• Thu
  • Oct 23, 2014
  • Updated: 5:13am
NewsHong Kong

Street life: Hong Kong in the 1950s as seen through a teenage photographer's lens

Ho Fan's photographs of old Hong Kong will go on display in a new hotel

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 August, 2014, 5:44am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 August, 2014, 9:14am

When Ho Fan took up street photography in the 1950s, Central was still a poor neighbourhood with shabby houses and dirty alleys.

The streets, filled with vendors, coolies and rickshaw drivers, fascinated Ho, who arrived from Shanghai in 1949. Taking pictures in a studio was the norm then, but the teenager was more interested in random, candid shots of strangers.

His targets, however, did not always smile into the lens of his Rolleiflex. There were both intimidating encounters and unwanted attention, the 83-year-old recalled in an interview from his home in the United States.

"With a knife in his hand, a pig butcher said he would chop me. He wanted his spirit back," Ho recalled, explaining that superstition had it that a person would have his spirit captured by the camera.

In contrast, he remembered the enthusiasm of girls who did not have the chance to have photographs taken in studios.

"Catching me in action, some girls combed their hair and asked me to take their photos again," he said.

Ho's photos of old Central will be displayed in the newly opened Pottinger, a heritage-themed hotel on the street of the same name, which is now a historic street granted Grade 1 status by the Antiquities Advisory Board.

Decades ago, the district, now full of skyscrapers, offices and high-end restaurants, was home to many poor Chinese.

"The flats were small, so everyone went out onto the streets instead. They played and ate outdoors," said Ho, who has won more than 280 awards from international exhibitions and competitions for his photography.

He said he always waited in an area with nice composition and lighting for a subject to appear.

One such character was a little girl doing her homework on top of a flight of stairs. Another was a coolie who was weighed down with a burden almost too much for him to bear.

One photograph, which he named Working Skyward, showed several workers on scaffolding that was not as safe as modern standards would require. "It would be the end of them if they fell. But what can you do when you are poor? Hong Kong people are daring in challenging times," he said.

Despite harsh circumstances, there were some humorous touches. Outside the old Central wet market, he photographed middle-aged women chattering in a light-hearted way - unlike the usual sad mood conveyed by realism-influenced photographers. The picture won him an overseas photography award.

Ho later jumped into the silver screen business, first as an actor then a director, before retiring in America.

Some places have changed dramatically - gone is the typhoon shelter in Causeway Bay and the boat people he once photographed.

"The world advances in big steps. It's inevitable like a person going through life - ageing, illness and death," he said.

In a city where traditional photo printing has declined, Ho advised people never to dump their old film.

"There could be something you have missed, like somebody in the background who is more interesting than those in the centre. Those are like jokes of God. You can resurrect them," he said.

That is what he has been doing recently, reinventing old film into alternative prints. Almost 20 years beyond retirement age, he still loves challenges and will publish a new book in October.

"I even filmed erotic films. I try everything," he laughed.


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This article is now closed to comments

I am always fascinated by B&W photos as they capture the essence of the mood of the photographer as well as the subject. I was born in HK in the 50s and I recall the near empty streets on both sides of the harbour then. Having lived in Temple Street as a child, I find that there are now many lost businesses which were in their hey-days then. What staggers me is that back then it would have cost a fortune to buy a camera, let alone a roll of film, as people then were living on dimes and cents. Life was difficult and simple back then.
The photography of Ho Fan is primarily art, not documentation, and most exquisite art is definitely is, ranking among the best in the world.
Mr. Ho just demonstrates mediocrity rules in this city.
That is the Hong Kong I loved so much and miss it's demise whenever i return now for a holiday .
Thank you for all these beautiful images that have been saved for future generations.
Hong Kong has not died, but just moved on. We no longer have windows that flew in typhoons and crashed all night onto the streets below, nor men making a living carrying heavy burdens on his shoulders, nor pulling a rickshaw, nor taking their lives in their hands balancing on bamboo poles. Life was simpler then, and far more frugal and stark. Our older generations were glad of the calm in this city when neighboring China was being torn apart.
Could someone tell me from what side of Hong Kong was the first picture taken (child studying outside in the balcony)?
This Ho Fan is a genius!
wow, stunning. Not sure if I can find the right words to describe the impacts looking at these photos.
I remember seeing Ho Fan's movies when I was a teenager in Hong Kong. Never realized that he was and he is such a talented photographer. Thank you, Mr. Ho, for bringing back all the fond memories of the old Hong Kong. Can't wait for his book to come out.
These B&W photos have soul revealing through light which were thoughtfully and emotively executed in silence.
Someone please correct me if I am wrong that the description of photo Ladder Street should be Pottinger Street and Daily routine should be Ladder Street. I used these streets including the covered winding pavements on Hollywood Road (possible the ‘A day is done’) to and from school in the early sixties. There were few people and no traffic but only silence and light in the morning.
I thank Ho Fan and wish him well.
Excellent photos. How can I buy some copies?




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