There is this Hong Kong that exists in many people’s minds, a kind of golden era, when the prosperity of the former British colony was evident in Rolex billboards and limousines, busy hotel lobbies and skyrocketing real estate prices. The city was marvelled at, allowed to keep its free market economy and symbols of Western decadence in brash display. But as in any place with so dense a population, that wealth is bound to rub shoulders constantly with much more modest standards of living, and in this case an ancient Chinese heritage as well. These kinds of international crossroads can create a thousand interesting scenes within a city block, as wide-eyed tourists and dazed US Naval officers on R&R breaks walk past an aged Amah sweeping the road and a pair of preening ‘tai tai’ (Cantonese slang for ‘ladies who lunch’, basically).
Hailing from Canada originally, Greg Girard is an acclaimed photographer who has spent most of his adult life in Asia, much of that in Hong Kong, drawn to these sorts of vignettes. Girard’s interests in the region are described using the blanket term ‘social and physical transformations’, but such rapid change combined with a sort of pragmatism and at least surface-level acceptance of strange new developments is specifically a Hong Kong phenomenon. The idiosyncratic living and working systems seen in Girard’s photo series Hong Kong 1974-1986 and book Kowloon Walled City display this way of ‘getting on with it’ seldom witnessed in more sedate cities.
Girard spent five years exploring the famous Kowloon Walled City, a labyrinthine and virtually lawless complex of high-rise blocks, all weaved together in one teeming community. Razed to the ground and completely demolished by 1994, Girard was lucky to have access to the Walled City, where outsiders were not always welcomed, and his collection of photographs has become important evidence for this particular brand of human ingenuity. As Girard speaks of his experience though, he alludes to the possibility of an underlying unease; “Early fascination with that part of the world also came in part from the question of what constitutes “normal” in a place like Hong Kong, where verticality (sic) and density are so common that it hardly registers on its residents. Within Hong Kong itself the most extreme example was probably the Kowloon Walled City, one large city block with over three hundred interconnected high-rise buildings, built without the contribution of a single architect, home to 33,000 people. I say it hardly registers but of course it does, in ways that aren’t always apparent.“ Really, one can only guess at the nature of this unease, and secrecy clouds the Walled City’s legends still, but at least Girard’s photographs do possess that darkness and malice in many more grotesque shots (carcasses and baskets of guts in an alleyway butcher and piles of refuse remaining to decay inside the buildings) so as not to gloss over this potent reality.
A lot of Girard’s work really speaks for itself with its documentary style, but there is a more lurid streak running through his series Hong Kong 1974-1986 that is perhaps intentional, meant to mirror the neon tubing of the street signs of Wanchai. This is the same colour-drenched Hong Kong that cinema directors of the ‘Hong Kong New Wave’ or ‘Second Wave’ movement have brought to the screen – Wong Kar-Wai or Fruit Chan for example – in films set later than the 70s and 80s perhaps, but still helping themselves from this brash colour palette. There are entertainers and tattooed sailors, hawkers, deliverymen and ordinary people all colliding around the sleazy bars on Lockhart and Jaffe Roads and the cinemas and cha chaan tengs of Yau Ma Tei. Red-light in nature mostly, the series is still easier on the mind than the mess of TV aerials and hazardous electrical wiring of Walled City, however those reminders of a current running below the quotidian routine keep popping up. Close up shot ‘A bag full of clocks, Sham Shui Po’ might make you wonder how long the rate of Hong Kong’s development can sustain itself, while an image of collapsed bamboo scaffolding with coincidental theatrical-style lighting is very telling. With a border of darkened pavements either side, the scaffolding seems like a proscenium arch stage set gone wrong, something made for show with no structural integrity. Largely this flexible and cheap material works well in construction, but what about when it doesn’t?
Of course the people to tell Hong Kong’s real story should be native Hong Kongers themselves, but that’s exactly why Girard doesn’t try too hard to force a narrative. No condemnation of the tiny apartments or unsanitary corridors and no outright opinion about the American military presence or rampant capitalism alongside traditional values and modes of commerce. Girard has said himself that he is ”…Not qualified to talk about either [development and preservation in Asian countries], and I’m not interested in either per se. What I tend to photograph is modernity. Its surface could be almost anything.“
— Words by Alex Ward. To see more of Greg Girard’s work head to his website.