SO HING-KEUNG finds beauty in the ugliest, most unexpected places. With grace, superb technique and a refreshing lack of sentimentality, he can make art out of a squashed flower on a pavement, a lone mannequin in a warehouse, or rain dripping off a wet market stall. His studio is a case in point: one of Hong Kong's top photographers could well be working in a Fruit Chan film. To meet So, I make my way to a Chai Wan industrial park, walk through an indoor parking lot, pass a gang of men with blue dragon tattoos, and enter a freight lift so slow and shaky it has me wondering if the emergency phone works. Upstairs are import/export company offices, all suspiciously bolted shut in the middle of the day. The last thing I expect is an art studio, or to hear jazz wafting down the hall. But there's Simone, in her latest release from Japanese label Venus Records, leading me to a dark wood and metal door, complete with a strip of indirect lighting, as is the fashion now. When a black-clad So finally ushers me into his studio I joke that he should start a second career as a nightclub designer. The 1,700.sqft space is flooded with sunlight and filled with more than 1,000 jazz and classical CDs, fine French reds, black leather chairs, and stacks of fashion and art magazines. On the floor is a camera case the size of a suitcase. In the back are offices, a darkroom and an amazing array of equipment. And on a shelf near the ceiling are awards So has won for both his commercial and art work. The 44-year-old is considered a leader of his generation of Hong Kong photographers. He's exhibited in Paris, New York, Berlin, Toronto and Vancouver. He's participated in five Contemporary Art Biennials at the Museum of Art. And he's had 26 solo shows in Hong Kong alone. That's not counting the two coming up at Devon House in Quarry Bay: China Portraits, which opens this Tuesday, and Hong Kong Photographs, which runs from September 7 to 16. The two are different in style and subject matter. China Portraits includes older, more photojournalistic works, based on a series of portraits So took when he returned to his ancestral village in Chaoyang, Guangdong. 'My fascination with this area started in 1981 - the first time I went to the mainland,' he says. 'I'd gone with my mum to visit relatives and remember thinking, 'How can we all be Chinese, and yet be so different?' It was so curious to me. These were my roots, though it was a place that was foreign to me. I couldn't even speak to the people I was photographing, since I don't speak Chiu Chow or Putonghua.' Hong Kong Photographs, on the other hand, comprises pure art pieces - dreamy, semi-abstract cityscapes that are so manipulated they border on being half-collage, half-illustration. Whereas China Portraits is standard, full-colour fare, Hong Kong Photographs are created in a style that's uniquely So's. 'When I started, my work was more straightforward,' he says. 'I saw something, I captured it, I enlarged the image into a photograph. Then, I started looking at what photographers were doing outside Hong Kong. I took out photography books and overseas magazines. I even started watching movies - I especially like Andrei Tarkovsky's - in a different way. Other people might see films as scenes linking together a story, but I saw them as thousands of still images that moved through time. I didn't want to create static images. I wanted to capture the feeling of a place as it travelled through time, adding a new dimension to my work.' So started using double or triple exposures, sometimes revisiting a location two, three or four times. He then created multi-layered sepia-toned silver gelatin prints that he would manipulate digitally and manually - say, by scratching the surface of the paper. He would use this technique only on photos of Hong Kong, and never on snapshots of China or anywhere else in the world. 'Maybe because it's only Hong Kong that has so many layers, so many walls against walls against walls, hiding only who knows what,' he says. 'It's why there's so much going on in my Hong Kong photographs, why I feel I have to draw so many rough lines and scratches over them. This is how Hong Kong feels to me: compressed, with a lot that's hidden from the eye.' His best works were produced around the time of the handover. Central, Hong Kong, 1997 is a prime example. Looming overhead are the towers of power: the HSBC headquarters, the Bank of China building and the Conrad Hotel. In the foreground are saplings, bent as if being blown apart in a typhoon. And on the top layer is an ugly swirl of scratches, as if So were trying to physically dig beneath the surface of the city's super-modern facade to get at the inner turmoil beneath. 'In 1997, I took more photos than ever - maybe because Hong Kong was changing and I was afraid the images would disappear,' he says. Another classic is Wong Tai Sin, Hong Kong, 1997, which shows a crowd of people - blurred into one grey mass - bending towards the famous local temple. 'I'm not religious,' he says. 'But here was a building that personified all of Hong Kong people's beliefs, hopes, indecision and worries.' The Devon House shows will be small in the number of pieces and the actual size of the photos. But it might be the last time to see So's works for a while. He hasn't had a solo exhibit here since Hong Kong Graffiti at John Batten Gallery in 2002 and plans to slow down even more. He's juggling four teaching jobs: at Hong Kong Chinese University, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Lingnan University and the Hong Kong Arts Centre. 'It's very important that I do this because Hong Kong art photography remained the same for so long,' he says. 'But if we don't change, we can take photos forever and ever and never progress. Let's see what the next generation can do.' China Portraits, Aug 24-Sep 2; Hong Kong Photographs, Sep 7-16, 1/F Devon House, TaiKoo Place, Quarry Bay. Inquiries: 2844 5094.