Mandy Chan Sze Man reviews a fascinating tour of a “lost Hong Kong” in pictures from the 1860s to the early 1990s.

Peter Waller, Lost Hong Kong: A History in Pictures (Blacksmith Books, 2019), 96pp.

Lost in Hong Kong: A History in Pictures by Peter Waller, a full-time author and editor based in the UK, is a collection of photographs taken between the 1860s and the early 1990s that covers a significant part of British Colonial Hong Kong (1841–1997), which the author refers to temporally as the “lost Hong Kong.”

The author gained a history degree at Oxford. His background is reflected in the detailed background research and organisation that went into the production of the book. The photographs in the book range from archived old pictures from a wide range of sources from the 1860s to the early 1990s, including some of the author’s own pictures taken in 1992 and 1993 during a visit to Hong Kong, enabling readers a glimpse into the lives of those pictured, as if embarking on a journey through time and reliving the lives of former generations.

The older pictures show us many typical colonial street scenes with various fashions and classes of people of the late nineteenth to early twentieth century. In terms of fashion, for example, we can see navy personnel and soldiers in their respective uniforms, policemen of various ethnicities, clusters of male pedestrians with the queue (or cue) hairstyle (known as bianzi in China and meaning braided hair), married local Chinese women with hair buns, some carrying loads on shoulder poles, dressed in cheongsams, traders and pedestrians in straw hats and Caucasians in bowler hats with canes. In terms of classes, we can see all walks of life, from workers squatting in front of their Chinese sedan chairs (and in later periods, rickshaws) waiting for business, to the wealthier societal classes who attended horse races in Happy Valley and were well dressed in suits and hats.

It is this fusion of cultures and styles (be they political, social or cultural) behind the pictures that makes the reading of the old Hong Kong in pictures similar to walking down a long-lost collective memory lane that most of us have never actually lived but may have gathered from documentaries, films or TV shows. On close inspection of the photographs, the readers get to see various walks of life in a new light. In addition to the author’s own photographs, the book is a carefully researched documentation of archived photographs by famous photographers such as John Thomson and William Pryor Floyd, pioneer travel photographers of the Far East, Hong Kong, Macau and China. To supplement the featured pictures, details of the inheritors, architects and commissioners, changes in ownership and the purposes of buildings and sites are also provided, so the reader can glean a better understanding of the distant and more recent histories of the photographed architectures and places. Several historical events about the colonial past are also depicted, such as visits from royal family members – for example, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, in 1869 – and the names of places are explained, such as Bonham Strand in Sheung Wan, to help contextualise the past and make connections to the present.

Looking through this book of street scenes, group photos, landscapes and aerial views is similar to taking a tour around buildings and places with differing purposes, from government buildings, markets, church buildings, courts, cemeteries, factories, offices, clubs, university halls, the General Post Office and hotels, to clock towers, piers, Statue Square, the Happy Valley racecourse and many more. These historic buildings were also of various architectural styles, such as the neo-Gothic Club Germania Building and neoclassical Queen’s Building. Other historic buildings include Zetland Hall, Lyndhurst Terrace, Victoria Barracks, Club Germania Building in Wyndham Street and Douglas Castle, which is now University Hall – one of the residential halls of the University of Hong Kong. There are also the City Hall, Roman Catholic Cathedral, the HongKong Hotel, the Hong Kong Club, Queen’s Building, the Supreme Court building, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, the Albany, Mountain Lodge on Victoria Peak (the summer residence of the British Governor of Hong Kong for 80 years) and Central Market to add to this list. Many of these pictured buildings have naturally changed dramatically over the past century; some were destroyed or demolished long ago, and their existence may never be known by younger readers.

Photographs from between the 1920s and the 1990s show the rapid development of Hong Kong. For example, one interesting structure that may spark curiosity in younger readers is the pictured intersection shelter for police officers who were on point duty and traffic control, prior to the modern-day emergence of traffic lights. It is an interesting sight to see a police officer in the middle of a busy road performing these duties. Other introductions, such as the squatters on the hillsides, the changes to the variety of shops and models of vehicles such as trams, buses, single-deck trailer cars, ferry services, taxis, the Peak Tram, Kowloon–Canton Railway, Star Ferry and China Motor Bus, also help form a vivid visual history of the transformation of Hong Kong, from the black-and-white-photo distant past to the relative modern-day era and the emergence of colour pictures in the late 1950s and early 60s.

The book is structured chronologically for the most part by the dates that the photos were taken, which makes good sense. Nonetheless, it may have been worth considering an alternative way to divide the rich content, with the use of chapters or subheadings, for example. Besides temporal divisions by the decades or periods, thematic divisions (such as by region or architectural style, site purpose and social or cultural topics such as class, leisure, transport, etc.) are also possible structures that could be used for future editions of the book or indeed its sequel. I suspect that the parts about transport in Hong Kong could be expanded into a book-length topic, too. The author has published The Tramways of Hong Kong: A History in Pictures. The author may like to explore further the evolution of the modes of transport from the late 1800s to the present day. Currently in the book, the images of sedan chairs, rickshaws, early automobiles, Western-style yachts, Chinese-style fishing boats and sampans by the pier, single-deck trams, motor cars and the emergence of public transport depicted throughout, are all very captivating. Another theme of the photos that fascinates me is the development of fashion: the differences in style across genders, classes, occupations and so on.

In conclusion, the book is a valuable addition to the dialogue of old Hong Kong and its history in pictures. The publisher’s description states that many of the images were previously unpublished, which makes this book all the more special and enjoyable to read.

Mandy Chan Sze Man (BA, MPhil, PhD) teaches at a local tertiary institute. Her research interests include literary, cultural and media studies, especially in twentieth-century literature, (auto)biography and life writing, war narratives and news writing. A vintage bric-a-brac lover who enjoys travelling and a daily cup of nice milk tea.

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