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Curatorial Statement — ‘Hitch a Ride on Water: Frank Fischbeck Collection’

A port can change the destiny of an island. 

Victoria Harbour undoubtedly changed the fate of the small island that is Hong Kong. European powers began their overseas explorations during the Age of Exploration in the 15th to 17th centuries, and, as part of their efforts to discover new trading partners and routes, also expanded humanity’s understanding of the world. However, it was not until the 18th and 19th centuries that Hong Kong appeared on Western maps and written records. Among them were “A Chart of the China Sea from the Island of Sanciam to Pedra Branca with the Course of the River Tigris from Canton to Macao” drawn by British Captain Hayter in 1780, which marked the island as “Fan-Chin-Cheo” or “He-ong-Kong”; Captain Mendoza’s 1760 logbook that documented the replenishment operations at Tai Tam Bay at the south of Hong Kong Island; and “This Chart of the Different Passages Leading to Macao Roads” commissioned by the British East India Company and created by Captain Daniel Ross in 1810 that charted the waters near Hong Kong Island for commercial purposes. These records demonstrate that Hong Kong’s prime geographical location as well as its deep waters had attracted Chinese and foreign trading activities long before the city’s opening as a port. Hong Kong––once jokingly described by naturalists and soldiers as a barren rock due to its barren and mountainous landscape, and limited access to water––was ultimately selected by Britain to be a colony and was later strategically developed into a free port. 

Victoria Harbour has since witnessed Hong Kong’s trajectory from being a peripheral island to a central shipping node en route to the world. Frequent port trading activities not only stimulated the city’s infrastructural and urban growth, as well as cultivated Hong Kong’s unique cultural landscape. In June 1997, after eight reclamation projects were carried out in the Victoria Harbour, the Legislative Council at the time passed the Protection of the Harbour Ordinance in order toprotect and preserve the harbour by establishing a presumption against reclamation in the harbour”––a bill that demonstrates Hong Kong’s long-standing appreciation of the Victoria Harbour beyond its economic values. 

As the final chapter of the island series, Hitch a Ride on Water showcases 48 photographs related to the Victoria Harbour from the Frank Fischbeck Collection, which encompasses photography that cover Hong Kong’s history and cultural heritage of the past century. The selected photographs explore the urban landscape and everyday life of Hong Kong as a city born out of its intimate relations with the waters. Passengers onboard this journey can view, from a distance, familiar scenes of fishing village life, harbours that could accommodate various types of vessels to dock, and coastal architecture that no longer exist. These photographs captured the transformation of the Victoria Harbour from diverse perspectives. The exhibition also includes two commissioned videos that document the two ends of the Victoria Harbour as an attempt to fill the archival gap of these spaces often neglected in historical records, and to reexamine Victoria Harbour’s significance to Hong Kong almost two centuries after the city’s opening as a port city. 

The Frank Fischbeck Collection was originally a private collection; approximately one-third of its photographs were taken by Frank who was a photojournalist himself. In the past three years, the University of Hong Kong Libraries, with support from the WYNG Foundation, has digitised the entire photography collection, and continued to study its historical contexts. This exhibition does not aim to trace the historical origins or social contexts of these documents as rare treasures, but rather to reanimate these old photographs through their renewed display, processing, and distribution, and to circulate them once again in people’s everyday lives. Along with the viewers’ intervention, printed photographs have the ability to circulate in different spaces and to inspire conversations on contemporary issues with reference to the memories or values embodied by the photographs, thereby transforming them into living records. An example of this is the Blue Marble––the first image of the full Earth taken from space by astronaut Jack Schmitt in 1972––which stimulated people’s discussions and imaginations of the universe, utopia, and the future since its publication in newspapers.