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Living heritage of Hong Kong

From dive bars to neon lights: a look into the underside side of Hong Kong’s colourful nightlife

Photographer’s old images from his teenage years in city offer rare glimpse

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 November, 2017, 3:00pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 November, 2017, 3:00pm

The largely undocumented underside of Hong Kong’s nightlife goes front and centre at an exhibit featuring the work of a photographer who spent his teenage years in the city more than 40 years ago.

Greg Girard, 62, first set foot in Hong Kong in 1974 after an 18-day freighter journey from San Francisco and found himself “hooked” on a “mesmerising” city. The Canadian national stayed for a few months before travelling around Southeast Asia, but in 1982, he returned to the city and took up residence for 15 years.

Girard’s collection of pictures – named “HK: PM” and taken before he became a professional photographer – depicts Hong Kong’s nightlife as he saw it from 1974 to 1989 and is being exhibited at PMQ until Sunday.

“When I was making these pictures I was young and not thinking about posterity or anybody looking at them after some amount of time,” the now Vancouver resident says.

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“I was showing what Hong Kong looked like to me and making pictures that registered the Hong Kong I was living in.”

Girard, author of the photographic record book City of Darkness: Life in Kowloon Walled City, describes the images as documenting “my wanderings, my personal obsessions and interests”.

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The snapshots in “HK: PM” show the city’s grainy underside: dive bars, tattoo parlours, hotel rooms of sailors and empty streets and alleyways lit up by neon lights.

This aspect of local nightlife was not being documented anywhere else at the time, he claims. It is the “stuff that is less looked at, less appreciated, less accepted”.

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Only a few gangster movies from the 1980s, he adds, showed a similar side of Hong Kong at night – “the greediness, the less glamorous, unlovely parts of the city”. Girard explains it was not only the subject matter that was different; at the time, most people were taking pictures in black and white, making his colour photography stand out.

As a teenager, he took it upon himself to follow those who were old enough to take part in the nightlife, and “tagged along for a day or two to photograph their life”.

The images in Girard’s exhibition come from his days as an amateur, before he made a living from his camera. He went on to show his work at galleries in New York, London, Germany, South Korea and Finland, and worked as a contributing photographer for National Geographic.

Photography became a hobby when he first picked up a camera at the age of 14. After moving to Hong Kong, he continued snapping shots alongside his job as a sound producer for the BBC.

When you’re young, people indulge you more, they tolerate you more
Greg Girard, photographer

Working in that journalistic milieu “immersed me in the day to day of going to a place you’ve never been, getting off an aeroplane, making a story, presenting it to an audience”. It spawned his career in photojournalism.

“When you’re young, people indulge you more, they tolerate you more,” he says. Although he knew the people featured in his shots, they were not so much friends as people he hung out with to document. Having a camera, Girard adds with a chuckle, gives you licence to “stick your nose where it doesn’t belong.”

The art of photography changed when it became accessible to the point that everyone could take pictures with their phones, he observes. And that has changed how life in Hong Kong is captured. Girard notes that while he objectively photographed others’ lives, people tend increasingly to document their own lives using “phone cameras like a diary”.

The veteran photographer hopes his collection prompts people to look at the city in the same way he did: seeing the interesting backstreets, the neon and the nightlife that are as apparent now as they were then.