Time travel: Two sides of Hong Kong street 100 years apart ... in one photo

Local photographer Ken Tam Kim-leung merges old and new images of places in Hong Kong for series he calls Passages of Time

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 September, 2015, 1:08pm
UPDATED : Monday, 07 September, 2015, 2:22pm

Ken Tam Kim-leung’s photographic work pulls viewers into a time warp, sending them back to a long-lost Hong Kong while maintaining a perspective on the present.

Tam, who is in his early 50s and works primarily in IT, creates his magical and evocative images through Photoshop, taking old black-and-white photos and weaving in new images he has captured standing in the original photographer’s footsteps.

The juxtaposition of the old and new buildings, shopfronts, transport and everyday people brings the city’s past back to life in a tangible way. In one composition, a man pulling a rickshaw is being overtaken by a red taxi. In another, a sailor walks past the girlie bars of old Wan Chai, while across the road – in colour –modern-day bars and restaurants are depicted.

Tam became a semi-professional photographer two years ago, when friends expressed an appreciation for his work. His jobs have included weddings, newborns, portraits, but he has also photographed tattooists at work. He is especially interested in capturing facial expressions, he says.

He got the idea for his “Passage of Time” series from internet users’ photos comparing places in today’s Hong Kong with what they looked like decades ago. It would be fun to combine them into a single image, he thought.

“The challenge is to locate the exact spot where the ex-photographer was, to get a connection with the same place,” Tam says.

“To start with, it was difficult. For some pictures, I tried a number of times to match the focal length in order to get the same perspective. Even in the same spot, you cannot tell with your eyes whether the perspective is right.”

Many of Tam’s images are of Wan Chai streets, where he grew up. He remembers his father used to have his hair cut at a barber’s shop on the ground floor of what is now The Pawn on Johnston Road, which features in one composition.

“I try to see it from the photographer’s point of view, and add more elements such as people. In the latest versions I am adding people in a more interactive way.”

To start with, it was difficult. For some pictures, I tried a number of times to match the focal length in order to get the same perspective
Ken Tam, photographer

Tam has been working on the series for less than six months and shares them on his Facebook page, Fotokenken Photography, and pages followed by fans of local history. These viewers can be very sophisticated, he says.

“I think the series is more interesting to older people, who have seen the growth and change in Hong Kong. They can tell if I took the picture from the wrong block, and I try to correct it. They judge really from the heart.”

The time-travel pictures are produced out of personal interest and Tam has no intention of selling prints. Even though the copyright of the old images has expired, merging them with his own photos would complicate the copyright issue, he says. Besides, it could be difficult to enlarge some of the grainy old images to a decent size. He would need good quality, high resolution photos.

Tam still sees room for improvement and other ingredients he can add to his compositions, and he continues to rework them. “I have to make each one a masterpiece,” he says.