July 28, 2009 / 3:47 AM / in 8 years

Photographer on mission to save Asia's lost images

HONG KONG (Reuters Life!) - Hong Kong's colonial architecture and early street life may now have largely vanished, but a new foundation in the city is aiming to revive these bygone times by hunting down a trove of old photographs hidden overseas.

Tens of thousands of rare historical images from Hong Kong and other countries across Asia are now believed to lie buried in the vast collections of universities, libraries and individuals the world over, largely hidden from public view.

"Photos such as these deserve to be given a fresh audience today," said writer and photographer Edward Stokes who set up the Hong Kong Photographic Heritage Foundation in 2008 to unearth, contextualize and publish such images.

The foundation's first book "Hong Kong As It Was" features the striking black-and-white images of German photographer Hedda Morrison depicting everyday life in the 1940s.

"Morrison has 60,000 negatives held at Harvard and Cornell. About 10,000 have great historical, cultural and social meaning, yet only about 1,000 of them have ever been seen, have ever been published," Stokes said.

"They show a Hong Kong so far removed from what we know today; a place struggling with its sway of refugees, its squatter shacks and its early public housing."

Since he accidentally stumbled upon Morrison's photos in a local university library, Stokes has traveled the world trying to dig up more vanished images.

The foundation's list of future projects runs long. Apart from reviving the works of a little-known 19th century Chinese photographer, Stokes also plans to publish other forgotten photographs from China, India, Singapore and Malaysia.

"(These photographers) set out to record Asia on film, yet despite the quality of their work ... many remain little published today and that surely is a loss today to the place they portray," Stokes said.

URBANISATION

For Hong Kong, Stoke's mission carries added poignancy given the city's rampant urbanization. The recent demolition of the Star Ferry Clock Tower and Queen's Pier sparked a massive public outcry and forced the city's leader Donald Tsang to pledge to make it his "personal mission" to improve heritage conservation.

"Are we sacrificing too much for another skyscraper?" Tsang asked during a recent speech on the issue.

With many old Hong Kong photos now scattered, some say a solution could be to create a centralized facility similar to the government-funded Hong Kong Film Archive -- where thousands of vintage movies are now stored.

"To a certain extent, it is more convenient to work with a public body status," said Richie Lam, the archive's director.

For the likes of Sylvia Ng, the former editor of Hong Kong's oldest photo magazine "Photo Pictorial," finding a secure public facility to store the countless images its built up since 1964 hasn't been easy.

"I really want these photos to have a good home, like how a mother will want her daughter to settle in a good family."

While the Hong Kong Museum of History and other public archives are home to at least 20,000 historical images, these numbers are dwarfed by initiatives elsewhere. In Singapore, around 4.6 million images are stored in its National Archives.

Other experts can't overemphasize the importance of Hong Kong's old photographic legacy as a unique testament to its remarkable transformation from a cluster of fishing villages to the teeming metropolis of 7 million people it is today.

"I specialize in the history of the area and they (these photos) fill in a lot of the gaps, in particular albumen photography from the 1860s to the early 1900s. They're very popular and they've literally disappeared," said Jonathan Wattis, an established dealer in historic maps and images in Hong Kong.

Editing by James Pomfret and Sugita Katyal

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