King of the Hong Kong Kids: Hongkong by Martin Hürlimann (1962)

Martin Hurlimann Reader Image

My sense is that this book is really primarily about the people of Hong Kong. Since it was published as part of Atlantis Verlag’s “Städtebände” (city volumes), however, it features photographs of much of the typical hardware of the place, arranged in sections such as “In the Harbour of Hong Kong”, “On the Streets of Victoria”, “Around Hong Kong Island” and “In the New Territories”. Hürlimann handles such material expertly, but he only really convinces the reader-viewer of his excellence in the pictures he groups under the heading “DIE KINDER VON HONGKONG (The Children of Hong Kong).

Here, he hardly ceases to amaze with his ability to capture the absorption of children in their reading, in their games, or in the simple pleasure of one another’s company. He was able to do this because in the 1960s children in Hong Kong still lived a large part of their lives outdoors, gathering on the stairs, in the sheltered arcades of shops, or ⸺ as in the image featured in this report ⸺ in small bookstalls. As the relevant caption puts it: “Auf den Treppen der Pottinger Street finden die Buchstände eifrige Besucher”, that is: “Bookstores find eager visitors on the steps of Pottinger Street”.

I can’t read German and, if you don’t either, it poses no obstacle to a deep enjoyment of this work. The written material included here, just from my random sampling with a German to English on-line translator, suggests that it is all informational in type and, as such, can be found elsewhere in English. But if you know German, then it is clear that you will have a mine of Kongological information at your fingertips.

Two sections which particularly appeal to me are in den new territories (In the New Territories) and tempel (Temple). In the former, there are several images of impeccably kept fields near Clearwater Bay Road as well as Fanling, one of a walled village in Kam Tin (which appears to have part of its moat intact), and five images taken on the island of Cheung Chau, including a crowded market scene and an aerial shot (“wie sie sich beim Anflug Hongkongs von Westen her zeigt” = as seen from the approach of Hong Kong from Western [sic]).

The section on temples is tiny, with only two photographs, one of the ever-popular Wong Tai Sin Temple in Kowloon. The second picture shows the main Tin Hau Temple in Sai Kung, and gives you some idea of how things must have looked before the waterfront development took place. It is quite similar to the following image, taken by Bryan Panter in 1957.

Another special feature of this book are the photographs collected under the heading FLÜCHTLINGSSIEDLUNGEN (Refugee settlements), including a very ramshackle squatter village built on the side of a hill. As a contrast, Hürlimann also provides several photos of the new housing estates, often built side by side like wafer biscuits stacked inside their packet. This was the beginning of the massive urbanization that took place in Hong Kong after 1949, but at this stage the apartment blocks were still largely limited to six or so storeys: the residential sky-scrapers of today were yet to appear.

After having read-viewed Hongkong, I was intrigued enough to want to find out more about Martin Hürlimann, and was even more intrigued to discover that there is not a single photograph of him to be found on the internet. Is this something many makers of photographs do, I wondered ⸺ hide themselves in all the photographs they take of other people and places?

In many ways, Hürlimann’s work left me yearning for some lyrical evocation of Hong Kong. Actually, this is quite hard to find, and to date I have only come across traces of it in the writings of Martin Booth on the Buddhist temple of Po Lin (in three of his books: The Dragon and the Pearl, Hiroshima Joe, and Gweilo) and in G.S.P. Heywood’s Rambles in Hong Kong. But there is one colour picture captioned “Die Bucht von Sai Kung” (Sai Kung Bay) that makes up for the want of poetry elsewhere: taken from the top of a hill, it shows green fields running down to the foreshore, then blue, sparkling sea-water, numerous small islands covered in verdant foliage, and then the taller, darker mountains of the larger islands, that eventually dissolve into both sea and sky at the shimmering horizon line. Its impact is rendered all the more powerful in that it reveals something of the natural beauty of Hong Kong that is on the point of being lost to us forever.

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