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Special Article


To Learn about the History of Hong Kong through Historical Photographs

Dr Louis Ng Chi-wa
Curator, Hong Kong Museum of History


The technique of photography was officially recognised in August 1839 when the French government announced the successful experimentation of Daguerrotype, a photographic process with the image made on a light-sensitive silver-coated metallic plate. Since then, photographs become an important means of documenting human activities in addition to writing and painting. Through historical photographs, we see the vanishing past. Though revealing only fragmented and sketchy episodes, these photographs are an important medium through which we can learn about the past and reconstruct history. Seeing is believing. Historical photographs are often more substantial in content than depiction by words.


Before photography was brought into Hong Kong, some Western merchants living in Hong Kong liked to hire artists to paint portraits for them. Later, this became a fashion as well among the local Chinese. Most of these portraitists set up their own studios in Wellington Street in the Central District. Sometimes they would paint pictures of local scenery and sold them to travellers visiting Hong Kong. Into the 1860s, photography became increasing popular and photographic studios came into existence. It was a fashion to go to these studios and have pictures taken as mementoes. Quite a number of these works still survive today. Later, as photographic techniques improved, cameras were no longer big and heavy; ordinary people could also carry cameras around to take pictures. In those days, foreign travellers visiting Hong Kong often found the place full of fascinations. Many pictures were then taken of its social features, folk customs, monuments and scenic spots.


During the three years and eight months under Japanese occupation, many historical documents and photographs were lost. Over the past two decades, the Hong Kong Museum of History and the Hong Kong Public Records Office, both government institutions specialising in collecting materials related with local history, paid great attention to the collection of historical photographs. So far, some 20,000 pictures have been collected, of which the earliest was taken in end 1850s. They provide valuable information for us to learn about and to study the history of Hong Kong.


Hong Kong saw tremendous changes during the past one and a half centuries. Population grew dramatically from 7,500 in the early days to the latest figure of 6.5 million. Rapid urbanisation and booming commercial activities accelerated the speed of old buildings being replaced by new ones. Only very few old buildings of over a century old still survive. The old City Hall, old Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Building, old General Post Office in Central and the old Train Terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui were once prominent landmarks, but now they have all vanished and become only historical names. Depictions in words put down by our predecessors, no matter how vivid they are, are incapable of reconstructing the monumental image of these buildings. Yet, historical photographs allow us to see what they were like in their times. These pictures give us the pleasure of moving a century back through the time tunnel into the past of Hong Kong.


This perceptual knowledge sometimes enlightens us in our retrospect of history. If we browse through photographs depicting life of the Hong Kong people in the 1950s and 1960s, we can see how difficult their life was and how meagre material resources were in those days. However, during this period of economic depression, our predecessors still stood fast at their posts and worked hard to lay a sound foundation for economy to boom in the 1980s. These pictures tell us the story of Hong Kong and disclose that its route towards prosperity has never been a smooth one, but with ups and downs. To strengthen ourselves constantly is what history has taught and enlightened us.


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