Young Thais are drawn by the big city lifestyle
The striking thing about Ho Fan's photographs of mid-century Hong Kong is how little the city has changed in the last 60 or so years.
In elegant black-and-white shots, he captured images of fishermen at work, tall-masted junk boats, street markets and construction sides swaddled with bamboo scaffolding -- all sights that are still common today. And more than 70 of Ho's pictures from the 1950s and ‘60s are on display through mid-December at the AO Vertical Art Space, marking the first solo Hong Kong exhibition by the famous 81-year-old photographer, who spent his formative years here.
The Shanghai-born, self-taught artist started shooting with a basic Rolleiflex as a teenager and fell in love with the art after one of his first photographs, taken at age 13, won a prize -- a shot of Shanghai's Bund, an iconic strip of European-style buildings. When his family later moved to Hong Kong, Ho's fascination with street scenes deepened. He would spend hours each day skulking around the now-defunct Central Market, waiting for the perfect combination of lighting and composition before he pressed the shutter.
But despite his desire to record spontaneous moments, one of his most famous images, Approaching Shadow (1964) -- which appears in the exhibition -- is deliberately staged. He asked his cousin to don a cheongsam (a traditional Chinese dress) and photographed her against a white wall. In the darkroom during the development process, he introduced a triangular shadow that cuts diagonally across the frame towards its downward-looking subject. According to Ho, the dark half of the photograph represents the imminent end of her innocence.
Ho’s vintage prints have recently evolved through the use of Photoshop, re-jigging thousands of negatives to make his prints border on the abstract, surreal and fantastical. "The only thing [I want to do] is to find, from my thousands of old negatives, hidden treasures from half a century ago," he told HK Magazine. "At that time I knew less. Now I know a little more." Both the vintage and reinvented works are on display.
His works also offer modern-day viewers glimpses of a few bygone Hong Kong sights: old-fashioned tricycles; coolies hauling their wares; gentle waves lapping against a harbourfront promenade that is now a large highway. Best of all, they're affordable by fine art standards, ranging anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000 Hong Kong dollars.
Despite his age and his long career, Ho wants to make Hong Kong nostalgia accessible and appealing to a contemporary audience. It makes sense, then, that his old photographs are on display in a new gallery (located in a stairwell with the frames mounted along the walls and on landings) within a worn-down industrial part of town called Chai Wan that's becoming increasingly artsy and chic -- it's a marriage of the old and the new.
Hana R Alberts is the Hong Kong Localite for BBC Travel