By Eddie Wong. Posted November 15, 2022.
I’m at that point in life when it’s time to sort out piles of photos and figure out what is worth passing along to friends and family. I’ve been blessed to have taken photographs since the 1970s and even made a few documentary films. Photographers and filmmakers sometimes treat their photo essays and films like living, breathing entities. They become treasured objects that mark one’s development as a person. I can remember how I came up with a certain concept and what excited me about shooting a certain photo. I don’t want those photos and experiences to fade away.
In July 1975, I took a two-month break from Visual Communications and went to Hong Kong to meet my grandfather for the first time. My sister Donna, who had been teaching English in Taiwan, met me in Hong Kong and we hung out for several weeks. After working for nine months on a documentary film about the LA Chinese Drum and Bugle Corps (Chinatown Two-Step). I was burned out. At VC, we worked on several productions so when you weren’t working on your film, you were grip or soundman on another film. I left all the footage and directions on how to structure the film with Alan Kondo, who did an excellent job of editing the film and making it coherent.
I had no agenda for my time in Hong Kong. My sister and I stayed in an apartment of my grandfather’s friend who was away on vacation. Each day was a new adventure as I wandered the streets shooting photos. We had lunch with my grandfather several times, always at the same restaurant, same table, and same routine. He held court with an array of dim sum spread before us, and men came by to shake his hand and chat with him. And we’re talking about upwards of a dozen well-wishers. We had to ask, “Grandfather, how do you know all these people?” He pulled us aside and whispered, “Don’t tell your mother, but I’m a bookie and all these men are placing bets with me on the dog races at Happy Valley.” My sister did not take the news well for we knew how hard Mom and Dad worked and sacrificed to send money to support him every month. Now we knew that he was using it to gamble. But we got over it. Grandfather wasn’t going to become wealthy placing small bets for old men alone in Hong Kong. And he was happy to be the center of attention just as he had been in Toisan as a wealthy farmer and bookstore owner.
I knew nothing about life in Hong Kong. Back then, you couldn’t just go online to get Lonely Planet’s recs on best places to eat or interesting Taoist temples tucked away on a side street. In a way it was a blessing not to know much and just wander and ask questions. Several things struck me right away. People worked hard scraping together livelihoods on the sidewalk. There were kids everywhere. Later, I learned that Hong Kong only provided six years of compulsory education then. Hong Kong was a manufacturing city and everyone was expected to work. The booming towers of finance capital were still being built and an educated elite was being groomed, but the majority of people were workers. Another memorable thing was the smell of raw sewage in the working-class quarters. The British colonial government had a long way to go in caring for the basic needs of people. The memory of the 1967 workers’ riots that led to an eight-month protest of colonialism had not been forgotten by the authorities; there was a strong police presence in Hong Kong’s commercial centers. But it wasn’t all grim. Food was inexpensive and one could enjoy delicious meals at food stalls and at the night market. Pop music blared from storefronts, and you could hear Cantopop one minute and then 10cc’s summer hit “I’m Not in Love,” an ethereal ballad that made you forget the stifling, sticky summer humidity.
I’ll stop rambling now and show you two videos that pull together my tourist’s view of Hong Kong 1975. I’m glad I took the time to scan the 35mm negs and produce some crisp images, many of which I had never printed before. Memories are fleeting and unless you keep notes, you can’t truly know where things were shot or when. But at least I have these images to mark a special moment in my life. I hope you’ll enjoy the videos. If you have memories of Hong Kong from that era, please write them in the comment section. I’d love to know how you experienced Hong Kong life while I was wandering aimlessly in your city.