acts of disruption. Lang mo bypass all conventional routes of modelling, eschewing agents in favour of direct engagement with interested photographers. The accessibility of digital photography has allowed amateurs to amass impressive collections of photographic equipment while indulging in the kind of leering conduct that affirms what Susan Sontag wrote 36 years ago, which is that the proliferation of photography creates in people a “chronic voyeuristic relation to the world.” And the penchant of long yau for shooting in public upends any notion of propriety: all the world’s a stage for tawdry pseudo-pornography.

That might sound cynical, but cynicism is a quality that runs to the heart of long yau photographs, which are technically correct but devoid of artistic intent. It somehow brings to mind a popular line from the 2011 TVB series When Heaven Burns — “This city is dying, you know?” — which was adopted as a catchphrase by disaffected youth unhappy with the state of Hong Kong’s social and political development. It seems to me that the long yau phenomenon is an inadvertent byproduct of that disaffection, combining as it does so many threads of Hong Kong subculture: the salty wet men, the hobbyism, the roiling Internet frontier of sites like HK Golden. And there’s a sense, too, of subverting Hong Kong’s very sense of self, its deeply-engrained notions of progress and development, in favour of the seedy and the debased.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Wednesday February 12 2014at 10:02 pm , filed under Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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