Lee Fook Chee’s Hong Kong, Photographs from the 1950s
Commentary: Gael Newton, AM, 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 bookplate 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.
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 photobook of the highest standards, it also brings sharp and fresh research into the social history of the place. This invites scrutiny on how the place compares with 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 Lee Fook Chee’s 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. The chance encounter at The Peak between Lee and Stokes that turned providential, a fast-forged camaraderie between the two photographers, and how the book came about, are fascinating stories in themselves.
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.
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. The captions, without which many of the photo sites would remain unrecognizable, achieve a lyrical tone – and the back-of-book Extended Captions add value for further research.
For those too young to remember (the 1950s) first-hand, the wealth of research and explanations that integrate the book are therefore both valuable and illuminating. Historian Patricia Chiu, the book’s co-author, chronicles Lee’s life against the background of the 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.
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 but who rarely had a voice. Thanks to this book, we finally see his point of view, still full of courage and hope.