Edited and republished: 30th June 2023
HKSAR turns 26 tomorrow 🎉🎉. As we are getting set to celebrate the HKSAR day, we wonder how Hong Kong has evolved in the eyes of the common man how has Hong Kong evolved in the eyes of the common man? We asked this question to artist and academic, David Clarke. For those who still don't know him, David Clarke is an Englishman, an art historian and an artist. He has lived in Hong Kong since the 1980s, working at the University of Hong Kong until recently.
He is also the man behind the colossal photographic project HONG KONG IN TRANSITION (1995-2020): An open-access photographic archive for anyone interested in Hong Kong and its history.
We asked David about his journey artistic journey and this very interesting and insightful project.
In Pic: David Clarke
LOCALHOOD: Tell us about yourself and your tryst with HK pls?
DC: I’m British, but I came to Hong Kong in 1986, and think of it as my home. I came to take up a job teaching art history at the University of Hong Kong, but didn’t realise at the time that I would spend my whole working life here. I suppose I just discovered a niche here, since art history wasn’t too developed in this part of the world at that time. I also felt an affinity with Hong Kong people and started to make good friends in the art world here.
In Pic: In the back room at Club 64, Wing Wah Lane, Central, 11 February 1995
LOCALHOOD: We get what you want to achieve from this Project. But could you explain what gave the idea of this massive photo archive on HK to an Art historian and a HKU professor?
DC: I’m both an artist and a historian.
This project gave me the opportunity to bring those two different sides of my life together. Historians need archives to work from and in this case I was creating my own archive for me and other researchers to use. Since the date of the handover was fixed in advance it was possible to do a project about it that started in advance, so my initial idea was to take photos every day for the last five years of the previous millennium - a period which had the handover at its exact middle. I saw the handover as a process, not as just a moment (I feel the photojournalists who came for a week or two at that time would not be able to really see the city and its changes) - so taking photos over time seemed best. One couldn’t do this kind of project with most major historical transitions because you wouldn’t know in advance that they were going to happen - even months before the Berlin Wall came down nobody could have prediced it. Later I extended the project to look at later stages of Hong Kong life, but a quarter century seemed long enough. Any project needs a defined end as well as a beginning. Along the way I have used this archive to produce photo books and to produce artworks and solo photography exhibitions, but I always hoped to share the whole archive in some way. Websites didn’t really exist at the time I started this project in 1995 but I came more recently to think that would be the best way to share the whole project. I wanted to take a generous attitude - to give my images rather than use them as a resource to seek fame and fortune as is usually the case. I’m not really aware personally of any similar archive in terms of scale (40,000 plus images, 25 years), focus (one city, one photographer), free access (no paywall, no image use fees). A website enables me to share with the whole general public, whereas if I had put it in a university library or something only researchers would have been able to benefit.
In Pic: Children on a float, Cheung Chau bun festival, 22 May 1996
LOCALHOOD: 42000+ photos that a lot in 5 years amounts to 8400 photos a year or 23 photos per day, which includes 8 hrs of sleeping 🙂? How did you do manage to take all these meaningful photos in a relatively short period of time?
DC: For most of this period I had a busy full time job, but my approach is generally to take photos in the normal course of my life, not to act like a big game hunter trying to track down some preconceived prey. I wanted to be surprised by what was in front of my lens. And to find interest in everyday life. I was happy to photograph details, whereas a photojournalist needs to frame a clear subject in one image alone. I could let meaning emerge across images. After my retirement in 2017 I was more free to take photos so I did then make a conscious effort to include parts of Hong Kong they were otherwise missing, such as obscure outlying islands.
Up till 2004 I was using film, which was a relatively expensive medium for taking photos. After that date I shifted to digital, which enabled me to take as many photos as I wanted per day without extra cost. So there were often more photos per day after that. I couldn’t use digital when I first started the project since there weren’t suitable digital cameras around at that point. From 2015 to 2020 I decided to again take photos every day for five years, so that led to more photos being taken in that period
In Pic: Gilberto Gil, musician and Brazilian Minister of Culture, HKU, 2 March 2004
LOCALHOOD: Through this archive you also show the changes that HK has undergone during the 25 years the project covers. As we celebrate 25 years of the HKSAR, what according to you is the biggest change that HK has undergone, since you’ve been here?
DC: of course the end of colonial rule is the biggest change, but there has also been an enormous physical change to the city - new development and reclamation. What maybe interests me personally though is that Hong Kong has become a much richer city culturally. I document a lot of the city’s cultural life over the years.
In Pic: Gallerist Johnson Chang, in the China Club, Central, 3 October 2014
LOCALHOOD: Which is your favourite photo(s) in the Archive and why?
DC: Hard to say. That’s almost like asking a parent which is their favourite child! My interests vary over time anyway. The ones featured in my photo books and exhibitions are generally the ones I feel have the greatest artistic or historical value. Not every image in the archive is ‘art’, but some are. The images I chose to feature on the home page of the website stand for the range of the archive in some ways, but even they are not chosen simply because I think they are my favourites.
LOCALHOOD: Ha ha Fair enough. Before we end, is there anything else you'd like to add?
DC: Yes, I would like to mention that although the Project website can be searched by keyword or by date (or a combination of the two), for those who are not looking for something in particular but just want to explore the archive the easiest starting point would probably be the ‘lucky dip’ function.
LOCALHOOD: Thank you very much for your time, David
Hopefully, we will organize a talk with you on this super project very soon!!