A philanthropist and photographer document the disappearing streetscape of the first road laid on Hong Kong Island
Every streetscape tells its own unique story and Hong Kong residents Howard Bilton and William Furniss saw one disappearing before their very eyes as they traveled to and from home each day.
Queen’s Road was the first laid on Hong Kong Island, with work beginning in 1841, and its western section has long reflected the wildly diverse and distinct nature of the city it serves.
But times are rapidly changing and the pair – one philanthropist, one photographer – found themselves watching as time caught up with this stretch of history.
Queen’s Road West, The Vanishing Neighborhood, was released last week and is the result of conversations between the pair on how best they might capture what they saw each day – before it vanishes from sight.
How did the concept behind this book come about – and evolve?
HB: I had long noticed that the traditional shops were disappearing and being replaced by the usual Starbucks or similar, nasty modern developments and some trendy boutiques. I had long thought that it would be a good idea to catalogue these shops photographically and get a short history of the shop and its owners before they disappeared. When the Sammy’s Kitchen sign [a famous neon cow] over the road went my thoughts were clarified and the urgency of doing it now was realised. I couldn’t do it myself, so I rang William Furniss who it seemed had a similar idea in the back of his mind.
WF: The Sammy’s Kitchen cow came down in August last year and it made me mad. No significant other neon signs were in the area and it was an important landmark. I had no concrete plan for a photo project; this was very much Howard’s idea.
What’s your own history with the area depicted?
HB: I have no particular personal history with the area other than the fact that I live in Pokfulam, so I drive from Central back home along Queen’s Road West regularly. From that, it was noticeable that the speed of change was accelerating.
WF: I lived in Kennedy Town and QRW was my journey home every day on the red-striped rollercoaster/minibus.
What was the response of the people that the cameras were pointed at – both to the book and to the changes their neighborhood is undergoing?
HB: Initially the shop owners were suspicious and presumed we were scouting for development sites or otherwise investigating them somehow. They didn’t like it. We produced a flyer in Cantonese explaining what was happening and also took along some pretty lady assistants who could expand upon the flyer somewhat. With one noticeable exception, the shop owners’ suspicions were replaced with enthusiasm.
What impact do you hope this book will have?
HB: We have no greater ambition for the book other than it and all the other information we have gathered will provide an historical record of the traditions in the area. We hope to place the images and information in an archive and are already talking to several Hong Kong institutions about receiving this information, so that it can be preserved professionally. We do not particularly expect the book, prints and other information will change attitudes or halt the progress of the development of the area. We accept that this is inevitable and inexorable. But we do think these images should be preserved so future generations will be able to see how the area once looked before it became “gentrified.”
Proceeds from book sales will go to The Sovereign Art Foundation, a Hong Kong-based charity that runs the Make It Better project, an initiative designed for the children of Hong Kong who live in extreme poverty and isolation. Details via www.sovereignartfoundation.com