World War Two crippled Hong Kong – mounting death toll and depopulation, destroyed buildings and economic slump.
When the war ended, people were still struggling to survive but they could see a glimmer of hope. These moments were captured in Asia Society’s latest exhibition called Recovery, Resilience, Resurgence.
With nearly 90 photos in total taken by three photographers – Hedda Morrison, Lee Fook Chee and Brian Brake – Hong Kong’s story from recovery to a manufacturing centre during the 1940s to 1970s is brought to light.
The fifth wave of the pandemic has hit Hong Kong, and it is uncertain when museums and cultural organisations will open again. In light of this situation, Asia Society has provided the audience with a virtual tour of the exhibition they can access at home, and understand more about the exhibition.
Update: As of 19 July, the exhibition is extended until 30 September.
Hong Kong's tram systems survived World War Two and was rejuvenated in the 1940s | Photo credit: Resident and Fellows of Harvard College
The three words found in the title – Recovery, Resilience, Resurgence – were historical realities of Hong Kong as captured in the photos. These three photographers’ works are connected to distinct phases of Hong Kong’s modern history spanning over 30 years seen through the eyes of three different personalities.
The Value spoke to Curator, Edward Stokes and Assistant Curator, Elaine Wong more about the exhibition.
Hedda Morrison – Recovery
The exhibition’s first section, Recovery, consists of 30 photos by German photographer, Hedda Morrison.
Acclaimed for her images of China from the 1930s and 1940s, Morrison arrived in Hong Kong in 1946. Spanning over six months from September 1946 to March 1947, the German gave valuable insights into the city’s everyday life.
One photo that tells the story of Hong Kong’s development after World War Two is showcased through Morrison’s photo of the tram system located near Des Voeux Road and Pedder Street.
Through this photo, Wong wants the audience to appreciate their surroundings, such as transportation and architecture – and understand what changes and continuities were made since that time.
A young, poor boy sleeping on a bed of old, raggy clothes on the pavement | Photo credit: Resident and Fellows of Harvard College
A middle-aged man sleeping on concrete | Photo credit: Resident and Fellows of Harvard College
Stokes agreed. He also mentioned a set of photos comprising two parts that further tell a story of recovery through different personalities found alongside the streets of Hong Kong.
This first part depicts a young, poor boy sleeping on a bed of old, raggy clothes on the pavement. A middle-aged man, struggling from the hardships of his life, is shown sleeping on concrete with nothing underneath him.
This is contrasted by the second part, where there are photos of two women – one young and the other middle-aged.
“They both have a sense of optimism in their faces, which was a part of Hong Kong back then. That, despite the great struggles and hardships, there would be something to look forward to and to move onto,” said Stokes.
Postwar Hong Kong was characterised by optimism and could be seen amongst its people. This young and cheerful lady, with the Chinese scales (ching) beside her, indicates she worked as a market hawker | Photo credit: Resident and Fellows of Harvard College
This middle-aged woman’s countenance also shows optimism. Her direct gaze reflects Hedda Morrison’s engagement with locals | Photo credit: Resident and Fellows of Harvard College
Lee Fook Chee
Lee Fook Chee – Resilience
The second section is Resilience, which consists of 37 photos by Lee Fook Chee.
In 1947, Lee embarked from Singapore to Hong Kong and pursued a career in photography. In this exhibition, Lee’s photos were taken from 1954 to 1960.
During the 1950s, the United Nations imposed trade sanctions on China after its role in the Korean War. It forced Hong Kong to reinvent itself from an entrepot to a manufacturing centre – moving forward with resilience and strength.
There are two photos that depict this sense of resilience.
The first shows boys on a mid-summer day swimming off the Praya – the Harbourfront Road in Sheung Wan.
“Sampans hoard against the shore, trucks taking away rice – the Praya was and it still is an import area. The boys were poor, but they were having fun,” said Stokes.
Local boys are having some summer fun by swimming along the Western Harbour, near Wing Lok Street | Photo credit: The Estate of Lee Fook Chee
Swire built this Taikoo Pool to provide recreation for their staff and families | Photo credit: The Estate of Lee Fook Chee
Beside it, and the second photo that represents resilience is a photo of the Taikoo Pool owned by Swire.
“Here, this forward-looking company has built a swimming pool for its staff. Swimming was gaining popularity – it was an economical recreation. There were still levels of hardship, the children and families were swimming in the pool – but there is still this connection of having fun,” he said.
In this case of the Swire company, Stokes explained that it was very concerned for the welfare of Hong Kong citizens and its employees.
“This was again the resilience of Hong Kong, that companies were very much part of the story. It was led by the companies of Hong Kong that built its future.”
Brian Brake – Resurgence
The exhibition concludes with the third and final section called Resurgence – 20 photos from renowned New Zealand photographer, Brian Brake. After stints at famous magazines such as National Geographic and Life, he took photos of Hong Kong from the mid-1960s to mid-1970s.
In this section, the photos are a huge change from the people struggling on the streets.
One photo depicting resurgence is children doing exercise at rooftop school at the Kwun Tong Resettlement Estate, taken in circa 1970.
Until compulsory education was introduced in 1972, rooftop schools were considered the most economical way to provide education for a great number of children during the 1950s and 1960s. The rooftops of housing estates were converted into classrooms and admitted 500 to 650 children in often two sessions – one in the morning and another in the afternoon.
Children doing exercise at the Kwun Tong Resettlement Estate's rooftop school | Photo credit: Wai-man Lau
Jardine House (centre) was the tallest building in Hong Kong and Asia in the 1970s | Photo credit: Wai-man Lau
Another photo that depicts resurgence is Brake’s image of Tsim Sha Tsui looking onto Victoria Peak.
“Now, Central has so many new buildings. Above all, there is what we now call the Jardine House, formerly Connaught Centre – the then tallest building in Hong Kong and Asia. Now, we see the International Finance Centre (IFC) and the new Bank of China. So, every decade, Hong Kong continues building and moving forward,” said Stokes.
Despite the difficulties presented from the 1940s to 1970s, Hong Kong consistently showed a sense of community spirit and drive from its people that propelled the Fragrant Harbour to progress from ruins to new, international heights.
And it is these stories of change and continuity that visitors – young and old – can take away from their visits at the exhibition.
Exhibition Name: Recovery, Resilience, Resurgence: Thirty Years of Hong Kong Photographs, 1940s – 1970s
Venue: Chantal Miller Gallery, Asia Society Hong Kong Centre, 9 Justice Drive, Admiralty, Hong Kong
Date: 14 December 2021 – 30 September 2022
Time: Tuesdays-Sundays: 11am-6pm | Last Thursday of every month: 11am-8pm | Closed on Mondays