Early Photographs of Hong Kong at Wattis Fine Art

A godown on Hong Kong waterfront A godown on Hong Kong waterfront

A photograph captures an instant frozen in time; old photographs therefore take on a higher significance precisely as a record of the past. Photography was born roughly at the same time that Hong Kong entered world history in the early 1840s; the emerging British colony soon attracted photographers of international repute on their first trips to Asia, and local photography studios were already being set up in the 1850s.

Early Photographs of Hong Kong 1860-1927 is a new exhibition current running at Wattis Fine Art, a gallery that has pioneered the collection and exhibition of old photographs of Hong Kong and China, illustrates the range of photographs representative of this early period. It includes photographs by the first visitors, the illustrious Felice Beato and John Thomson, who recorded and brought back to Europe lingering images of an alluring and changing Asia. The exhibition also features photographs by Afong, who led the longest lasting and most vibrant local studio, though the majority of the photographers throughout this period are unknown.

Photography was born roughly at the time Hong Kong entered world history in the early 1840s.

Jonathan Wattis likes to say that today is easier to date the photographs and establish the author attribution than it was twenty years ago; with growing appreciation, much has been studied since then. John Thomson, according to Wattis, for instance, distinguished himself for placing people in his photographs, as though he were staging a scene. Knowing when some buildings were erected helps to date many of these photographs.

These pictures also track the technical progress of the new craft—or art—from the original albumen prints to the later silver gelatin prints. But above all, it is the subject matter that catches the attention: what intrigued the photographers—or their audience—then in the early days, remains engaging today.

A panorama of Hong Kong harbor
A panorama of Hong Kong harbor

Views of the harbor were the most cherished subject, and among them, panoramas. These were made by the simple device of taking shots in a sequence, two or three or even six or more, the individual prints matching neatly at the edges. Hong Kong harbor made a spectacle of its own, with sailing or anchored crafts of all kinds, and the Peak or the Kowloon hills serving as a dramatic backdrop. Many individual photographs feature single ships.

Hong Kong as it was … and maybe how it could have been.

These pictures are a guide to the history of Hong Kong’s urban development, featuring on the whole a gracious and distinctive architecture, marked by high windows and arcades, sprawled and squeezed over Hong Kong Island’s northern shore. Landmark buildings like St John Cathedral, the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank headquarters and the Hong Kong Club were among the finest buildings. Only the first survives today. Queen’s Road, an arcaded promenade, became the city’s main artery. Narrower than today, in one photograph one discover the section between Duddell Street and a visible tree that indicates Pedder Street. This is, as are most other sights, unrecognizable, and the photos’ captions offer a most needed guide to the city’s past.

wattis02Another picture shows a breathtaking view of Kowloon from the Peak Tramway, this already in operation by 1890. The caption reads:

 

A dramatic view of Kowloon from the Peak Tramway. The photograph was taken on Kennedy Road looking straight down the tramway towards St John’s Cathedral, the cricket pitch, the harbour and Kowloon.

 

A flair for the picturesque—photographs featuring rickshaws and sedan chairs—is also manifest. The Happy Valley racecourse in a photograph taken as far back as 1900 prompts a smile. Trading and shipping being the city’s main activity and lifeblood is thoroughly represented. While the number of crafts anchored at the harbor is truly impressive, the pictures of offices and godowns at the waterfront are also worthy of note. These are in the main of fine, stately buildings, as shown in a picture dated 1861 of the Offices of the American firm Thomas Hunt & Co., Pedder’s Wharf, a photo attributed to Milton Miller, an American photographer settled in the city who took over one of the most prosperous local photography businesses.

This fascinating and intriguing collection of old photographs invites one to pause and ponder Hong Kong as it was and maybe how it could have been.


Juan José Morales is the co-author of The Silver Way: China, Spanish America and the Birth of Globalisation, 1565–1815. His writing has also appeared in Caixin, China Daily, The Diplomat and The Jakarta Globe.

Early Photographs of Hong Kong, 1860-1927: an exhibition of original photographs runs at Wattis Fine Art, 20 Hollywood Road, Central, Hong Kong until 29 April 2017.