22 September 2019
Fan Ho used his Rolleiflex f3.5 twin-lens camera to capture most of the 'decisive moments' in his life. Photo: Sotheby's Hong Kong Gallery
Fan Ho used his Rolleiflex f3.5 twin-lens camera to capture most of the 'decisive moments' in his life. Photo: Sotheby's Hong Kong Gallery

Chasing shadows in bygone Hong Kong

Fan Ho has made many compromises in his 85 years but almost none in his photography.

Born in 1931, Ho was raised as the only son of a well-off family in Shanghai. However, the outbreak of the war in 1941 separated Fan from his parents, as they could not return home after a business trip to Macau, his frequent collaborator Sarah Greene wrote.

During the turbulent wartime, Ho spent his days in the cinema to escape from loneliness and the fear of war. He also began taking photos with the Kodak “Brownie” camera left by his father.

When the war ended in 1949, Ho’s family decided to move to Hong Kong. As a book lover, he studied Chinese literature at New Asia College, which later became one of the constituent colleges of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Although Ho later gave up his dream as a writer due to severe headache, ancient Chinese poetry had given him the inspiration in photography.

“I believe there is a mighty, mysterious power guiding me along the pathway of my life,” he said in a 2014 interview with Asia Pacific Daily.

Ho believes it was his fate to use lens rather than pen to express himself.

Art is a sensuous form of reflection where people find themselves, Ho quoted the German philosopher Hegel in his book Thoughts On Street Photography.

Ho noted that non-realistic street photography is a self-manifesto, presenting the photographer’s subjective feelings under the guise of objective scenes.

“Every artwork is a small window. [Viewers] may see the world in the eyes of the photographer through it. There are his imagination, his inspiration, his illusion and his philosophy,” he wrote.

Ho probably achieved freedom when gazing the streets through the lens more than any other time because he was “wearing the wings of sensibility, flying in the sky of imagination without any restrictions from reality”.

In his most well-known artwork, Approaching Shadow, Ho made detailed plans to illustrate his idea. When he saw a tall white wall in Causeway Bay, its sublimity and simplicity inspired him.

He immediately drafted his ideal photo composition — a white wall, a diagonal shadow and a tiny person — on a piece of paper. But he soon realized that no nearby building could block any sunlight.

Ho came up with an ingenious idea.

He invited his cousin to stand under the wall on a sunny day, and cast a shadow by hands in the darkroom, where he silently developed his film in a bathroom at home overnight.

“The shadow symbolizes the ruthlessness of time. The girl’s youth was swallowed by the darkness in the blink of an eye,” Ho wrote. “Beauty fades while time flies.”

These images may seem blurry in the eyes, but one can behold them clearly with the heart, he wrote.

Deep in his mind, Ho also knew that no one in Hong Kong could make a living as a street photographer in the mid-20th century.

Aiming at becoming a filmmaker, he devoted himself to the local movie industry in its heyday as a script supervisor and later as an actor at Shaw Brothers Studio since the 1960s.

While learning about film production in the studio, Ho started making several experimental films, including his debut feature Lost (1969) shown at the Cannes Film Festival.

However, art films based on literary adaptations were box office bombs at that time. Ho eventually accepted the offers to make erotic movies, earning the reputation as an “aesthetic director”.

“I tried my best to beautify those movies even as they focused on sex and violence,” he said in an interview with HKEJ’s LifeStyle Journal two years ago.

Commercial movies prolonged his career as a film director, but he did not feel artistically satisfied, Hong Kong Tatler wrote. The pressure from investors, budget and box office disheartened him day by day, especially when local audiences paid no respect to his films.

At the age of 65, Ho retired from cinema and emigrated to the United States, reuniting with his family.

Time did not change his passion for photography.

After half of a century, Ho said he still loved his artwork, As Evening Hurries By, the most. He shot it in Kennedy Town in his early twenties.

As Evening Hurries By depicts a world of solitude and bleakness. During an artist talk held in California, Ho said he was inspired by a classical Chinese poetry written by Yu Xin in the sixth century. It portrays the ups and downs in the poet’s life in the context of the Liang dynasty’s rise and fall.

“This photograph neither won many awards nor brought me much fame,” he told a reporter from Ming Pao Daily, “but I gave my heart and soul into it when clicking the shutter.”

Ho insists on his belief in art: never stop experimenting. On Father’s Day last year, he was discussing the cover of his new photo book with his family.

An exhibition of Ho’s works, dubbed Visual Dialogue: Hong Kong through the Lens of Fan Ho and consisting of over 30 vintage photos, is under way at Sotheby’s Hong Kong. Also on display is Ho’s Rolleiflex camera.

Written by Hui Wai Yu

Exhibition Details:

Date and Opening Hours:
June 14-30, 2017
Monday – Friday: 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Saturday: 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Closed on Sundays and public holidays

Sotheby’s Hong Kong Gallery, 5/F, One Pacific Place, 88 Queensway, Hong Kong

- Contact us at [email protected]


At 85, Fan believes that an artist should never stop experimenting. Photo: HKEJ