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.

China shares borders with 14 other countries, more than almost any other nation. Its near neighbors represent a diverse collection of countries, from dominant powers such as Russia and India, to the smaller emerging nations of Laos and Bhutan. Throughout China’s history, it is through these borders that the influencing forces of trade, ideology and imperialism have traveled. China’s border regions have resumed their importance in recent years with political protest among the country’s ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet, and the development of the One Belt, One Road initiative—which seeks to further bind China’s neighbors to its economic agenda through the creation of a “New Silk Road”. As it currently stands, China’s borders represent an opportunity for trade and cultural exchange, but also a risk from political agitation, terrorism and even military conflict.  

“Once you have decided to have your photograph taken,” Matsuzaki Shinji wrote in 1886, “you should clean your entire person, comb your hair, shave your face (while those with long beards should wash them thoroughly), and take care that no dirt is attached to the face or the rest of your body.” He followed this up with twenty-five more “dos and don’ts” for the customer.

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.

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.

If you turn to page 105 in this book you will see two extraordinary figures standing and facing each other in a colored albumen print from 1872. They both have bare feet; one wears a light-blue three-quarter length robe, rather like an elegant silk dressing-gown, and the other a similar one of a darker color, with what looks a little like a skirt underneath. They have rather serious expressions on their faces, and medium-length thick, dark, dry-looking hair. They both have upturned mustaches, rather in the style affected by Kaiser Wilhelm II, although not quite as extreme, and they look as if they’ve been painted on.