#23 Photobook Club Session by Phoboko
“What are the visual codes that represent Hong Kong?”
“How do we read, recognise and value these in photographic works?”
When we look at an image, how do we know that it is of Hong Kong?
For example, these two images:
I know this is a very broad question, and maybe a retarded one too. But I wonder, if there were no texts disclosing where the image was taken, or if the image was taken out of its original context, would anyone be able to read or recognise whether this image is of HK or not? And hypothetically, if we aren’t living in HK or have been to HK, would we be able to tell or value an image of HK? And then I wonder, can there be “HK images” that are not taken in HK? How do we value images that recall a sense of belonging to this land, HK?
I love Chan Long Hei’s zine The Blooming Souvenirs. I found that it is an excellent example to ease into the above questions. Souvenirs of Hong Kong are symbolic objects that are designed and marketed to be the brand image of Hong Kong. They can be purchased as an association to the city itself. Here, the image of the Hong Kong’s emblem, a giant statue Golden Bauhinia flower located at The Golden Bauhinia Square where the daily flag raising ceremony occur, is transformed into different types of souvenirs such as puzzles, nail clippers, fridge magnets etc. Since Hong Kong’s handover, these replicated souvenirs seek to display their political history in an engaging way. Not only do these souvenirs represent Hong Kong’s touristic experiences, but they also imply the imagery of Hong Kong’s prosperity metaphorically. When the souvenirs are brought home, they recall a sense of belonging or ownership of the land.
- 1997年7月1日，中華人民共和國自1949年在中國大陸地區建立政權以來首次接收香港主權，並成立香港特別行政區；中國國務院贈送給特區政府一座名為「永遠盛開的紫荊花」的貼金銅雕，此雕塑安放在新落成的會議展覽中心新翼。雕塑寓意香港永遠繁榮昌盛；銅雕高6米，重70噸，以青銅鑄造，表面鋪以金箔，以紅色花崗岩作底座。基座圓柱方底，寓意九州方圓，刻有長城圖案，象徵中國懷抱香港。 https://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E9%87%91%E7%B4%AB%E8%8D%8A%E5%BB%A3%E5%A0%B4
- The flower is a sterile hybrid, and Richard Saunders, author of Portraits of Trees of Hong Kong and Southern China, suggests that this means it is “arguably an inauspicious symbol for a city built on mixed Chinese and British heritage.” https://zolimacitymag.com/how-did-the-bauhinia-a-sterile-flower-become-the-symbol-of-hong-kong/
© Chan Long Hei “The Blooming Souvenirs” from Lumenvisum Photobook Library
Yau Ma Tei by Chan Wai Kwong, on the other hand, speaks of HK visual codes through the way he photographed. This photobook is his first published monograph focusing on the Yau Ma Tei neighbourhood of Hong Kong. His use of candid and unpretentious visual language reflects the area honestly, neither subdues nor favours either landscape nor individual. He faced everything and photographed anything. Perhaps it’s this style of visual language that we see honest and vernacular images of street traders and local residents gather, the old and the young, revealing glimpses of visual elements of HK such as HK buses, Chinese neonlights and phonebooth, and the textures that represents HK.
© Chan Wai Kwong “Yau Ma Tei” from Lumenvisum Photobook Library
With Under the Flyovers by Chau Ho Man, the HK visual codes become less recognisable in my opinion. Although all images are shot in HK, the landscape style of capturing the world under shadows of flyovers creates this feeling of otherworldly. The way it was printed on black paper with silver tones made it even more so. It feels as if I was travelling in the realm of hell when flipping through this photobook. I then wonder, without the sensitivity and awareness of the visual culture of this side of HK, would we be able to recognise these images and more so, value these images as images of HK.
© Chau Ho Man “Under the Flyovers” from Lumenvisum Photobook Library
While the style of photography matters in recognising HK visual traits, The Queens by Wong Kan Tai brought another interesting aspects to this topic. The book is a collection of Hong Kong and Macau’s streetscapes from 1977 to 2009. These photographs are mixed in the photobook to narrate “a borrowed time, a borrowed place”, like the essence of a hotel, as Wong Kan Tai explained.
