To take a photograph, Susan Sontag tells us, “is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge—and, therefore, like power.” A photograph also preserves evidence and exposes the human condition, which the viewer then appropriates. Old photographs preserve worlds that are gone, but they also bring them back, because the moment which they record is there forever, and cannot be moved in time either backwards or forwards. David Bellis knows this, and he has given us a glimpse of a world that is still present in photographs, a world which contains stories that are also preserved.
The first photograph in the book illustrates this very well. At first it’s quite obvious: there is a man selling a motley collection of assorted objects, and in the background there’s a young man poring over the shelves in a bookshop. However, as Bellis draws us into the photograph, he shows us an innocuous-looking with the number 109 painted on it. Without his guidance, a casual viewer probably wouldn’t have noticed it, but it’s a peculiarly local touch which tells us more about Hong Kong in the 1930s than the other parts of the photograph: it is a rat-bin.
A what? A rat-bin, placed by the municipal government all over the city. People who found dead rats could pick them up and pop them in the bin, which would be emptied twice daily. Bellis tells us that each dead rat from Bin No 100 would be labelled, which would tell the authorities where it was found, and in turn, if it was diseased and had plague, they could take action in that particular district. He then goes on to tell us the history of the plague problem in Hong Kong. When we know these details, we have the knowledge Sontag alluded to, and we understand the human condition displayed in the photograph, perhaps looking at it in a new way and paying attention to seemingly unimportant objects in other photographs. That bin takes on a new importance when we are told about its associations.
Bellis approaches each photograph in the same vein, opening up for us the contents and enabling us to see and understand details which, without his guidance, we might have missed. The photographs range from about 1885 to the 1960s, with Nos 16-21 forming a photographic essay on the development of Central Hong Kong over those years.
Bellis tells us that because this view is so popular with tourists, who all climb The Peak to see it, he was at first inclined to ignore it, but he discovered that these particular views, taken through the years, provide a vital clue to actually watching Hong Kong develop as buildings come and go, the bay gets reclaimed, the famous Hong Kong Hotel disappears in a fire, and by 1965 the skyscrapers familiar to visitors today are almost completely dominating the skyline.
Close-ups of various buildings and features are isolated by Bellis so we can better see how the city developed. And Bellis does not push any moral with the photographs he presents here: they are about the city in general, not about its rich or poor, its expatriate British population or its Chinese people. They are all here, the young British girls in their Brownie uniforms, ordinary sailors from the Royal Navy, ladies with their teapots and tennis-racquets. The Chinese with and without their queues are there, as is a very snooty and fashionably-dressed woman (1920s) in an open sedan chair carried by two barefoot coolies and a sturdy young woman going to market, also barefoot, and carrying a baby as well as two baskets suspended on a pole over her shoulders.
These are not “art” photographs or professional studio shots, but for the most part are taken by ordinary citizens, and are not altered, doctored or posed. Bellis gives us “old” Hong Kong as it actually was, and reveals more hidden stories in the collection than just the rat-bins.
In some cases I could have wished that the descriptions and explanations were sometimes a little more detailed (and the book correspondingly longer and perhaps larger in format), but that’s a minor criticism which does not detract from the excellence of Bellis’s work in putting this fascinating collection together.
It’s not a coffee-table book, and that’s a point in its favor. David Bellis has an obvious love for Hong Kong, where he operates Gwulo, a local history website, and this book is, the cover states, Volume 1. Let’s hope the next one comes out soon, perhaps with others to follow. Local historians approach their subjects with a love and enthusiasm sometimes lacking in more academic productions, and books like this are to be cherished for their informality and accessibility to readers who know little about the subjects they deal with.