Asia Society: 19 Colorized Postcards from Early 1900s China


Asia Society:

On January 5, the New York Public Library released a cache of 180,000 digitized public domain images previously only available in its New York City locations. Among them were colorized photographs from around China in the early 20th century.

The images — colorized from black and white photos though photocrom or handpainting processes — were developed by European publishers to be sold as postcards to foreign visitors. In 1911, the Xinhai Revolution marked the end of China’s last imperial dyansty (the Qing) and began the Republican era, which lasted until the foundation of the People’s Republic in 1949. Around this time, foreign tourists and long-term expatriates poured into the country.

The surrounding context and precise date of many photos have been lost to time, so they are presented here only with their original title, publisher, and approximate year of origin.

160108_china1a“Transporting Tea in Chests for Export.” 1910-1919

160108_china2a“Farmer.” 1910-1919

160108_china3a“Chinese Planting Rice.” 1913

160108_china4a“Chinese Saw Mill.” 1913

160108_china5a“Street in Peking.” 1908

160108_china6a“Shanghai, Nanking Road.” 1907-1918

160108_china8a“Street Scene in Chinese City.” 1907-1918

160108_china9a“Street Life in Peking.” 1921

160108_china10a“Chang Ji-Men, Outer City Wall, Peking.” 1915-1930

160108_china11a“In Front of a Chinese Temple.” 1910-1919

160108_China12a“Two Little Maids in China.” 1907-1918

160108_china13a“A Chinese Tea and Cake Party.” 1908

160108_china14a“Life on a Sampan.” 1904 (Hongkong Pictorial Postcard Co.)

160108_china15a“Hongkew Market, Shanghai.” 1907-1918

160108_china17a“Barber in the Street, Shanghai.” 1907-1918

160108_china18a“Travelling on Wheel Barrow in Shanghai.” 1921

160108_china19a“Chair.” 1907-1918

160108_china20a“Street Vendors, Peking.” 1907-1918



Design: Beijing Tea House by Kengo Kuma Associates

Why do people get cash stuffed into red envelopes during Chinese New Year?


Next Shark: 

Red envelopes have been a staple of Chinese New Year for as long as anyone can remember. No matter whether you celebrate the holiday or not, you’ve probably wondered why your Asian friends receive red envelopes filled with cash every year. Heck, many recipients of red envelopes don’t know why either.


Unfortunately, there is no one consensus on where the red envelopes came from. One popular story dates back to the Qing Dynasty, where the elderly would thread coins with a red string. This money was called yāsuì qián, meaning “money warding off evil spirits,” and was believed to protect elder people from sickness and death. As the printing press became more common, the yāsuì qián was replaced with red envelopes.

Another legend tells of a village where a demon would terrorize children at night. It was believed that the demon would touch the children’s heads while they were asleep, causing serious illness or death. From there, a theory emerged that when they prayed, God would send eight fairies to protect the child. The fairies would disguise themselves as eight coins and hide under the child’s pillow. When the demon would get close, the coins would began to shine very bright, blinding the demon. Word began to spread and the villagers started giving out red envelopes filled with coins to each other to put under their pillows at night. As time passed, red envelopes became a way to bring good luck and prosperity to the receiver.

How much do you get?

The amount of money depends on the occasion, but the amount typically ends with an even digit, as odd numbers are traditionally associated with funerals. Additionally, it is believed that money should never be given in fours, nor should the number “4” appear in the amount (i.e: 400, 444, 4004), as the chinese word for “four” sounds similar to the word “death.”

Who gets them?

During Chinese New Year, red envelopes are typically given by the married to children and the unmarried. The red symbolizes good luck and the money wishes the recipient good fortune for times to come. The red envelopes are also used to fend off bad spirits. It’s not uncommon for red envelopes to be given during birthdays and other special occasions as well.

Chinese weddings are also occasions when red envelopes come into play. The amount given is supposed to cover the cost of the attendees and as a way to wish the newlyweds good luck. While red envelopes shouldn’t be opened in front of the giver, it’s different during weddings. During Chinese weddings, there is a table at the front of the wedding reception where guests can drop off red envelopes as gifts and sign their names on a large scroll. The envelopes are then immediately opened, counted and then recorded to show how much each guest gave. Why? It’s mainly to bookkeep and to make sure the money matches with what the guests brought at the end of the night. Another reasons is that when single guests finally get married, the bride and groom are expected to give the guest more money than what they received at their own wedding.

