THE HONG KONG Film Archive is racing against time to save the SAR's quickly fading film history. Weather and storage conditions, neglect and complacency are endangering movies, old and new. Understandably, then, the archive was pleased when, in April, it managed to acquire the entire catalogue of the Cathay Organisation. In the 1950s and 60s, Cathay - then known as MP&GI - was renowned for producing glamorous, urbane melodramas. While other studios churned out ideological dramas, Cantonese operas and historical epics, it made its reputation with modern stories and sophisticated characters. Its contemporary Putonghua movies, featuring stars such as Grace Chang and Chang Yang, were often written by novelists such as Eileen Chang Ai-ling. Cathay absorbed much of Shanghai's film talent and crews who left the mainland in the 40s. Archive staff, under acquisition manager Mable Ho Mee-po, went to Cathay's headquarters in Singapore and negotiated the return of more than 200 films, plus thousands of movie-related items including posters, photos and books. 'Cathay was one of the most important film companies in Hong Kong,' Ho says, proudly displaying the material. 'During that time, the Shaw Brothers studio was its main competitor, but their styles were very different. Cathay's films dealt with emerging middle-class themes and stories. They're mostly melodramas.' The discussions with Cathay took a long time, Ho says. 'These are big organisations, so they won't just hand you their most valuable assets easily. We've been in talks since the archive's establishment in 1993. We've acquired many works from overseas, but this was the first opportunity to go into someone's vault. We were there for a few days and brought back three copies of each film, two negative copies if they were available, and lots of other historical material.' The task of restoring each film is slow and tedious. Each reel is cleaned and examined in its separate layers in the archive's laboratory, which is kept at a four degrees Celsius and 35 per cent humidity. At present, the archive is able to fully restore only about three movies every year. 'Fortunately, the condition of most of the Cathay films was pretty good because they stored them in an air-conditioned space,' Ho says. 'The tropical weather in Singapore and Hong Kong is just too hot and humid for film to survive for any length of time. In general, film can only last about 16 years in this weather. That means even movie prints from the 1980s are already in danger of being lost. 'By comparison, we have films from San Francisco's Chinatown that are more than 50 years old and they're still beautiful because conditions there are different. This is why we have to work fast.' For a film enthusiast such as Ho, the passion to preserve local historical treasures is more than just a job. An arts administrator with more than 15 years of experience, she's worked in various cultural departments and was an independent filmmaker. It doesn't hurt that archaeology is also one of her interests. 'I strongly believe that you need to respect history in order to find your own identity and move forward,' she says. 'I love films, not just old Hong Kong films, and that's a prerequisite for working here, I think. Otherwise, you might choke after viewing six films a day to check and verify the contents. It was only after I joined the archive that I started to brush up on my film-archiving knowledge. There's still no film-archiving course in Hong Kong. I had to visit places like ScreenSound in Australia, the Vietnam Film Institute, the National Heritage Broad of Singapore and the China Film Archive to learn about the field.' Although the Cathay catalogue is one of the archive's major restoration projects, there is lots more to preserve. Included in the backlog is the Shaw Brothers collection of more than 600 movies. This was donated by Celestial Films, which has been releasing the Shaw catalogue on VCD and DVD. Ho says that although the company has restored the classics digitally for commercial release, the actual reels of films need the archive's safekeeping for the generations to come. 'Digital transfer is a commercial choice,' she says. 'It's not true preservation. It's like the Mona Lisa. You don't just want to have a poster of it, you want to see the original. So, this kind of computer restoration is very different from the restoration we do. 'Every day we're acquiring more and more works. Since 2001, we've been receiving about 600 films a year and 80,000 movie-related items from all over the world. Sometimes, we'll get a call from someone saying, 'We're going out of business and there're some film stuff here. If you don't want it, we're throwing it away.' There are a lot of these ad-hoc acquisitions from places we never imagined.' The archive is also in contact with overseas conservatories to see if they have historic Hong Kong films in their collections. For example, there are large gaps at the archive of films from before the second world war. The task is made more difficult because Hong Kong entered the preservation field so late, while other countries have been doing such work for more than 30 years. 'A lot of my time is spent on this kind of film search,' Ho says. 'A lot of films during the two world wars, as well as the Japanese occupation, are lost. At that time, people couldn't even save each other's lives, so saving films wasn't a priority. For us, the chance of finding works from over 50 years ago is only about 3 per cent. 'But every aspect of preservation is a challenge. Our archive is so new, every area still needs improvement. Some preservation institutions aren't open to the public, so they can work quietly. We, have to organise many screenings a year and have a public resource centre. 'The concept that film is a cultural artifact and social treasure we must protect hasn't completely permeated our community yet. Nobody would throw the Mona Lisa on the street, but we often see cans of films in the garbage.'