Hong Kong teacher explores a passion for pictures and postcards from the past

A local schoolteacher's obsession with the city's history has many lessons for today's Hongkongers

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 August, 2015, 1:59pm
UPDATED : Friday, 28 August, 2015, 11:33pm

Jacky Yu Chun-yu grew up reading his parents' history books and he loved dipping into the Reader's Digest series. Now a secondary school teacher, Yu credits those books with inspiring his passion for the past - particularly that of Hong Kong.

He began collecting old photographs and postcards of the city in 2007 and today runs the website oldhkphoto.com, which showcases old and rare images of the city. "They record the past, but they are also artistically taken. The colonial buildings have a European style," Yu says. "Discovering them has been an adventure."

But Yu says it's almost impossible for a hobbyist to get their hands on affordable old photos - most of the supply from shops on Hollywood Road and Cat Street were snapped up by tourists years ago. Although some can still be found on eBay or in curio shops, they can cost more than HK$10,000. That's far beyond the amount he's prepared to spend.

To keep visitors returning to his Facebook page, Yu needs a supply of pictures that haven't been seen online before; so he invites the public to submit their own photographs or scanned images of old postcards. The collection has inspired him to write two books: the first, Coastline of Hong Kong, was published last year, and Coastline of the Kowloon Peninsula was released last month.

In the past, people had collective memories of events, but now they only focus on the present

"Originally, I wanted to publish a book focusing on Central, Wan Chai and Causeway Bay because most of my old pictures were from these districts," Yu says of his first tome. "But the publisher suggested writing about the whole of Hong Kong Island."

Among its pages, Yu included an infographic showing how reclamation work over the decades has changed the shape and size of Victoria Harbour. Not many people know that the Star Ferry pier has moved four times, he says.

In 1890, the pier straddled Pedder Street and Chater Road, then in 1912 it was moved to where Jardine House is now located, before being moved in 1957 to Edinburgh Place. The decision to demolish the 49-year-old landmark and build a new pier about 300 metres away led to drawn out protests in 2006 led by residents keen to preserve a symbol of the city's "collective memory".

Yu's second book, on old Kowloon, was harder to put together because his images were mostly of Tsim Sha Tsui. Fortunately, fans of his website came to the rescue and contributed photos from their own collections. Between them, they managed to cover areas such as Hung Hom, To Kwa Wan and Kwun Tong as well as Lai Chi Kok and parts of the western shore.

"West Kowloon only got developed because of the new airport and the construction of the Airport Express. But in these areas you see luxury developments where you pay HK$10 million for a 300 sq ft flat, and the malls are full of luxury brands; locals don't even eat there."

Beyond the nostalgic appeal of collecting old photographs, Yu reckons he has learned a lot about Hong Kong history through his hobby, and argues residents should familiarise themselves with how the city has developed over the years.

That perspective informs how he presents his website and the monthly talks that he gives. Yu hopes by understanding their history, Hongkongers can develop a stronger sense of what the city is going through today.

"In the past, people had collective memories of events, but now they only focus on the present. We should be using history to understand developments that are happening today.

"For example, during the Occupy movement people were demanding democracy, but if you look back in history, that [call] started back in 1949. The road is long and not new."

Having historical knowledge, he adds, allows us to take a more rational view.

"Some people like to wave the colonial flag, but life under colonial rule wasn't that good.

"When people have discussions about society, it can be emotional, but if you have the evidence of history then your argument can be more persuasive."


HSBC celebrates 150th anniversary with exhibition showing its close local ties

"Made in Hong Kong: Our City, Our Stories" is an exhibition jointly held by the Hong Kong Maritime Museum and HSBC to celebrate the bank's 150th anniversary this year.

Richard Wesley, the museum's director, explains that the museum was approached by HSBC and invited to look in the bank's archives in London to create an accessible show that demonstrated its close relationship with Hong Kong.

"We came up with the concept of the contribution Hong Kong people have made, and they in turn have helped the bank grow. Hong Kong is not a city of natural resources, and it is a port with links to China," he says.

As a result, the exhibition focuses on trade and commerce, as well as the talented people who have made Hong Kong what it is, from science and technology to arts and business. There is also a look at how the city has evolved through its multicultural population, the way that changing perceptions of foods such as shark's fin have affected the local diet, and a tribute to the local film industry.

In addition, students from Lingnan University were recruited to conduct video interviews with Hong Kong residents of more than 30 nationalities, asking them about what events in the city shaped their lives, such as the 1967 riots, Sars in 2003 or the Occupy movement last year.

Wesley also shows a section of the exhibition showcasing how some wealthy people like to cultivate themselves through collecting Chinese antiques. On display are items ranging from an intricate wooden screen to snuff bottles and jade pieces, accompanied by video interviews with each collector explaining their expensive hobbies.

"We want to make people think about the city's past and future, and how it was largely underwritten by commerce. We hope people will leave the exhibition with a positive view of Hong Kong."

Wesley says 100,000 people are expected to visit the show before it end on September 4. Visit hkmaritimemuseum.org for more details.