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A revelation awaits visitors to the Hong Kong Maritime Museum: the current exhibition Through the Lens of John Thomson: Hong Kong and Coastal China (1868-1872). The exhibition shows large photographic prints of Hong Kong and mainland China in 1868-1872, made from scans of fragile original glass negatives in the Wellcome Library.
The photographs include magnificent views of Hong Kong taken in the late 1860s by the Scottish photographer John Thomson (1837-1921). Many of them were never published in Thomson’s lifetime, and those that were published were often cropped to show only details of the composition. The exhibition differs from previous Wellcome Library exhibitions of Thomson’s photographs through the addition of extra photographs of Hong Kong, Kowloon and southern China.
After earlier sojourns in Singapore, Siam, and Cambodia, Thomson moved to Hong Kong in 1868 and set up in business as a portrait photographer in Queen’s Road Central. Already the offices of the western trading companies such as Dent and Jardine Matheson were rising in the Central District, lining the waterfront with palatial buildings comparable to those on the Grand Canal in Venice, as can be seen in the photograph above.
Soon after Thomson’s arrival, Hong Kong celebrated in style the visit of Queen Victoria’s son Prince Alfred (1844-1900) the then Duke of Edinburgh, in 1869: lavish decorations adorned the streets, and a regatta was held in the harbour. Thomson rose to the occasion by using his largest sheets of glass on which to capture memorable prospects of buildings, people, and landscapes of Hong Kong. These are the views shown in the new exhibition.
The exhibition opened on 22 November 2013 with an introduction by Betty Yao MBE of Credential Arts Management, and a formal opening by Kevin McLaven, Deputy Director of the British Council in Hong Kong.
A lecture “Through China with a Camera” was given to a full house by Professor Nick Pearce (Sir John Richmond Chair of Fine Art and Head of the School of Culture & Creative Arts, University of Glasgow), who is an expert on Thomson’s work. A reception was held in the exhibition for Hong Kong-based alumni of Glasgow University, attended by the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Anton Muscatelli, who has a particular interest in the international work of the university.
The display of the photographs just yards from where they were taken nearly 150 years before provided many opportunities: scholars of Hong Kong’s history and topography were able to study the evidence of the photographs, and to contribute new information about them. The inhabitants of Hong Kong – population over 7 million in the last census — could see the history of the streets and countryside which they pass every day. And anyone interested in such subjects as maritime history, street culture, the Opium Wars, or the public realm in colonial cities, could gain unique insights from the photographs on display. Above all, those with an attachment to Hong Kong could celebrate its remarkable history. Here are a few examples.
Cochrane Street today leads up southwards across Wellington Street to Lyndhurst Terrace, which slopes away from it at the top towards the right (west). On the right is the Central-to-Mid-levels escalator, which carries people up the slope, except in the early morning, when it is reversed and carries people down into Central district to work.
Here (below) is Thomson’s view of the same street around 1868.
Quite a climb to get up to Lyndhurst Terrace in those days! it could not be easier now, using the escalator a few feet above street level.
A few minutes walk downhill in Thomson’s time took one to the fields near the waterfront where the new City Hall building had sprung up in the year of Thomson’s arrival in 1868.
The City Hall was demolished in 1933 and a new headquarters building for the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank was built on the site, opening in 1935. That building was in turn demolished and replaced in 1985 by Norman Foster’s new HSBC building, shown in the centre of the image below. The land between the viewer and the buildings has been reclaimed from the sea since Thomson’s time (the reclamation continues today).
As a final example, Thomson photographed the elaborate street decorations installed in Bonham Strand at the time of the Duke of Edinburgh’s arrival.
How could Thomson have photographed the busy thoroughfare of Bonham Strand with the street clear of traffic? Presumably by photographing very early in the morning, though the sedan chair carriers are already waiting for custom, perhaps on the corner of Bonham Strand and Cleverly Street. Here (below) is that corner today. Man-powered transport is still with us: you can just see a man pushing a sack-barrow on the left.
Despite the huge blocks of much-needed flats visible in the background above, this part of Hong Kong has retained its traditional street pattern (and even the same street names!) in better shape than many British cities, even those that were not bombed in World War II. Also contrary to British practice, many of the skyscrapers on ordinary streets are no wider than a traditional three or four-storey building, and many have on the ground floor a shop that contributes to the daily life of the residents.
Bamboo scaffolding is used in Thomson’s photograph of Bonham Strand to support the heavy street tableaux. He would not have been surprised to see that scaffolding, even for high-rise buildings, is still made of bamboo stalks, much lighter than the steel poles used in the west.
For as Thomson wrote,
Were every other means of support withdrawn except rice and bamboo, these two plants would, I believe, supply the necessaries for clothing, habitation and food; indeed the bamboo alone … would bear the lion’s share of the burden.
The exhibition takes place at an auspicious moment for Anglo-Chinese relations. On 2 December 2013, the British Prime Minister arrived in China accompanied not only by business leaders and politicians but also by the heads of universities and other cultural institutions. On the same day, a new cultural agreement was signed by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Maria Miller, and the Chinese Minister for Culture, Minister, Cai Wu. The exhibition already in place is an example of the cultural exchanges to be promoted under the new agreements. It continues at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum until 16 February 2014.
Quotation about rice and bamboo from John Thomson, Through China with a camera, London 1898, p. 121.
Author: William Schupbach