Nostalgia in monochrome

Updated: 2017-04-07 07:03

By Paul Surtees(HK Edition)

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A gallery in the heart of SoHo sources old photos of Hong Kong and other historic Asian cities to satisfy our craving for the quaint.

Located at the foot of Old Bailey Street, with an address on Hollywood Road in Hong Kong's lively SoHo area, is a long-established fine art gallery with a very specialized focus. When it started up, Hollywood Road was the main center for antique shops and art galleries. There are still plenty of both represented in that area these days, together with growing numbers of bars and restaurants. The Wattis Fine Art gallery was set up almost 30 years ago, and puts on regular exhibitions of antique maps, prints and photographs of Hong Kong, as well as old travel books of this region.

Jonathan and Vicky Wattis, the gallery owners, are the avuncular hosts to collectors from far and wide, who visit their frequently changing exhibitions at their gallery, overlooking the old Central Police Station compound.

Jonathan Wattis said that in the decade leading up to 1997, there was great demand for pictures of old Hong Kong: a widespread nostalgic desire to obtain something historic from here, which many departing expatriates acted upon by buying old photographs and maps. "We could never find enough materiel to satisfy the demand, back then," he lamented.

Since then, that impetus has waned somewhat - to be replaced by more local collectors in this niche market. Nowadays, the gallery receives many visitors from the Chinese mainland, whose antiquarian interest has prompted the gallery to expand its range to include old pictures of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. The gallery's range has been extended over recent years to cater also to new collectors desiring old images of Singapore, Bangkok and Manila.

 Nostalgia in monochrome

Wattis Fine Art, 2/F, 20 Hollywood Road, Central. Tel. 2524 5302.Early Photographs of Hong Kong, exhibition continues to April 29. Open Monday to Saturday, 11am to

Their current temporary exhibition displays a fascinating selection of the work of a variety of early photographers, some of them of unknown names, who captured images of Hong Kong over the period 1860 to 1927. These original photographs make for interesting viewing: at the opening reception, several guests were to be seen closely scanning these ancient photographs with the help of a magnifying glass, to better see in them those areas of Hong Kong that they know now, to ascertain how they used to look, so very long ago.

As well as creating items of great historical interest today, many of these early photographers applied their artistic talents in devising visually attractive viewpoints, or in the careful posing of their subjects, thereby making their work aesthetically pleasing, as well. These views of a wider Hong Kong harbor, crowded with numerous sailing ships and junks, are nostalgic reminders of another age. The several local street scenes, depicting buildings which no longer exist, are also rather quaint to view. Even way back then, crowded street scenes also display the local populace of earlier ages, most wearing traditional Chinese clothes - costumes which are rarely seen these days.

They source this historic material from around the world, including purchasing rare items from auctions, antique shops, art fairs, country house sales, trade lists, and, more-and-more these days, from internet searches. A hundred and fifty years and more ago, Hong Kong had a much smaller population than now; that also naturally meant that only a limited number of photographers were active from that modest-sized population. By no means all the pictures taken here in those early days have been preserved, to come down to us today. To offset that potential deficiency, many visitors to Hong Kong back in the day were fascinated by its exoticism, so took photographs of the many unfamiliar scenes they were exposed to here.

"Demand for, as well as the supply of, good early materiel are both quite small," Jonathan Wattis explained. "This is a very specialized field, which has engaged me for 40 years."

Some of these images were taken by foreign visitors or residents in early Hong Kong; some were taken by local Chinese photographers. Several of those works exhibited here have been carefully and attractively hand-tinted, adding a splash of color to the black and white or sepia images. This is an exhibition for sale. The gallery has each image described in detail, together with background information about the scene depicted, and the provenance of the photograph where known.

A good proportion of the collectors viewing this exhibition were of retired age. Jonathan Wattis opines that so many younger people in this age are "more interested in using online social media", rather than being interested in old photographs or maps.

(HK Edition 04/07/2017 page1)