In the old days of Sammy Studio, 善美影室, Lam Kwok-shing had to work overnight to get photos done. Now, at one of the last studios of this disappearing trade, he spends his days waiting for his customers to return.
“The hardest job is to wait,” Lam remarks, as he continues the quiet ritual in his family photo studio, anchored upstairs in an old building in Jordan. This is his story — a man who waits at the still point of the turning world.
Lam Kwok-shing first started his career as a photographer in the 1970s by apprenticing with Sammy Studio, then known as Jim Jim Photography, 尖尖照相. This was how people back then got their careers sorted: like many young men his age, Lam failed his public exams, and decided to listen to the words of his elders to “learn a useful trade”.
Back in the 1970s when the industry boomed, family photo studios were a busy trade. “[You need] one person to process the film, one to take the photo, and another one to edit and perfect it,” Lam says. “It takes so many steps to polish one photo.” The final product was a piece of craftsmanship made by collective effort.
The photo keeps it all: the atmosphere, the way we used to look. This will last forever.
“It should be like jade” — that is how Lam describes a good photo. Like ornaments made from the precious stone, a quality photo has rich texture and vivid colours, and is crafted with care.
This explains why Hong Kong families loved to have their portraits taken when it came to special moments, like Chinese New Year or the arrival of a newborn. A well-taken photo was meant to last, like an heirloom.
“I was always too excited to sleep the night before going to the photo studio, because that was the occasion to wear new clothes, to style my hair, and to get lai-see (lucky money),” Lam says, recalling his youth. “There was a year when my brother and I fought for a bicycle. I won, and I was so happy even though I was just sitting there [in the studio] . . . My brother pulled a long face though.”
He laughs as he retells the story, looking nothing like a man in his sixties. “Whenever I look at the picture I can feel it all over again. The photo keeps it all: the atmosphere, the way we used to look. This will last forever.”
Photographers can stop time for their customers, but as it turns out, they could not stop time for themselves. Digital photography outcompeted film the moment it arrived: darkrooms were replaced, and struggling photographers have either retired or switched jobs. Even the agent who sold Lam his Hasselblad camera could no longer find parts to fix it.
[My customers] told me to wait for them. It’s always such a long wait.
Lam tries to maintain a sense of humour in face of time’s passage. “So many things have become automatic nowadays — we may as well enjoy the convenience. I use a smartphone when I go swimming, to take a snapshot of the scenery. It’s all instant. And I could just delete it if I don’t like it,” Lam says.
Film photography seems to be enjoying a comeback in recent years, amid Hong Kong people’s intensifying nostalgia. To Lam, however, while film photography would make a wonderful hobby, it could hardly be a viable career like it used to be. “One of the kids asked me if I would like an apprentice — of course I would love to have one. But once they stop making film altogether, what then?”
In 1996, seeing that film photography would be hitting a dead end, the former owner of the studio finally decided to leave Hong Kong. Lam, however, decided to take over the business and gave it its new name: “Sammy”.
He chose to stay for one simple reason — his customers. One family returns year after year, for a new portrait on every Father’s Day; some others a decade later, coming for a photo in contrast to an old one, showing how time has brought changes to the family. And so, at 17 Pak Hoi Street, Lam took on his new task: waiting.
But once they stop making film altogether, what then?
“[My customers] told me to wait for them. It’s always such a long wait — I’ve been waiting for 20 years since 1996 when my boss left Hong Kong,” he says.
In early 2016, Lam’s former boss passed away in Canada, and his family wanted to take back the studio’s premises. Lam negotiated an extension, in exchange for higher rent. “I do not want to insist, but it’s my customers,” Lam smiles. “They gave us three years — hopefully there will be another three after that.”
Despite his outward reluctance, Lam has a sense of mission that keeps him going as a photographer, even to this day. His hope for the future remains modest: “So long as you like the photos . . . [and think] they are better than those taken by digital cameras, that’s all I hope for.”
It’s a simple wish that has led Lam, now sixty-eight, to spend his whole life in the studio. The wait may be long, but Lam Kwok-shing will hold on to the good old days, pushing back tomorrow with patience, resilience, and a Hasselblad film camera.
Video by Still / Loud’s Michael Chiu. Still / Loud’s Wilfred Chan contributed reporting. Editing by Holmes Chan.