Australian author relives Hong Kong's past via old photographs

August 15, 2015 08:00
Edward Stokes, a Hong Kong-born Australian, is a photographer, author and publisher. He is fond of nature and history. Photo: HKEJ

Edward Stokes — a Hong Kong-born Australian — is a photographer, author and publisher.

His love of nature and geography drove him to publish a photo album of Hong Kong's nature scenes in the ’90s.

Born in 1948, Stokes recalls having spent a happy childhood in Repulse Bay. He headed to the United Kingdom for his studies and returned to Australia along with his family after his father’s retirement.

Working as a teacher in Australia, he taught himself photography. That paved the way for him to become a full-time author and photographer, producing photo albums on Australia’s history and geography.

In 1993 Stokes came back to Hong Kong and launched another photographic project, this time about the natural wonders of the territory.

“I often visited Hong Kong. However, I could only find few records of her natural beauty. It’s such a dazzling, energetic and crowded city. It has gorgeous but yet to be recognized natural landscapes,” he says.

His work, Hong Kong’s Wild Places, was published in 1995 and became an unexpected hit in the city.

Hong Kong’s country parks observe a wonderful system that keeps the highlands well-preserved, Stokes notes. Even Australia doesn't have such a high percentage of green areas for preservation.

In particular, he finds Sai Kung’s outlying islands stunning.

As he spent more time in the city, his interest extended from Hong Kong's scenic beauty to the captivating daily life of ordinary people.

Stokes came across a collection of old photos of the city by Hedda Morrison, which were featured in the 1947 Hong Kong Yearbook.

He managed to locate her original films at the Harvard University library. After researching the history depicted in the pictures, he published them in a photo album titled Hong Kong As It Was.

The photo album also turned out to be a hit. Encouraged by its success, Stokes and his friends decided to establish the Photographic Heritage Foundation to recover old photos that tell the story of Asia’s bygone years.

Lee Fook Chee’s Hong Kong is the latest photo album published with the assistance of Stokes.

Their encounter was a matter of chance. Stokes first met Lee at the Peak, where he was selling old pictures of Hong Kong on the sidewalk.

After a brief chat, they exchanged addresses. Later Stokes was contacted by Lee’s niece, inviting him to come over to take a look at Lee’s collection of photographs.

Lee was an orphan from Singapore who came over to Hong Kong to make a living by selling landscape pictures and taking photographs of tourists. His collection includes pictures of ordinary folks living in poverty.

Stokes said he was captivated by Lee’s collection as it made him look at Hong Kong from a different perspective.

He recalled that his father, who was the principal of a government school, allowed school janitors to stay at the school hall.

“The janitors were very poor and lived in a squatters' area. Some even didn’t have their own homes. They secretly stayed at the backstage of the hall. My father pretended not to notice,” Stokes says.

Stokes selected a hundred from Lee's collection of about 700 photos, and linked them to form a single story about Hong Kong from the point of view of Lee and himself.

Unfortunately, the book wasn't published before Lee's death. Stokes hopes readers of the book will gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of Hong Kong through Lee's pictures.

Lee’s career as a street photographer lasted for only six years as competition in the trade intensified. He decided to try other lines of work, including as storekeeper and ice-cream hawker.

Stokes believes Lee exemplified Hong Kong's "can-do" spirit.

“Social security and welfare were unknown during those days," he says. "People strove and survived using their own abilities. Although not every story turned out to be a success story, everyone was full of vitality.”

Part of the proceeds from the sales of the photo album will go to Hong Kong secondary schools and help arouse people's interest and pride in their past.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug 14.

Translation by Darlie Yiu

[Chinese version中文版]

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Lee Fook Chee’s Hong Kong is the latest photo album published with the assistance of Edward Stokes. It depicts the daily life of ordinary people in the 1950s. Photo: HKEJ
Edward Stokes, shown here with friends, is hosting an exhibition of Lee Fook Chee's photographs at the Foreign Correspondents' Club. Photo: HKEJ
As a child, Edward Stokes (left) was fond of fishing at Repulse Bay, where the Stokes family (right) used to live. Photo: HKEJ
The Stokes family had a close relationship with their Chinese amah and cook. Photo: HKEJ
Lee Fook-chee and his family in an outing at the Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens. Photo: HKEJ
Lee Fook-chee and his family at their new house in Fanling. Photo: HKEJ
A snapshot of Repulse Bay taken by Lee in 1955. Photo: HKEJ

Writer of the Hong Kong Economic Journal