Lee Fook Chee’s Hong Kong, Photographs from the 1950s

Commentary: Gael Newton, Senior Curator of Photography, National Gallery of Australia, 1996 – 2014

Lee Fook Chee’s Hong Kong is that rare thing, a major work of Asian photographic heritage publication and scholarship, at the highest standards of research and reproduction, and in both English and Chinese. Most importantly, the book was originated in Asia. The intricate design and clarity of Lee Fook Chee’s work preserves time. One hopes its publication will stimulate the quest for more lost photographic heritage projects, before the archives of black-and-white images are discarded by the present generation, accustomed to instant expendable colour photography.


Commentary: Bernard Charnwut Chan, Patron, The Photographic Heritage Foundation

The Photographic Heritage Foundation aims to bring historical photos to light, and to put them into context by showing how people lived at the time they were taken, and by telling the photographer’s own life story. In addition, the Foundation strives to ensure the very best book plate reproduction, to show photographs in the quality they deserve – and thus to celebrate each photographer’s work. This book on Lee Fook Chee is a perfect example of the Foundation’s mission in practice. It is an important and fascinating record of Hong Kong at a key moment in its development.

 

Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Hong Kong Branch, Volume 56, 2016

The book, which belongs to The Photographic Heritage Foundation series, presents a unique blend of visual documentary and social narrative of Hong Kong during the 1950s, as embodied in Lee Fook Chee’s photographic works as well as his life story. What has made this book really special is the way the photographs are juxtaposed with substantive texts that bring out the invaluable heritage, social and humanistic values in a profound manner, and also the inclusion of some hitherto unknown photographs of Lee’s life that carry as much heritage value as his landscape works of Hong Kong.

The photographs, carefully selected and arranged by Edward Stokes and Patricia Chiu, are preceded by a lucid yet tender introduction by the former, as well as an excellent narrative by the latter based on oral histories and archival research. Chiu’s detailed and highly informative account presents a tapestry-like narrative that adeptly interweaves the personal life story of Lee with the social history of Hong Kong. Indeed, the unusual story of Lee has added tremendous interest and depth to the book, which vividly personifies a memorable period in the history of Hong Kong – a ‘crucible’ decade for the city, as aptly described by Bernard Charnwut Chan in the Foreword. When reading the book back and forth, one will be drawn to reflect on the intricate relationships between history and fate, home and diaspora, family and self, hardship and will…

(Lee’s images) carry a translucent quality that retains interesting overall detail and offer a more solidly grounded portrayal of Hong Kong. The photographs in the book are all of an excellent quality, laying in front of the viewers in refined details a cityscape that has changed dramatically since then: a beautiful hilly backdrop showing moderate inhabitation; a busy harbor filled with ships and junks; bustling street scenes lined with traditional Chinese buildings; and new forms of building…

The selection also includes pictures of Lee’s life, as well as important documents and papers from the late 1940s to the early 1960s… If one does not focus just on the photographs but reads from beginning to end, the book will read more like a fond memoir of Lee. Indeed throughout the book, one not only reads history but can also feel the empathy, rapport and commitment being established among the photographer and the two co-authors. This is a book to treasure in a number of ways which will bring much delight and inspiration to historians, researchers and the general readers.

 

The Asian Review of Books, 2016

Lee Fook Chee’s Hong Kong: Photographs from the 1950s is a remarkable book with many levels of meaning. It tells the story of a lone immigrant photographer and presents his collection of photographs portraying 1950s Hong Kong. A photo book, and of the highest standards at that, it also brings sharp and fresh research into the social history of the place that invites scrutiny on how it compares itself sixty years later. The entire book, its sum greater than its parts, will delight therefore not only photography aficionados but anyone with a serious interest in Hong Kong.

No less intriguing are the reasons why these photographs were lost to sight for decades and how they resurfaced, coming to the attention of Edward Stokes, Founder and Publisher of The Photographic Heritage Foundation. A chance encounter at The Peak between Lee and Stokes that turned providential, the fast-forged camaraderie between the two photographers, and how the book came about, are fascinating stories on their own right.

The book’s black-and-white photographs are divided into two sections, those showing the story of Lee’s early life, and Lee’s documentary images of Hong Kong itself. The photos of Hong Kong form one of the most exhaustive visual portraits of the colony in the 1950s, a period of flux and transformation that set the foundation for what the city would become.

(Lee’s negatives) portray the city’s now-forgotten roots and its postwar character. The reproduction is of the exacting, world-class standard of printing images for which The Photographic Heritage Foundation is justly regarded among serious photography aficionados. Many of the captions, without which many of those places would remain unrecognizable, achieve a lyrical tone, and the back-of-book extended captions add value for further research…

The wealth of research and explanations that integrate the book are both valuable and illuminating. Historian Patricia Chiu, the book’s author, chronicles Lee’s life against the background of Singapore of Lee’s birthplace from the 1930s until his final departure, and in the context of Hong Kong from the 1950s onwards. Her essays could well stand on their own. They are critical to understanding the plight of the immigrants after the severe dislocation of the region following Japan’s invasion of China and Southeast Asia and the civil war in China: how people like Lee struggled and gradually settled, and how, in later years, the precarious existence of such men and women persisted amid economic growth. For Lee, like so many, there always remained a lingering anxiety about securing the mere basics of life.

Lee did not live to see the book published, as he passed away in 2012. His photographs, his perhaps unintended tribute to Hong Kong, have providentially taken the form of this book and so have become a tribute to him. Lee Fook Chee was one of countless, anonymous men and women in Hong Kong who toiled into old age, those who rarely had a voice. Thanks to this book, we finally see his point of view, still full of courage and hope.