Scottish photographer John Thomson came to Hong Kong in 1868 and set up a studio in which to take portraits. Photography being a huge novelty, he made substantial amounts of money. Having packed off the wife and children back to Scotland, he then spent a couple of years, and the family savings, on a tour of China.

The photos he took on his travels (some of which can be seen here) were kept at Britain's Wellcome Library and rediscovered through serendipity in 2006, by arts exhibitor Betty Yao, the director of Credential International Arts Management. Yao was determined to create an exhibition out of them, even though, at the time, she had little experience in curating.

"Most studio photographers here made their money and went back home," says Yao, "but Thomson fell in love with the Chinese people."

An exhibition she duly created and, this week, Thomson's pictures return to the city, to be shown at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum.

The clarity of the pictures - of curious village women in coastal China, buildings, children and landscapes - was astonishing at the time of their making, and digital technology, says Yao, has meant that many have been expanded to show phenomenal detail.

The buildings he has captured are interesting but Thomson's photos of people are the most captivating. Sadly, it's unlikely that any of them ever set eyes on the images themselves. To develop them, Thomson, of course, had to find a dark room and clean water. He must have seemed an extraordinary sight, this Victorian-era Scotsman, who knew no Putonghua, as he carried his huge camera on a tripod and a set of chemicals, every so often disappearing under his black cloth and, with a flash and a bang, creating a lasting picture of the scene.


"Through the Lens of John Thomson: Hong Kong and Coastal China (1868-1872)" can be seen at the Special Exhibitions Gallery, Hong Kong Maritime Museum, from Saturday until February 16. For more information, go to