Hong Kong photographer's message in a bottle brings Vancouver encounter

Each day for 32 days during a journey to Colombia on a container ship, Leong Ka Tai and his wife threw a message in a bottle into the sea – and one of them was discovered in July 2015 off Canada’s Pacific coast

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 April, 2016, 5:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 April, 2016, 12:59pm

One fine morning last July, Carla Crossman, a marine biologist from Vancouver Aquarium, was sailing on the Hecate Strait off Canada’s west coast, looking for whales. Instead, she stumbled on a message in a bottle.

In true 21st century fashion, the message came with a thumb drive and a printed email address: bottle@camera22.com.

“The USB is fully functional,” says Crossman in an email. “I am trying to dry out the paper and remove it from the bottle without breaking it, so I have not had a chance to read the physical paper yet. I would love to hear more about when/why these bottles made their way out to sea!”

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More than 9,000 kilometres away, Hong Kong photographer Leong Ka Tai was thrilled that one of 32 bottles he had thrown into the Pacific eight months before had been picked up.

“It’s a fantastic surprise, because the odds of someone picking it up is like winning the lottery,” the 69-year-old recalls.

Three months after their first email exchange, Leong and his wife flew to Vancouver to meet Crossman. Their encounter, documented on video, is on show in a multimedia exhibition titled “Over the Ocean, On the Road” at the Hong Kong Design Institute.

The footage is part of a broader travelogue made up of more than 100 photos and 32 videos, which includes a 35-day voyage on a container ship and a number of road trips the couple took across South America, beginning in October 2013.

The idea of a message in a bottle originated from a challenge Leong posed to 32 friends and artists. “If you have to write a message to someone whom you don’t know … and when you are not even sure whether your message would get there. What would you say?” Responses came in the form of art, caricatures, poems and even an ultrasound image of a second child from a friend, who told Leong “this is my second work of art”.

During their long sea journey to Colombia, the couple went through a daily ritual of throwing one message in a bottle into the ocean, filming the process.

The message Crossman found came from Leong’s friend Raymond Lee, an IT manager. It includes a quote from American film critic Roger Ebert::“To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try.”

The “On the Road” part of the exhibition features almost 50 images from the couple’s three-month journey on land across South America. They avoided popular tourist spots on purpose. Leong preferred to tour by foot, understanding the cultures through conversing with locals.

He says the way he captured South America on camera was different from the way National Geographic Magazine would. (He has long been a contributor to the magazine.) “National Geographic Magazine tends to show what is unique about a place,” Leong says, before a long pause.

“[But] people all around the world are pretty much alike. They have similar inspirations. And they do have different cultures and environments. That’s what makes life different.

“What I want to show is – what is the difference in this sameness, and what is the sameness in this difference.”

“Over the Ocean, On the Road”, HKDI Gallery, 3 King Ling Road, Tseung Kwan O, 10am to 8pm (closed Tuesdays). Ends May 30.