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Repeat: 1968/ 2001/ 2006
at 5:51pm on 11th November 2011


“The sudden violence of a Village killin’…” 1 is a slowly sung line from a forgotten Eric Burdon song that jumped into my mind on first viewing John Fung’s photographs.

Those sad tall buildings. Pierced. Problematic. Successfully engineered – as any engineer, I am sure, would proudly, as proudly as any engineer always does, tell you; ignoring all comments about their green impracticality. Sentinel-like and mirrored they reflect little, like a tight-lipped conman caught out.

I imagine John Fung listened to a variety of impressions of America when younger – hey, we all did; the radio played them and the latest records were shared, a cassette made, and tinny tape-decks echoed their voices: Eric Burdon, Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhie, Van Morrison, JJ Cale, Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel, et al.

Our experience of Amerika (as Jerry Rubin would contempt-oraneously write as Burdon sang his own words of tempered homage) was hammered out with faux-understanding through great songs and black and white photographs. Other people’s copy of Life and Wee Gee and Walker Evans and Larry Burrows-in-Vietnam and Diane Arbus and Robert Frank’s Americans; a scratchy mono-chromed landscape of beautiful songs composed of hard words.

Of all the cities in the world, Hong Kong’s buildings - with their height and impositions – reflect the big city myth of America. Manhattan. You want to hit anyone who compares the two, as it is so obvious, but then you would be hitting all day.

Straight up, I want to state another similarity: John’s photographs remind you of planes crashing into towers.

They do, don’t they?

But that’s jumping it a bit. John did time – still does – as a photojournalist 2. He and countless journeymen photographers have explored Hong Kong’s gritty inconsistencies and its photo-juxtapositions. It’s a damn good city to photograph.

It’s been photographed to death, so to speak.

And it was a damn good city in which to have a break if you had just done a stint elsewhere: in China or Cambodia or covered a Philippine diving resort or the latest Thai coup or another incident in the Taiwan Straits or the economic miracle of Japan.

Hong Kong immediately becomes a favourite place. It packs a punch, this place. For the visitor, it is immediately understood: a view from The Peak or a wander around a Mong Kok market or successfully riding the tram from Central to Shau Kei Wan makes you appreciate it. The buzz of the place is addictive. “So much energy – I love it!”, stopover visitors invariably enthuse. They are sucked in by it all. As you quicken your step to a Hong Kong tempo you too become part of the energy.

It’s a cliché but true: every visitor is an extra on this Hong Kong set – and even if it’s a bad movie, you extol the movie precisely because of your slight part in it.

But for many of us who live here the creases in the script are crevices. From afar those tall buildings look wonderfully seductive; the thrusts-up of a castled Shangri-la, say. Hong Kong’s towering downtown appears solid and safe amidst green peaks and – in winter – a rising mist.

But if you live here those buildings are expensive; small, small, small; and the view is only a view into another – wisely, curtained – apartment across a noisy road. That’s the view you get with John Fung.

And ‘haze’, the official term, a euphemism for air pollution. And John knows, as a photographer, that photographs of Hong Kong’s famed skyline can only be taken on a very rare clear day; the photographer waiting weeks for a clear sky. The stuff, the daily pollution, is swept in from belching southern Chinese factories, swept around by a myriad of diesel-fueled vehicles and trapped within Hong Kong’s escarpment of buildings.

The new façade of our movie set. Drunken lopsided buildings and drugged criss-cross lights.

The Tai Ping Shan area of Sheung Wan is similar to many of Hong Kong’s older urban areas, its scattered islands and New Territories’ villages. Low-rise residential apartments - known locally as tong lau – usually five or six storeys high, walk-up, no elevator; simple in design and generally built 30 or 40 years ago. Ownership of these flats is tightly held; traditionally they were of low-value (old, small, no lift, poorer districts and poor people lived there), so it was easier just to keep them one generation to the next. Neighbours know each other well – privy to births, deaths, happy New Year greetings, marriage parties visiting to ‘collect’ a bride, family arguments emanating from open windows and the minutiae of negotiations to pay the monthly communal stairwell electricity bill or the occasional exterior repaint.

On the corner of Pound Lane and Po Hing Fung at the top of a long staircase, one of Sheung Wan’s famed ‘ladder’ streets, 3 is a series of makeshift seats strategically placed by local residents giving a modest resting spot after walking up from the market laden with vegetables. During the day different groups use this nonchalant area – after tai chi in adjacent Blake Park early risers hover around this shady corner and a little later in the early morning, maids, having just dropped their children at the Chinese Mission School, chat together in unusually quiet tones (they must know this spot echoes between the close buildings) before they also head to the market to buy the day’s shopping. In the early evening it is the location for the ‘meeting of the dogs’; taking their dogs for a post-dinner walk owners (or, is it actually orchestrated by the dogs, a people’s meeting?) congregate at this strategic intersection to allow the doggy ritual of sniffs and mutual assessment. And, late at night on the way home, these chairs offer a convenient spot for a last private telephone call before entering the full view of the family.

Hong Kong has many pockets of such places – small locally acknowledged landmarks that no map explicitly labels. It is the discreet and quiet places that, off-camera, John enthuses about.

His photographs however are an angry rage purge; those cocky buildings are ugly and outsized. Smug in their bland tallness with their arrogant schoolboy shouts of “…look! You can’t catch me”.

However, as those buildings hover higher the vertigo of the situation parallels Burdon’s beautifully blunt opening lines of the same song: “And when I got to America, I say it blew my mind….”

Later, after the New York towers crashed and the Americans became enmeshed in their Iraq “quagmire”, and ‘officials’ refused to admit they got it wrong, belligerently; any open-minded person knew, knew from the moment war was declared, knew it was doomed for failure. 4

You know, yes we all know, that Larry Burrows and other photographers and their Vietnam photographs, his death and, indeed, all the deaths, napalmed and agent-oranged of the-whole-damn-war; its aftermath and assessments and, forewarned in that blunt GI acronym - FTW - scratched on toilet cubicle walls, ‘on your helmet, man!’ and any fuckin’ where; all the records, incised and warped by too many playings: Country Joe; Lennon; Baez; The Byrds; and The Animals with their hit Sky Pilot, all warned a generation, generations, earlier with their mournful lyrics. 5

Yes, nothing was learned. Nothin’.

John Fung’s buildings anticipate similar; his timely photographs challenge the arrogant silliness of such height, such inhuman height. Of the stuffy, polluted, noisy valleys they create. Of every aspect of global and other warmings they ignore. Anticipating the time, eventually, when the lights really are out, the elevators dead, a memory; and height is again limited by the physical act of climbing to a height that can only reasonably be climbed.

Get real – that ironic hark-back term of the 1960s – his photographs declare.

Get real.


1. Eric Burdon and The Animals, “New York 1963 – America 1968”, on Everyone of Us, 1968. Repertoire Records, re-released 2004.

2. John Fung, Four Photographers series, Go Books, 2005.

3. ‘Ladder’ streets are so named for being a series of pedestrian staircases running up the steep hillside just below Hong Kong’s Island’s The Peak – too steep for vehicular traffic, they comprise residential areas of low-rise buildings; a quiet oasis just a kilometre from Hong Kong’s Central Business District. These traditionally disparaged areas have now become quite trendy in which to live.

4. Peter J. Boyer, ‘Downfall – How Donald Rumsfeld reformed the Army and lost Iraq’, The New Yorker, 20 November 2006, p. 60.

5. FTW = Fuck the War. A common acronym used during the Vietnam War, poignantly by soldiers in combat.

Originally published in the photographic book “One Square Foot” by John Fung, 2008.

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