Hong Kong Photographer Stanley Chung On Tracing The Steps Of His Father, James Chung
The photograph is faded but the expression on the young man’s face is clear. He stands in the Macau sunshine, hand in pocket, smiling with pride and a camera around his neck: a 3.5F Rolleicord, a highly sought-after instrument in 1962, when this picture was taken.
James Chung Man-lurk, here making a concerted effort to pose like his namesake, Hollywood star James Dean, would himself go on to find fame as one of Hong Kong’s most respected photographers. He died in 2018, but his work is being kept in the public eye with two forthcoming exhibitions: one beginning this autumn at gallery F22 Foto Space and the other next January in F11 Foto Museum, featuring prints reproduced by his son Stanley Chung Charn-kong.
A career in photography was far beyond Chung’s imagination as a child born in 1925 in a small farming village in Guangdong province. He dropped out of secondary school to work as a farmer and carpenter while living with his grandmother. In 1947, amid the backdrop of the Chinese Civil War, Chung, then 22, joined swathes of other mainland Chinese who took boats across the Pearl River Estuary in search of better job opportunities in Hong Kong.
He arrived here hoping to find an apprenticeship in any industry that would allow him to make a living, and ended up using his savings to learn art from Chan Hak-shun, the senior apprentice of Xu Beihong, the Chinese ink painter famed for his paintings of horses that combined Chinese brush techniques with western composition. He also started an apprenticeship in the visual arts department of Wan Chai’s Oriental Cinema at a time when movie posters and other advertisements were illustrated by hand.
Those portraits sparked Chung’s interest in photography. At that time, the German-made 3.5F Rolleicord and the newer Rolleicord Vb F3.5 models were favoured among amateur photographers as they produced photos with excellent depth of field and detail. “He had been drooling over the cameras for quite some time,” says his son Stanley, 64. However, with a family to feed, and a monthly salary of about HK$60 (while difficult to compare to today’s dollars, that sum would likely be about HK$10,000), the aspiring photographer could only borrow someone else’s camera and submit photos to newspapers, making just enough money to buy more 125-exposure rolls, which cost HK$1.25 each.
In 1957, after saving for a decade, Chung finally bought his first camera, sharing the cost with a colleague. Despite being self-taught, Chung was published by several magazines and newspapers, including the state-owned Ta Kung Pao, the oldest Chinese-language newspaper.
Photographs Are Forever
In 1958, the Perulz Photo Contest organised by the New Evening Post announced grand prizes that included a Rolleicord and a Zeiss 6x6 cm medium-format film camera. Chung pawned his prized possession in order to develop film. “My mother was fuming,” Stanley Chung says. “Cameras and films were a luxury and we had been struggling to make ends meet. Luckily, my grandfather worked in a restaurant and allowed my mother to take some dim sum home to keep the family from starving.”
And to their relief, Chung won the award and prizes. He made contacts within the photography team at the Hong Kong Chinese Reform Association, a political organisation that organised social events for locals, and learnt how to develop photos in a darkroom. Chung became obsessed with the qualities that darkroom printing could achieve. “My father used to squat in the bathroom, which he converted into a darkroom, and I would keep nudging impatiently and asking: ‘Is it ready yet?’,” his son says.
In the following decades, until his retirement in 1991, Chung documented Hong Kong’s urban evolution through candid, black-and-white photographs. His subjects were diverse—post-war livelihoods, festivals, housing and various industries, such as transportation, fishing and catering. His photo of a woman sat by a standpipe waiting for her bucket to fill during rationing, a period when freshwater was only available for two hours per day, won him the silver prize in 1959 at the Hong Kong International Salon of Photography, Hong Kong’s most prestigious photography competition, which was judged by the Photographic Society of America.
In contrast with his contemporaries, such as famed photographer and Chung’s friend Fan Ho, who tended to add drama to his shots, Stanley Chung says that his father’s style was more realistic. “Uncle Ho’s images are more dramatic and cinematic,” he says. “He sometimes tipped a child to buy a candy to stage a scene or a rickshaw driver to pull his cart a little closer to where he wanted to shoot for a better angle. My father couldn’t afford that.”
Instead, Chung adds, “My father’s photos have educational and historical value. These sights have long disappeared. A lot of buildings have been demolished.” Douglas So, the chairman of the Antiquities Advisory Board and founder of F22 Foto Space, says Chung’s photos helped bring the city’s historic architecture to life. “These classic structures don’t guarantee good photos,” says So. “Chung was an illustrator, and he already had the images in his mind before he pressed the shutter.”
(Melody of Waves, 1959) Chung played with the curves and light of the waves at a beach in Lei Yue Mun
(River Poetry, 1959) A construction worker carrying materials to build the bridge over the Shing Mun River in Sha Tin
(Mirror, 1959) A seven-storey tenement building in Shek Kip Mei Estate, the first public housing estate in Hong Kong, which was built after a fire in 1953 left 58,000 people homeless
(New Frontier, 1962) Lampposts in the under-construction Kwun Tong district, a largely industrial area created through land reclamation
“He was very particular about lighting and angles,” says his son, who used to tag along on shoots. “Sometimes my father would wait for the whole day without taking one picture, and he would come back another day to the same spot to wait for the decisive moment.”
So curated the exhibition with rare images that show Chung’s personality as a photographer and his two distinct ways of working: as both artist and historian. “Chung’s commissioned photos are more for documenting history, whereas those taken as a hobby are more artistic,” So says. “For example, in 1962’s New Frontier, the pattern of the lampposts in Kwun Tong exudes a romantic vibe that isn’t usually associated with the place.” Following the F22 show, So will stage a larger retrospective at F11 Foto Museum.
Now also a photographer himself, Stanley Chung has worked as an artistic designer for local newspaper Wen Wei Po and a lecturer at the First Institute of Art and Design in Tai Hang. He also runs a darkroom in North Point, where he prints all his father’s photos using the films and notebooks he inherited, making the shows a collaboration across generations. So says: “In a sense, this isn’t only James’s exhibition. It’s an exhibition by a father-and-son duo. It’s Hong Kong’s legacy.”
Long Shadow runs from October 16 to January 31, 2021 at F22 Peninsula; Retrospective of James Chung is scheduled to run from February 16, 2021 to May 15, 2021 at F11 Foto Museum. Please visit f22.com and f11.com for the latest updates
Want to see more from Tatler Hong Kong? You can now download and read our full November issue for free. Simply click here to redeem your free issue. Please note, the free download is available from 5 November, 2020 and is valid until 30 November, 2020.