Tale of two cities

Art & Culture | Crystal Wu 7 May 2021

It may be hard to imagine Hong Kong looking like anything other than the high-rise buildings and modern city we see today.

But the city has gone through significant changes over the past century, as shown by Photographs from the 1950s: Marjorie Doggett's Singapore, Lee Fook Chee's Hong Kong.

The Sino Group, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, is hosting an exhibition that shows both cities' landscapes in the 1950s. It is curated by the Photographic Heritage Foundation, which has published books from both photographers.

"By bringing together the stories of these two photographers, Doggett and Lee - who themselves have very significant life parallels but in fact were very different people through background and life opportunities - we have created a much richer story than if we were looking at simply Doggett or Lee," said Photographic Heritage Foundation founder Edward Stokes.

While the two seem unrelated, there is a poetic link between the two photographers, the cities they were photographing and the city the exhibition is being held in. Lee moved to Hong Kong from Singapore, while Doggett immigrated from England to Singapore in the same year - 1947.

"In fact, Lee particularly was not known in his city until the Photographic Heritage Foundation came along," said Stokes. "Our role is to find photographs and photographers who did very significant work, but in their lifetime were either very little published, or possibly not published at all."

Stokes said that while Doggett's book with the foundation was based on research and investigation, Lee's was "pure chance."

In 2010, Stokes was visiting The Peak and was approached by a man selling his photos. Even though the prints were of poor quality, Stokes bought a few to help the man.

"I forgot about it because the pictures he was selling were very low quality prints, certainly not publishable," Stokes said.

"But what I had forgotten is that you can have great negatives and produce poor prints."

Some time later, Stokes received an e-mail from Lee's niece, inviting him to look at his photos. The two met, and Lee brought his photograph of the Star Ferry, now prominently displayed in the exhibition.

"The moment I saw that, I knew that this man had something special, and within a week I was visiting him in his tiny flat in Tai Wo, where he had one room that he lived in and, amazingly, a dark room."

Sadly, Lee died before Lee Fook Chee's Hong Kong came out in 2015.

The exhibition focuses not just on the pictures, but also the people behind the camera.

Doggett and Lee's cameras and personal photos are also exhibited in the show, alongside panels that tell their life stories.

While both had a great love for photography and took landscapes of their cities as their subjects, Lee's photography was for the purpose of making a living, while Doggett's was out of interest.

Characters of Light was published in 1957 and made Doggett the first female shutterbug to have such a book on Singapore published.

Through the lens of the self-taught Doggett and Lee, the historic buildings and landscapes of the two cities in 1950 are beautifully preserved.

Hong Kong visitors can take a walk down memory lane through familiar locations like Hennessy Road and the Tsim Sha Tsui bus terminus and compare how similar some historical Singapore buildings are to their Hong Kong counterparts.

Photographs from the 1950s: Marjorie Doggett's Singapore, Lee Fook Chee's Hong Kong is on display on the third floor of Sino Plaza, until May 30.

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