Arthur Hacker’s Hong Kong: A sense of place
I first met Arthur Hacker in 1996 at Jonathan Wattis’s gallery, the place where I learned to love Hong Kong, China and beyond. There we would meet many times, exchanging courtesy words and the same enthusiasm for old maps, prints and photographs. Obviously, I preferred to listen and let him talk ─ for Arthur was a seasoned collector and connoisseur ─ delighted with his proverbial wittiness, but also by his kindness. On one occasion, Arthur, Jonathan and I went together to the remote Hong Kong University of Science and Technology for the opening of an exhibition on antique maps of China. Traveling there from Central in public transport was an adventure; then I had the opportunity to witness Arthur’s youthful enthusiasm for learning, even in an area that he mastered.
Beyond those brief encounters, my relation with Arthur Hacker was that of an anonymous reader with his revered writer. I would follow his columns in the local press and I would read his books. Arthur Hacker’s Hong Kong became my Hong Kong, and now I realize the privilege of such an influence. Were it not by Arthur and others like him who have striven to show the soul of this city, I would not understand the place and I would rather abhor it.
Arthur’s contributions as a local historian and local bard were manifold and rest in virtues only peculiar to him. As a satirist, humour and a fine irony were his main rhetorical devices ─ he never adopted a pose, he was never lecturing or bitter. Arthur Hacker was a born writer and a born draftsman, but he never rested in the laurels: in his writings, his drawings or cartoons there is no trace of slippery performance, quite on the contrary, every single piece was well thought, constructed, and only delivered when he considered it worthy of the public’s attention.
Finally, Arthur the heterodox had the most orthodox achievements. He had a great education and that showed. His well-studied looks as a rugged reporter with hat and all, his public emphasis on a good drink, his drawings of spicy Wanchai girls, his public figure as agent provocateur, altogether may obscure Arthur’s vast and solid cultural foundation that started in London’s Royal College of Art, his many years of government service, his historical research into graphic records of late Qing China, and his well deserved award as a MBE.
The arch or wide spectrum for his unique and diverse abilities can be enjoyed in a short piece or any single book. In a book he produced in collaboration with Jonathan Wattis, Hong Kong: A Rare Photographic Record of the 1860s (1997), writing the entries for those remarkable historical pictures, Arthur brings to life old government buildings, temples and the first streets, race courses, waterfalls and farm houses, evoking masterfully the life and times of a bygone era. Arthur can let his fine humour slips in: “The present Government House was rebuilt by a Japanese railway engineer, Seichi Fujimura, and looks like it.” Or he can share with us his appreciation of the old Zetland Hall in a higher note highlighting it as “the finest classical building in Hong Kong. The quiet dignity of the fine Palladian portico with its elegant Ionic and Doric columns…”
A diverse Hong Kong, populated by colourful characters, from British governors to coolies, taipans, compradors, sailors and hardly any banker, come also alive in Arthur Hacker’s Wanchai. Here we learn the meaning of the streets, the previous sights always more beautiful, a history rich in anecdote, a city with a likable personality.
There is also the Arthur Hacker’s civic art critic. Now I feel he has left when he was more needed, when an artificial cultural life is expanding while the overall cultural level is diminishing. I remember his insights on artistic currents and “isms” like the so-called Pop Art. Arthur would remind us that Andy Warhol was a latecomer, for popular art has been around for centuries. Or regarding the controversy on the supposed Bauhaus origins of the old Wanchai market. Arthur rightly sentenced that those who supported that claim “were too optimistic”. The final compromise between ignorance and greed is painful to see as we walk Queen’s Road East, a tower built incongruously over a dull structure.
Arthur made us think with a smile. A recalcitrant optimist, he finished the book on old photographs of Hong Kong with a visionary remark: “Building never ceases. The pace of life gets more frantic by the day. So enjoy yourself, take a few moments off with this book and live in the past for a change.”
Service of thanksgiving for the life of Arthur at St. John’s Cathedral at 5:00 pm Wednesday, 4thDecember 2013 (please donate to The Hong Kong Community Chest in lieu of flowers).
Wake to celebrate Arthur’s life and friendship at his long time alternative family home, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Main Dining Room at 6:00 pm on Wednesday, 4th December 2013.