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.
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What Hong Kong looked like 150 years ago…