He said that these two places are like twin brothers, a Portuguese colony for more than 400 years, and a British colony for 150 years. There is only a little time difference in their development, but there is not much difference in essence. In the photos, one can recognise HK with iconic visuals such as, the passenger plane flying over the Kowloon Walled City that is about to be dismantled, the important ceremony of the withdrawal of the British army in 1997, the scenes of citizens celebrating in Statue Square on the day of the handover etc. However, what intrigue me the most is that there are some photos that led me to question whether they are taken from Hong Kong or Macau. For one, the visual style of the book was consistently photojournalistic which makes it harder to distinguish which city the images were taken from. But more so, in these images, I find that the cityscape of Hong Kong and Macau is so similar that when I cannot recognise any iconic visual codes of HK when viewing these images, I become suspicious of their locations. I then wonder, is there a recognisable or traceable visual codes for cities with similar fate and background, as Wong Kan Tai mentioned? Could a way of tracing HK visual traits be about tracing the imprints and relics of a colonial era?
© Wong Kan Tai “The Queens” from Lumenvisum Photobook Library
Lastly, The Dayspring of Eternity by Lau Chi Chung I feel is a personal photo essay (rather than a photobook) about Hong Kong. He uses the pop song <黎明不要來> from the 80s as the title of the book to metaphor his question on whether there is such thing as “permanence”. The book walks us through the Hong Kong history as well as his imagination and personal feelings towards Hong Kong via archival materials from pop culture, his photographs and texts. I feel the primary work in this book is the texts, while the images are supplementary to the story narration. Within those photographs he took, the visual codes of Hong Kong are more prominent in some images than others. There is a documentary image of the State Theatre in North Point, and then there is an archival illustration from HK old school textbooks, which visually both very much signifies HK. On the other hand, there is an image of a table covered by a laced tablecloth with toilet rolls on top and someone who looks like he’s doing calligraphy. Here, the HK visual codes become harder to identify. What interests me most with this book is that, instead of the visual representations or the visual style of the images that resonates with HK, it is the approach to the design and narration of the book that feels very HK to me. The narration is very much in sync with the melody and lyrics of the pop song – melancholic and nostalgic – which is the general theme of HK pop songs back in the 80s.
Dawn please don’t come, let the dream exist forever tonight
讓此刻的一片真 伴傾心的這份愛 命令靈魂迎入進來
Let this moment of true love welcome the soul in
- 《黎明不要來》，1987年香港電影《倩女幽魂》的插曲，屬慢板抒情，由黃霑作曲並填詞、戴樂民編曲、葉蒨文主唱。黃霑憶述，《黎》原是他為1984年電影《先生貴姓》寫的插曲，描述應召女郎女主角與男主角纏綿時的心情：她本來因為抗拒接客而討厭夜晚，現在卻唯恐夜太短，祈昐黎明不要來。歌曲沒被採用，1987年黃霑任《倩女幽魂》音樂監督時覺得適合用在聶小倩和甯采臣的情愛場景裏，就略改了幾個字，找跟他合作過幾次電影歌曲的葉蒨文灌唱；插曲最後以交叉時空音樂的蒙太奇電影手法呈現。 黃霑亦曾表示「不許紅日教人分開」一句隱喻時事，紅日暗指中共，因為當時正值中英談判，許多香港人對前途缺乏信心而移民外國，當中包括他的朋友。黃霑曾表示「不許紅日」處用了「降e」這個藍調音符，有論者認為這個不和諧的音程道出曲中人對「黎明」的抗拒和無奈。https://zh.m.wikipedia.org/zh-hk/黎明不要來
© Lau Chi Chung “The Dayspring of Eternity” from Lumenvisum Photobook Library
Before we can dive deeper into tracking HK visual traits, the discussion about HK visual traits gets blurry and confusing when we cannot define what we mean by “visual traits”. To my understanding, it is a combination of visual semiotics (ie. the visual elements that signifies HK), visual style (ie. the style of the image created) and visual language (ie. the way these images narrates a particular story).
This will be further discussed in my next writing, which will also be the topic of the next Photobook Club session in February 2023.