Lee Fook Chee’s Hong Kong: Photographs from the 1950s is a remarkable book with many levels of meaning. It tells the story of a lone immigrant photographer and presents his collection of photographs portraying 1950s Hong Kong. A photo book, and of the highest standards at that, it also brings sharp and fresh research into the social history of the place that invites scrutiny on how it compares itself sixty years later. The entire book, its sum greater than its parts, will delight therefore not only photography aficionados but anyone with a serious interest in Hong Kong.
No less intriguing are the reasons why these photographs were lost to sight for decades and how they resurfaced, coming to the attention of Edward Stokes, founder and director of The Photographic Heritage Foundation. A chance encounter at The Peak between Lee and Stokes that turned providential, the fast-forged camaraderie between the two photographers, and how the book came about, are fascinating stories on their own right, best left to the readers.
The book’s black-and-white photographs are divided into two sections, those showing the story of Lee’s early life, and Lee’s documentary images of Hong Kong itself. The photos of Hong Kong form one of the most exhaustive visual portraits of the colony in the 1950s, a period of flux and transformation that set the foundation for what the city would become.
Lee’s negatives, kept by him in a mooncake box, portray the city’s now-forgotten roots and its postwar character. The reproduction is of the exacting, world-class standard of printing images for which The Photographic Heritage Foundation is justly regarded among serious photography aficionados. Many of the captions, without which many of those places would remain unrecognizable, achieve a lyrical tone, and the back-of-book section of extended captions add value for further research.
For those too young to remember first-hand, the wealth of research and explanations that integrate the book are therefore both valuable and illuminating.
One of the most powerful photographs, the dramatic image of a pagoda looking like a lighthouse is fittingly labelled, “The Tiger Pagoda, beautifully framed by a massive cumulous cloud and resplendent with its delicate balconies.” It takes on a poignant significance when paired with the next photo, as one learns that the visible dwellings right behind the Tiger Balm Gardens, in the hillside of Tai Hang, are the squatter shacks where Lee once lived.
For those too young to remember first-hand, the wealth of research and explanations that integrate the book are therefore both valuable and illuminating. Historian Patricia Chiu, the book’s author, chronicles Lee’s life against the background of the Singapore of Lee’s birthplace from the 1930s until his final departure, and in the context of Hong Kong from the 1950s onwards. Her essays could well stand on their own. They are critical to understanding the plight of the immigrants after the severe dislocation of the region following Japan’s invasion of China and Southeast Asia and the civil war in China: how people like Lee struggled and gradually settled, and how, in later years, the precarious existence of such men and women persisted amid economic growth. For Lee, like so many, there always remained a lingering anxiety about securing the mere basics of life, food and shelter.
Lee Fook Chee was born in Singapore in 1927 into a poor background. For the unwanted child of a foster family, after the privations of war, life as a seaman seemed the only way out. But when he landed in Hong Kong in 1947, a new world opened up to him, a world full of life and possibility, but also hardship. In the upward climb to earn a living, Lee’s lack of education and skills remained a lifelong burden, as were the isolation and narrow outlook that poverty breeds.
Photography became an option for Lee. He took portraits for sale to tourists at the Peak; and then, during the mid to late 1950s, pictures of Hong Kong itself to sell to tourists. The latter form the bulk of his collection, a large selection of which are published in Lee Fook Chee’s Hong Kong. However, by the early 1960s, unable to cope with the challenges of color photography, and other professional pressures, Lee gave up his avocation.
Many of these photographs are of great technical virtuosity and readers can be sure to find favorites. Among them, the pictures of ships in the Victoria Harbour stand out, as are those capturing vibrant city life, like the busy Graham and Pottinger streets going up from Queen’s Road Central, street markets that have kept their character for decades but are now about to disappear. Most photographs are taken in broad daylight, rendering details without filters or seeking special effects.
In 1949, only two years after Lee arrived in Hong Kong, Chiu explains, the population had doubled from something over 600,000 people to over 1.2 million. By 1951, over 300,000 people lived in unhealthy, illegal squatter colonies. Lee and his family lived in squatter shacks for over a decade, first on the slopes of Tai Hang, right above the Tiger Balm Gardens, and later in Shau Kei Wan.
As those shanty towns were cleared and the colonial government pushed ahead with a vigorous policy of public housing, the family moved to a cottage Lee built himself in Fanling in the New Territories. There he ran a small grocery store. Lee, it seems, missed out on opportunities at every step. In the end, his modest abode became a casualty to housing development and he had to relinquish it.
Lee Fook Chee was one of countless, anonymous men and women in Hong Kong who toiled into old age, those who rarely had a voice. Thanks to this book, we finally see his point of view, still full of courage and hope.
Lee embodies, sadly, an archetype. For twenty years, despite his native intelligence, he worked as an ice cream and snack vendor outside the Fung Kai Secondary School in Sheung Shui. It was his most long-standing job. In his late years, he did the whole range of jobs done by the least well off: being a gatekeeper and delivering food by bicycle.
When Stokes first visited Lee’s home to view his photographs, Lee was living in Tai Wo Estate in a flat merely eleven feet square. There, Lee kept his treasured collection of negatives and the simple equipment to develop films and make prints. When his health later suddenly declined, Chiu and Stokes visited him in his nursing home where Chiu made her invaluable recordings of Lee’s recollections that form the basis of her account. Once, Stokes took Lee’s Zeiss Ikonta camera to the nursing home. From how Lee held the camera, Stokes sensed, he remained in spirit a photographer. It was to be the last time they met.
Lee did not live to see the book published, as he passed away in 2012. His photographs, his perhaps unintended tribute to Hong Kong, have providentially taken the form of this book and so have become a tribute to him. Lee Fook Chee was one of countless, anonymous men and women in Hong Kong who toiled into old age, those who rarely had a voice. Thanks to this book, we finally see his point of view, still full of courage and hope.