At work, it’s a tradition that Chinese companies give away red envelopes to their employees on the eve of Chinese New Year. Alibaba has participated in the tradition before, however, according to Fortune, CEO Jack Ma recently announced that they will not give away red envelopes this year due to mediocre performance.

Other Etiquette

You’re also supposed to avoid putting coins in the envelopes, which makes it difficult for people to gauge the amount before opening. Also it’s tradition to put crisp, new bills inside, which explains why my grandma always went to the bank to switch old bills with new ones every year.

So, there you have it… Happy Chinese New Year!


What Hong Kong looked like 150 years ago…


Betty Yao isn’t sure what she finds more remarkable about the photographs of John Thomson: the fact that they have been so well preserved after 146 years, or the way a bearded, English-speaking Scotsman managed to so skillfully capture the personalities of ordinary Chinese people in the middle of the 19th century.

Given the long exposure time, it’s really unusual the way he captured people’s eyes – you can almost see their inner feelings,” says Ms. Yao, a Hong Kong-born, London-based curator. “It was the Qing Dynasty – how did this Scottish guy manage to travel to China with all this heavy equipment, up and down the country? And how did he manage to get so many photos of women and children?

This Friday, Ms. Yao brings Thomson’s photos back to Hong Kong for the first time in nearly 150 years. Dozens of his rarely seen images have been gathered in a new exhibition at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum that includes 22 photos of Hong Kong taken between 1868 and 1872, less than three decades after the island was colonized by the British.

With the Hong Kong scenes, it’s shocking how little is left of what he photographed,” says Ms. Yao. In one scene, Chinese men dressed in changshan, with shaved heads and Manchu-style queues, stand next to a turbaned Indian man on a leafy street lined by ornate European-style buildings. Another view of the Central waterfront bears more resemblance to Venice than it does to the skyscraping business district of today.

Born in Edinburgh in 1837, Thomson first encountered the novel art of photography when he apprenticed with a local manufacturer of optical equipment. In 1862, he traveled to Singapore to join his brother William, who had moved there to run a watchmaking business.

The trip marked the beginning of a decade’s worth of travels through Asia, and along the way Thomson documented everything from cyclone-ravaged Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, to street life in Beijing.

Thomson’s work was all the more remarkable given the limitations of the era’s photographic technology. Even as he journeyed through some of the most rugged and remote parts of China, he carried an unwieldy wooden camera, delicate glass plates (film was not introduced until 1885) and a vat of volatile, potentially deadly chemicals. Even the act of taking a single photograph was difficult and unpredictable; several seconds were needed for each exposure, meaning even slight movement would result in a blurred image.

Yet somehow, Thomson was able to produce remarkably sympathetic portraits of his subjects, whether they were Chinese boat people or Siamese royalty. “I think he cared a lot about people,” Ms. Yao says. Other [photographs] from that era were amateur or ethnographic, so they made the Chinese people look like specimens.”

Thomson returned to the U.K. from China in 1872 and went on to document the lives of London’s homeless, while also serving as the official photographer of the British royal family. After his death in 1921, his oeuvre was collected by pharmaceutical tycoon Sir Henry Wellcome.

It was through Wellcome’s collection that Ms. Yao, the program director for nonprofit cultural organization Asia House, was introduced to Thomson’s photographs in 2006. She was so taken with the work that she took a leave of absence to mount an exhibition of his China photographs in Beijing.

I said I’d be gone for six months. I haven’t been back since,” she says.

Now she spends her time touring the photographs around the world, with exhibitions already booked two years in advance. “There has been a huge surge of interest,” she says.

Ms. Yao still finds much to inspire her. “There are two images that remain with me, and they’re why I feel John Thomson is so special,” she says. “There’s one image of a Manchu bride, a young girl, very beautiful in the fineries of a rich family, but if you look at her eyes there’s a tinge of sadness.”

The other image depicts a boat woman from Canton, now Guangdong province. “She had just a simple cotton top, but if you look at her eyes, there’s a joie de vivre, a confidence in herself,” Ms. Yao says. “How this man managed to capture them both is what really impressed me.

Through the Lens of John Thomson: Hong Kong and Coastal China” runs from Nov. 23 to Feb. 26 at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum. Tickets are HK$30.

Check out this link:

What Hong Kong looked like 150 years ago…

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