Cover A tale of two cities: this new photography exhibition captures life in Hong Kong and Singapore in the 1950s. (Photo: Lee Fook Chee, © The Estate of Lee Fook Chee. Courtesy of Sino Group)

We speak to the curator behind this new photography exhibition, which is a must-see this summer.

From heritage sites to historical hikes, museums to ancient village trails, there are so many unique ways to learn about Hong Kong’s fascinating history. In this new photography exhibition, which commemorates the 50th anniversary of Sino Group, old Hong Kong and Singapore are celebrated through the works of two prolific photographers. 

Named “Photographs from the 1950s: Marjorie Doggett’s Singapore, Lee Fook Chee’s Hong Kong”, the show features 50 works by two legendary photographers who documented the architecture and daily life in the two Asian cities last century. Nikki Ng, the group general manager of Sino Group and director of Ng Teng Fong Charitable Foundation, says, “Our family business started in Singapore in the 1960s, created by our late grandfather and the founder of Sino Group, Mr Ng Teng Fong, before he came to Hong Kong, incorporating our first company in this city, 50 years ago. This exhibition celebrates the shared history and heritage between these two great world cities of Asia.”

See also: Hong Kong Photographer Stanley Chung On Tracing The Steps Of His Father, James Chung

To Edward Stokes, the curator of the exhibition and founder of the Photographic Heritage Foundation, what he finds the most valuable about Marjorie Doggett’s and Lee Fook Chee’s works, paradoxically, is how basic they are. “What an art photographer like Fan Ho does is determine how he exposes the film in the camera, develops the film, and then prints the film. Very often the art photographer makes dark things darker than they really are and light things lighter than they really are to get a very dramatic contrast. A lot of Fan Ho’s photographs of tramlines are very powerful and evocative,” Stokes explains. “But they obscure details, right? Because if you make something very dark, I won’t be able to see these words [in the photos]. Lee Fook Chee didn’t use special light to get dramatic shadows. He’s less skilled. This is also the case for Doggett. Didn’t they consciously decide that this was what they would do? I would say they didn’t. They weren’t at that level, which was a kind of a paradox. But that’s what makes their photos special – they were just capturing what they saw.”

Born in 1921, Doggett found her love of photography through a chemist during her teenage years in London. In the following years, she became a self-taught amateur landscape photographer. When she moved to Singapore with her fiancé in 1947, she documented the cityscape with photography, and later focused on architecture as a means of promoting the preservation of heritage buildings. Pointing to a photographic book at the exhibition hall, Stokes says, “Here’s the first photographic book of Singapore by a woman, and the first photographic book on Singapore by anybody. At the time, it was quite influential, but amongst only a small group of people who were enormous in the 1950s. Most people were just struggling to make a living. But she was really a generation ahead of her time. When her book was later republished 30 years later in 1985, the society realised that things should be preserved.”

See also: Hong Kong Through The Lens Of The City's Street Photographers
 

Lee Fook Chee, born in 1927 in Singapore, on the other hand, came from a less fortunate background. “He was largely uneducated by virtue of his childhood. He was given away by his poor parents,” Stokes points out. Lee’s adoptive father, Lee Kok Fai, was a photographer, and the young Lee later developed his skills from his cousin who owned a photography studio. “Lee learned the skill and had an innate ability and great intelligence. He could have worked for his cousin in the studio, printing and touching up photos. But he was very proud. He wanted to be his own boss,” Stokes says. Lee left for Hong Kong in 1947 to seek a new life away from war-torn Singapore. “Lee photographed for a very clear and simple reason. It’s called making a living and feeding a family,” Stokes says. “He’s basically a street photographer. He did not have a creative muse. He’s a regular guy who had learned photo taking skills, who did a very good job but didn’t have this higher level. That’s a paradox. Because of that, his photos today may well resonate more than the art photographer who lays his or her meaning on the photos.”

