M emories of bygone Hong Kong collectively form a powerful narrative for the generations who grew up in this city, a place that has undergone dramatic change in the past several decades. Viewed through the lens of two of Hong Kong’s photographers, this history reveals itself in black and white, offering a rare glimpse into life as it had once been. With the camera, Yau Leung captured the everyday lives of the city’s people, often focusing on the natural interactions among children and the working class. Lee Ka-sing’s images provide a stark contrast of the city’s reflected images and urban landscapes. These works are among the many highlights at Sotheby’s Hong Kong S|2 Gallery exhibition Vision of Hong Kong From Two Generations.
1) Sparrow Companions
Known as the “Bresson of Hong Kong,” Yau began his career in the 1960s and witnessed the city’s transition from tradition to change. In Sparrow Companions, an elderly man is making his way down the road. Where is he going? Bird owners would often gather together at teahouses in the morning, to show off their “cultured birds” or match up “fighting birds.” Amid the hustle and bustle of the city, the man with the bird cages is anticipating an leisurely afternoon spent with fellow enthusiasts.
2) Crossing the Border
Crossing the Border shows another aspect of Yau’s visual style. Captured at the tennis courts in Victoria Park, a man climbs a chain-linked fence and is headed for a pile of discarded construction materials. The photo was taken two years after the enactment of the 1974 Touch Base Policy, and while Victoria Park is well away from the territory’s border, the title is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the illegal immigrants that had been streaming into Hong Kong from mainland China at the time.
3) Risking Her Life to Get Water
A woman, burdened with a carrying pole, rushes into oncoming traffic. Her legs, the road and a nearby vehicle are all ablur as she hurries across the street, but her arms and the buckets of water she is hauling are clearly in focus. The photo documents a period in Hong Kong’s history when a water shortage made it necessary to limit its availability to just four days a week for four hours each day.
4) Street Youths
Two young men sit shoulder-to-shoulder on a bus railing, watching people and traffic. The faces of the men are not in view, but Yau’s photography manages to capture their expression through their gestures and behavior, infusing the scene with a painting-like quality.
5) Ten Poet Friends Behind the “British” Gate
Lee Ka-sing is adept at combining photographs, drawn to dynamic perspectives and meanings generated through juxtaposition. Lee draws upon poetry to create evocative images and infuse his work with literary sensibility. Ten Poet Friends Behind the “British” Gate is a master exercise in visual superimposition, with a title that lets viewers puzzle over its meaning.
6) The Love
A multiple exposure, The Love superimposes the words “Hong Kong” and visual references to Tsui Hark’s films “Love in the Time of Twilight” (1995) and “The Butterfly Lovers” (1994). This is part of Lee’s collection Forty Poems - Photographs 1995-98 and many layers in this photo ultimately converge on the concept of love.
Read more on why the nostalgia for Hong Kong’s imagined past persists even among younger generations.
Photography is an engaging and accessible collecting category. For collectors, understanding the medium is important because it can help guide you in understanding what criteria your photograph should meet. However, remembering all the technical processes can be a daunting task, so here is a handy “cheat sheet” to help you navigate some of that terminology.