Thursday, October 22, 2009

Hong Kong 1946

By Chip Tsao | published Oct 22, 2009

If you were in a time machine and you had to choose a year from the “good old days” of Hong Kong to travel to, you couldn’t do much better than 1946.

1946 is a vintage year, according to Hedda Morrison, a German photographer who stayed briefly in Hong Kong at the time with her husband, Alistair, who was then serving as an officer in the British army. She took photographs documenting Hong Kong and its most memorable features as they were—apart from the colonial buildings, she also photographed the harbor front, the valleys and coasts, and a wide range of rustic faces from the rural folk of Hong Kong. Her works are now on display outside the shopping mall in Stanley.

The most touching figures are the old amahs—a lost clan of single women from Shun Tak, a town in southern Canton, who refused to marry in the belief that women could survive on their own through embroidery, cooking and cleaning work. The amahs had been coming to Hong Kong freely since before the Second World War to work as domestic helpers. Pig-tailed and wearing immaculately ironed white blouses and silk trousers, these women represented the earliest feminist group in China—some were even rumored, quite naturally, to be lesbians.

Morrison took a close interest in the daily life of early Hong Kong women at that time. A smoking amah with a broad smile on her face. A street hawker selling cigarettes at a stall, lost in a trance during the quiet hours. A young girl with an earring carrying her younger brother on her back, apparently attracted to a hawker’s wares off-frame, staring ahead with a finger on her chin, her face bright with the curiosity and naiveté that belongs to a pre-industrial age.

Hong Kongers were defined differently, with an innocence and self-sufficient serenity found at a time when Hong Kong had just been liberated from Japanese rule—a time when the word “liberation” had a genuine meaning—and things were just getting restarted under the British, who had made a triumphant comeback to regain the colony, luckily, from Chiang Kai-shek’s government. 1946 was just the beginning of a happy Cinderella’s ball that lasted until the clock struck midnight on June 30, 1997.

I remember my family had an amah at home when I was a kid. She took me to the market and sometimes to Cantonese operas. Like a moment from Proust, I remember the smell of the wax she used on her pigtail. She sang me bedside songs, melodies she recalled from her own childhood in the Shun Tak fishing villages of the late Qing dynasty. She never had to argue with me about the sovereignty of the Spratly Islands, knowledge neither of us had to begin with. And those were the good old peaceful days.

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