Dezső Bozóky’s Photography and Diary Extracts in his Pictures of the Past
Despite seeing nostalgic pictures in books and on the web, I have never had the chance to visit a photographic exhibition of past Hong Kong and enjoy the vicinity of those old black and white prints – many of them hand-coloured to recreate the tints of the original scene. After my experience at the exhibition ‘Pictures of the Past: Hungarian Photographer Dezső Bozóky in Hong Kong’, I highly recommend a visit to the University Museum and Art Galleries.
Dezső Bozóky was a Hungarian naval doctor, who travelled to Asia during the first decade of the twentieth century and spent two winters in Hong Kong, between 1907 and 1909. Not only he took pictures and self-developed them ‘in the airless, darkened cabin in the tropical heat…in a state of undress, with the electric fan frantically spinning behind me and the developing dishes filled with ice cubes…’, but he also recorded his journey in an unpublished diary.
Setting sail from Pola on a warship, Bozóky crossed the Mediterranean, reached Port Said and Aden, and then continued into the Indian Ocean. His destinations were Ceylon, Singapore and Hong Kong, before proceeding into China.
From 1908, he published a rendering of his travels in several articles and, once back home, he recorded his experiences of East Asia in a complete Asian travelogue “Two Years in East Asia”, illustrated with photos.
The beauty of this small exhibition lays in the fact that the pictures are enriched by Bozóky’s words of wonder, enthrallment and admiration for the many aspects of the once developing Asian city. The combination of images and words gives us a better insight of Hong Kong during his times. After visiting the exhibition, curious to read more from this man, I purchased the book “Two Years in East Asia – Travelling in Hong Kong 1907-1909” at the Hong Kong University Museum bookstore. It is a specific collection of Dezső Bozóky’s pictures and excerpts from his diary, which allowed me to further travel through places of Hong Kong that I would never be able to recognise or imagine.
As we go from one picture to another, we noticed that this doctor – cum photographer – cum writer was a keen observer, and had a predilection for picturing Hong Kong’s greenery and the life of ordinary people, at the same time adding acute observations about what Hong Kong represented and how it gained its importance in the map of Asia ‘On the other hand, it is thanks to this hothouse air that the British, through hard work and perseverance, managed within but a single generation to conjure a true paradise from the island’s bleak and hot granite cliffs…When, between the rising king palms with trunks reminiscent of white marble pillars, through the marvellous tangle of creepers, the flowering orchids, roses and red and rust-coloured leaves of the shrubs…we catch a glimpse of the lovely mansions and summer homes clinging to the sides of the Peak. It feels as if we have arrived in a fantasy land, and we probably would not be surprised if fairies were suddenly to appear.’
Bozóky’s portrait of Queen’s Road shows a peaceful street with three-storey buildings, palanquins and rickshaws: ‘The main street of Hong Kong, the several-kilometre-long Queen’s Road, is where one can find the best shops. In order to alleviate the heat, there are open-columned terraces surrounding the buildings on each floor, while at street level continuously covered arcades in front of the shops provide protection from both the heat of the sun and the rain…’
On the way to the Peak, Bozóky captures with his camera the coolies and the carrier women: ‘These tough, thin women carry the contents of Hong Kong’s mansions up the mountain…We meet them barefooted, in large hats and wide trousers, panting as they make their way upwards with a load of bricks swaying from the bamboo canes on their shoulders. Most of them have a child clinging to both their back and chest.’
At the same time, the richest people use the palanquins to climb the mountain and ‘…seldom walk up to the church at a height of not more than 50 to 60 meters’.
The typical ‘life on the sampan’ is also recorded in details, giving us an idea of the hardship those people had to bear, as they still kept united in the tradition of cooking and eating together in such a restricted space: ‘A family of fifteen individuals lives in the raised part at the stern of the junk in a den with no windows or doors. They can pass in and out through a small square opening in the roof. Right at the back in the midst of the pile of firewood is the open fire where the women are busy cooking and baking from early morning…They don’t appear to live that badly. Our peasants back home would not be able to put so many delicious things on the table, even at Christmas.’
The photographer enjoys strolling around the greenery of Happy Valley cemeteries, observing the bustling city life during Chinese New Year, the Chinese vendors busy selling but also eating in their shops, and the religious rituals taking place in the temples ‘The Buddhist temples are crowded with people. The flames of the bundles of sacrificial paper burning in the huge dishes leap up high, while in front of the terrifying idols thousands of joss sticks emit their scented, eye-stinging smoke. The mass of people come and go, in particular women who, falling to their knees before the idols, touch the floor none times with their foreheads.’
When it’s time to leave Hong Kong, Bozóky is ready for his next destination: Canton, and leaves the city with nostalgia during his favourite season, winter: ‘I am luxuriating in the panorama of the swiftly disappearing enchanted city, in the resplendent domes and towers of the mansions bathing in sunshine…’
While viewing this photo exhibition, the visitor will experience Hong Kong seen through Dezső Bozóky’s camera lens, but will also witness what lies ‘behind’ his photos. His diary entries become a part of his pictures: vivid and realistic portraits of the daily life, religious and social traditions as well as of adversities faced by the local population. At the same time, Bozóky takes a glimpse at the Peak and its lush vegetation, and at the white mansions dotting the hills and inhabited by the wealthy few in a Hong Kong that we can hardly recognise nowadays.
The exhibition ‘Pictures of the Past: Hungarian Photographer Dezső Bozóky in Hong Kong’ runs at the Hong Kong University Museum and Galleries, 90 Bonham Road, Pokfulam, Hong Kong until the 8th of January 2017.