About scratching, they were never wrong, the old masters

OK, that’s not what W.H. Auden actually wrote, but while I have been enjoying the selections of photographs made by Tom Larkin for our new Instagram feed — @hpcbristol, go on, follow us — Auden’s poem ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ has come to mind more than once. There is often such a lot going on in the photographs, or revealed in the background, especially the recent series of photographs of Hong Kong, and it goes on off to one side ‘Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot’ as the poet put it.

I’ll grant that the context is different, perhaps the note is actually off-kilter, but here are some of the things I have enjoyed noting.

Bank of China and Hongkong & Shanghai Bank buildings, Hong Kong, 1952. HPC ref: BL05-03.

Take this photograph of the two impressive bank buildings in central Hong Kong in 1952. Except it’s not, it’s a photograph of a man taking a photograph of a woman posed in front of a car. Also, it’s a photograph of the fact that someone has hung up washing to dry on the railings in front of them.

Or this shot of a child begging and a woman sewing:

Pavement scene: a seamstress sewing and a toddler begging, Hong Kong. HPC ref: Ed02-086.

It is more a photograph of peeling cigarette advertisements posted on to the walls of the British colony. Then there’s Wyndham Street, c.1924:

Wyndham Street (generally known as Flower Street), Hong Kong. From ‘Picturesque Hong Kong’ by Denis Hazell (Ye Olde Printerie Ltd., Hong Kong, c.1925). HPC ref: Bk09-14.

Here are more cigarettes, and enigmatic posters reading ‘Why Worry’ ‘Why Worry’, and there’s more washing. But there’s also the supremely comfortable man in the sedan chair

and what is this couple looking at? Answers on a postcard please, but don’t worry, don’t worry if you don’t have an answer.

(And before you rush to tell me: ‘Why Worry’, a six-reeler Harold Lloyd comedy — ‘See him fight for girl in danger / Rocks and socks the fresh-faced stranger’). (Which dates our photograph roughly to January 1924). And then, below, there’s my title prompt: more cigarette posters, and a child, with scratching.

Lychee hawker, Hong Kong. HPC ref: Ed02-082.

The streets of Hong Kong, then, packed with life, and even that pompous site of colonial display, garlanded with the statue of a banker (did you spot him?), is claimed for the simple people’s business of laundry. On those streets, against a backdrop of peeling posters, children pop up, irrepressibly.

Boys and rickshaws, Holts Wharf, Hong Kong, 1924-25. Photograph by G. Warren Swire. HPC ref: Sw05-103.

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