Stokes believes that Doggett’s Singapore and Lee’s Hong Kong, both being former colonies, share a semblance and present a bygone era the generation today hasn’t seen. Pointing to one of Doggett’s Fullerton Hotel images as an example, Stokes explains, “It has all the great aspects of Singapore’s beautiful, impressive pre-war, colonial, classical architecture, and is now absolutely superbly restored as a very grand and elegant hotel. There’s also a lovely sense of the life and peacefulness along the foreshore. People now race around, whether by necessity or choice.” Across the exhibition hall is Lee’s photo of the Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong (then Victoria City) where the Supreme Court still stands today. “Quintessentially, this has all the aspects of what makes Hong Kong so special,” Stokes says. “To me and to most people, the harbour, the city, this amazing backdrop of the Peak and ferries crisscrossing could be in no other city in the world but Hong Kong. One of the things our exhibition shows is that although things have changed, there is continuity. The Star Ferry now, of course, is all enclosed with air-con on the top deck. But put a small funnel on, it’s not that difficult to recognise some of its features.”

Putting together an exhibition to bring back the 1950s wasn’t easy. “One of the exciting things about what we do in the Photographic Heritage Foundation is this long detective work of contacting archivists and librarians, writing a huge amount of correspondence and finding these wonderful [photo] collections. When you start looking into a collection like this, where Marjorie’s documents, diaries and letters aside from her photos would fill the volume of this whole case. You dig around, there’s a lot of ephemeral stuff that’s of no interest. Then suddenly, you come across gems,” says Stokes, pointing to Doggett’s first album in 1940. “This was just before the Battle of Britain when she’s nursing in the southeast corner of England where these terrible aerial combats were going on. But she kept up her passion for photography. She loved Cambridge. These are photos of Cambridge. They are now so brittle. I’m not exaggerating the slightest: not even a conservator could lift them up without breaking a bit.”

Lee was an even harder case, so much so that Stokes uses the word “serendipity” to describe how this exhibition came about. It was the last day for Stokes’ siblings to visit him in Hong Kong in 2010 and they decided to hike up the Peak. There, they met a dark-skinned, smiling old man who was selling photos of 1950s Hong Kong. “I bought two purely out of respect for his living,” Stokes recalls. “He was clearly poor, old and making a living out of selling photos. I didn’t think more about them because they’re of quite poor quality. A month later, I received an email from a lady in Singapore saying that she was the niece of Mr Lee, who would like me to see his photos. Initially, I could not even remember Mr Lee, but then I recalled the man from the Peak. But because of the photo quality, I moved on. She, thank heavens, wrote back soon afterwards, saying that her uncle was a professional photographer. Now, that could mean all sorts of things: a newspaper guy, a wedding photographer, or a man who ran a studio, I don’t know, but he wasn’t just a man with a camera.”

So, Stokes, who knew little Cantonese, met up with Lee, who knew little English. Lee brought along his picture of the Star Ferry, which is now framed in the exhibition. “It was gorgeous. Just beautiful qualities: crisp, sharp, all the things you look for in a good documentary image,” Stokes says. “Clearly, I was wrong. You can have poor prints from great negatives, but not great photos from poor prints.” Later, from a cramped darkroom in Lee’s tiny public housing flat, Lee fetched out his tin box filled with negatives. Stokes continues, “I started going through them and realised immediately that Lee Fook Chee’s photos have significant heritage and personal value.” Stokes would go on in 2011 to collaborate with Liu Kin-ming, a journalist and old friend, and Patricia Chou, a writer, to produce a photography book collecting Lee’s work.

See also: 10 Traditional Trades To Support In Hong Kong Before They Disappear

Sadly, Lee passed away in 2012 at 84 before the book came out. Stokes, cradling his camera which he used as a prop to interview Lee for the book, recalls, “In time you couldn’t measure, Lee picked it up. He held the body and the lens locker. His finger went there ready on the shutter in split-second time. So just in that little blink of a second, here was the young guy who all those years ago ran around taking these photos.” Lee and Doggett left behind their photos, but through their lens, the tales and heritage of these two bygone cities live on, as Lee himself said to Stokes when they reunited, “You can save my photos! We must keep my photographs alive for Hong Kong!”

See “Photographs from the 1950s: Marjorie Doggett’s Singapore, Lee Fook Chee’s Hong Kong” at Sino Plaza, Causeway Bay until May 30, and at Citywalk, Tsuen Wan from May 24 to June 6. Find out more at sino.com/en/50th-anniversary