Old photographs capture past as historic Hong Kong site prepares to reopen for an exciting future
Photographer Leong Ka-tai’s labour of love focuses on the relationship between humans and the places they inhabit
On a sunny winter afternoon in 2006, light reflected off the glass walls of neighbouring buildings and shone through leaves and branches to a quiet veranda of the 154-year-old Barrack Block, formerly used by the city’s police.
The scene is now lost forever. Captured in Leong Ka-tai’s haunting black and white photograph of the building, the balcony he stood on to take the picture is gone, as is the tree.
Standing for more than 170 years in the city’s heartland, and declared a monument in 1995, the compound, also known as Tai Kwun, was built by the British as Hong Kong’s first centre of law enforcement.
The block, and 10 other historic buildings in the Central Police Station Compound, will reopen to the public again on Tuesday, after 12 years of closure for recovery and renovation.
A snapshot of the buildings, unencumbered by people, was captured by Leong with a view camera – a 19th century invention requiring the photographer to work under a cloth – in November 2006.
Granted special permission by the Antiquities and Monuments Office, the 72-year-old was the first photographer allowed into the 13,600 square metres (146,400 sq ft) historic site after it was closed that year.
To mark the rejuvenation of the complex, Leong published his latest collection of photographs of the compound, titled Curtain Call, featuring his picture of the veranda, alongside 83 other black and white images, with captions telling stories from retired officers and former offenders.
“Consider the compound a leading actor performing for a public audience,” the veteran photographer said. “It has completed the first half of the performance, and it’s about to start the second [as it reopens].
“These photos are its curtain call between the two shows, and some of the scenes are no longer here to see.”
In May 2016 the balcony, which was part of the dormitory for married police officers in the compound, collapsed during renovation work. The old tree that filtered the sunlight has also been removed.
The dormitory was part of the old Central Police Station structures, which were constructed between 1864 and 1914, and gave Tai Kwun – meaning big station in Cantonese – its name. The two other dominant clusters in the compound are the old Victoria Prison built in 1841, and the former Central Magistracy completed in 1914.
Architectural features of Tai Kwun range from the granite revetment walls, to red brick facades, order columns, the British royal coat of arms, and veranda and ventilation grilles adopted for hot and humid weather. All have long been unique symbols of the city’s colonial days.
Instead of aiming to preserve a chapter of history for the city, Leong said he was simply motivated by “deep affection for the compound” that he had been living close to for most of his life, when he proposed to take photos for Tai Kwun.
However, the photographer with more than 40 years’ experiences now wants the government to make such visual documentation a routine practice, to help the public monitor the revitalisation of historic buildings.
“Revitalisation without respect for people and their memories of the places is doomed to fail,” Leong said.
“Photos taken when a site is just vacated can provide a yardstick for the public to check if the revitalisation goes wrong.”
Guided around the vacated compound by an antiquities officer in 2006, Leong was impressed by “traces of human activities left in the empty rooms” and determined to show the “sense of history in the relationship between men and space”.
Time and sunlight were not readily on Leong’s side.
Given only five weeks, Leong had to quickly determine which scene to capture, and which moment in a day produced the best light and shadow for black and white photos.
Moreover, the view camera he used needed at least five minutes to set up for every shot.
It took Leong three days to take the photo he wanted of a changing room in the Barrack Block, when strong sunlight directly glared through three tall doors, leaving flaring lanes across the dusted wooden floor.
“I failed twice before I realised that the ideal light arrived at around 4.15pm, and lasted for only around one minute,” Leong said. “I couldn’t afford to miss the chance.”
However, delicate images of empty rooms were insufficient to demonstrate the relationship between humans and space in history.
A more ambitious project came into being. Leong showed around 150 photos he took to more than 20 former policemen, corrective services officials, and ex-offenders and asked for their stories.
A former prisoner told Leong that the painting on a prison wall looked “surprisingly thick and messy”, because painting the wall was used as a way to keep prisoners occupied.
“Therefore the wall often got painted again when it was still wet,” Leong said.
“Tortured by doing interviews” for three years, the photographer had a longer struggle with contradictory stories told by different people, before he reconciled that “no one was wrong”.
“Collective history is made of individual stories. We don’t need an authorised and unified version of history,” Leong said.
“Instead of historical facts, my book is telling some unofficial history that may interest people.”
Leong said he has been in talks with the Hong Kong Jockey Club on another photo project for the renewed Tai Kwun.
Chosen by the government in 2007, the Jockey Club was responsible for Tai Kwun’s revitalisation. The 16 buildings in the compound are set to reopen in three batches, with 11 coming first this May to provide space for exhibitions, performances, shops and restaurants.