● The Consummate Panorama
It was Martin Booth who once revealed that the view of Victoria Harbour regularly reduced friends to the verge of tears, either because they were moved by the magnificence of the vista or because they were only able to fit one-fifth of it into the view-finder of their cameras. In An Eye on Hong Kong, you feel that photographer Keith Macgregor is absorbed by this problem of the panorama and what it means for our understanding and appreciation of Hong Kong.
The urban panorama is the obvious place to start, and Macgregor understands its idiom perfectly. “Central 1990” captures the mixed ruthless geometry of the harbour-side skyline set against a deep-blue sky only partially softened by cloud. This is one of the founding dreams of Hong Kong, in which no individual human being matters (you see none in this image) and where wealth and power solidify themselves with a breath-taking yet cold-blooded aplomb.
More lively and endearing are the nightscapes, often shot with long exposure-times to create vivid light-trails inscribed by ferry-boats and land traffic in motion. Colour here intrudes on the otherwise imperturbable architecture, and softens the harsh angles and plate-glass glare of the day-time city environment. There is a garish vitality to the light, as contradictory as the night itself with promises of leisure — if not pleasure — alongside our instinctive terror of the dark. Macgregor’s masterpiece in this type of photograph is the three-page fold-out “Island 1996”, taken from Hung Hom on the Kowloon side. It shows Victoria Harbour all the way from North Point to Sheung Wan, lit-up by neon and the complementary red and yellow lights of the boats. But beyond it all, under a late-twilight sky, the mountains on the eastern coast of the island remain featureless, forbidding, presences.
A different kind of panorama characterizes the Kowloon pictures. It is not horizontal sweep that matters but depth in a streetscape filled with what Romain Jacquet-Lagrèze calls “city poetry” — that is, the collage of signage that transforms main roads into textual fields. One typical example is “Tung Choi Street Market, Mong Kok 1994”. With the exception of the words “PARK’N SHOP in the foreground and an upper-case GROOVY in the middle distance, what follows down the length of the road is a galaxy of Chinese writing, much of it done in red, some it reading right-to-left, in other cases top-to-bottom. If you read Chinese, you could spend an easy half-an-hour deciphering what you see (I spied a shop-sign for a Buddhist vegetarian restaurant tucked in amongst the linguistic barrage).
Naturally, night scenes of a neon-lit Nathan Road lend themselves perfectly to photography, too. No language glows in the dark like Chinese does.
Once we leave the built-up centres of Hong Kong behind, we come to a third mode of panorama, this time composed of sea, mountains and sky, the whole unified by the light that transforms the blues and greens into jewel-like azure and emerald. The eastern New Territories is a favourite location for Macgregor in this regard, examples including “North Sai Kung 1995”, “Sai Kung Peninsula 1995”. Other shots have a tourist-brochure feel to them, but at their best they distil the overpowering natural beauty of the Hong Kong landscape and convince us that there must be something altogether remarkable about the feng-shui of the place.
Apart from the panorama, you will find many photographs in An Eye on Hong Kong concerned with the life of fisherfolk. Of course, pictures of junks are a stock item in many books on Hong Kong, but Macgregor goes well beyond this, with numerous pictures of working life at sea and of the dragon boat races. Like the wonderful Barbara E. Ward before him, Macgregor seems to feel a close affinity for the Tanka people, and has gone out of his way to document what he can of their seafaring lifestyle. Late in the book (pages 114-116), there are even shots of celebrations for the birthday of Hung Shing on Kau Sai Island, not far from where the locals have put up a plaque in commemoration of Ward for all the work she did for the local community, including the creation of a new Kau Sai Village in Hebe Haven.
This affinity for the Tanka also results in some very special photographs of female heads, a minor strand in Macgregor’s work that serves as a tender counter-balance to all the sweep and impersonality essential to his panoramas. There is a full-page photograph in the introductory section of the book of a woman dressed in her best clothes and wearing a number of elaborate silvery ornaments in her hair, with all the vibrant colours of some temple decoration in the background. It is the epitome of festivity, summed up in a couplet I once saw in Tsz Tin Tsuen Village in Tuen Mun — 神人共樂, Gods and Human Beings, Enjoying Themselves Together. Of this type of image, the most memorable one for me is “Fisherwoman”, taken in Aberdeen in 1986. It is certainly not a photograph that leaps out at you the first time you see it, but there is something in the woman’s appearance and expression that is like an enigma, drawing you back again and again.
Collages and contrasts are two other elements in Macgregor’s photography that diversify his appeal. Subject-matter for the former include temple decorations, smiling faces, various dry goods, aerial views, seafood, and salt-dried fish, as well as children taking part in the annual float procession held on Cheung Chau. Contrasts generally involve two photographs of the same scene taken at different times. The prime example is “The Harbour and the City”, which juxtaposes a panorama taken by Mee Cheung in pre-skyscraper 1948 with one by Macgregor taken in 1970. Quieter (and, for me, sadder instances) include the shot of a “typical old building in Eastern Street, Kennedy Town” from 1977 placed next to that imperious photograph of Central in 1990, as well as two pictures of Sha Tin, before and after it was new-towned out of existence into its present Legoland form, racecourse dominant in the foreground beside the extensive sewage treatment works.
And if this is not enough for you, Macgregor also includes some important images from the Sau Mau Ping Monkey God Festival. In one, a young male medium possessed by the Monkey King’s spirit prepares to dip his feet in a wok filled with boiling oil, while in another he sprints down a road made of hot burning-coals past the exclusive area set aside for VIPs.
The book ends on a glorious-sombre note, with a finale panorama entitled “Sunset over Lantau Island 1996”. From somewhere above Central we look out west over the darkened waters towards a yellow-gold conflagration of light and monumental cloud, beneath an expanse of sky still lit up enough to show faintly blue. An era has come to an end, it suggests, and with it, perhaps, an extraordinary way of life that will never be repeated anywhere in this world again.
You can see more of Keith Macgregor’s work at Keith Macgregor Photography and at Blue Lotus Gallery.