Does the city make me lonely? In Hong Kong, this question crosses my mind every day, all the time. I glance at the uniformed students and office workers around me scrolling on their phones while I wait for the bus home. The heat of the street, with all its trash and bodies and noise, both intoxicating and exhausting. Everyone looks tired.
Lately I’ve been thinking about how artists respond to the social and emotional conditions that underpin life in Hong Kong. Beyond reflections created from a vantage point, such as a luminous skyline or a sea of apartment blocks, there is the perspective of someone on the street, in the thick of it. A pedestrian’s gaze, if you will.
This is where Leung Yiu Hong, a photographic artist, educator, and editor, comes in. After spending almost seven years in the US, Hong was especially aware of the distinctiveness of Hong Kong’s social space upon his return in 2010.
“Hong Kong is small,” he muses, “and people are physically close, but we feel lonely.”
Hong began working as a commercial photographer in a production house, but soon he grew weary of producing images meant to “clearly document events and models” and “making everything and everyone look good.” He developed an obsession with all that was unclear, lazy and small. His physical health deteriorated from job-related stress, and he felt emotionally drained. As an antidote to the spectacle he imaged at work, he began shooting moments of stillness in the everyday.
“Mental conditions are connected with physicality,” he notes. “I started to use my ‘unimportant’ photography to reflect on my physical and mental state. [This process] allowed me to understand myself and my photography better.” The quiet images that resulted from this catharsis became his first photobook, I need to be physically healthy because my mind is weak (2013).
Hong’s photobook is a soft and unobtrusive response to the question, “What would I photograph if it was just for me?” In his photographs, we see humid fog across the harbour, and afternoon sun peeking through the strands of his friend’s hair. There’s a lingering sadness in their cool grey tones, as if what’s being captured is already lost to time. In these works, Hong immortalises the respite and solace of interstitial time: lunch break walks, stolen moments and evenings to oneself.
If you want to quit, let’s do it tomorrow (2016), his second photobook, discreetly examines the proximity between strangers in Hong Kong’s density, as well as the layered histories of colonisation and immigration. The book presents what Hong calls “minor moments.” His images betray a close observation of fragility: a tiny plastic bottle floating in Victoria Harbour, a golden ray filtered through thick branches of trees, the dappled light on a bedspread in the early hours of dawn.
Mental conditions are connected with physicality. I started to use my ‘unimportant’ photography to reflect on my physical and mental state.
The dailiness of Hong’s subject matter feels familiar, and yet we see so few images of life as it happens, unfiltered, that his pictures become a revelation. As if to suggest, if you only looked, you would see this too.
There’s one picture towards the end of the book that I keep flipping back to. In the centre of the frame, a downward gazing man wearing a crisp white shirt and dress pants paces mid-step. He is walking along a narrow, tree-lined pavement, with fences on both sides. Behind the trees, there is an empty, pale green basketball court, and even further back, what looks like the air conditioning units of residential flats.
“I came to this bus stop often, and repeatedly encountered this man, always walking in the same direction, at the same time of day, wearing more or less the same clothes,” Hong said. He started to invent little narratives around this man—what, or who, was he thinking about? Where was he going, and where did he come from? Above all, how did he feel?
In a city where many encounters are explicitly transactional, Hong’s photography provides a possibility for recognising the subjectivity and individuality of the people you spend your hours, days and life with. While making light of the absurd narratives we project onto the people around us, Hong also acknowledges the importance of this inner life towards sustaining the sharing of public space. A particular empathy is established through the act of looking while withholding judgement and comparison, the two more immediate responses to seeing others.
Through Hong’s work, photography becomes a means of addressing not only the distance between himself and others, but the way in which city dwellers make appearances in each other’s stories. To be both alone and together.
Editing by Still / Loud’s Karen Cheung. If You Want to Quit, Let’s do it Tomorrow, published by Small Tune Press, is on sale online and at various outlets.