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By Elaine Dunn, April 2021

For this writer, memories of growing up in Hong Kong in the ‘60s consist of much fun, freedom and feckless activities.  This was a decade when Hong Kong grew in wealth and population at an unprecedented rate.  Still, back then, probably most HK citizens knew things would be quite different when the territorial lease from China is up and the British colony goes back to China. 

1997 was a date every kid learned about from their history and economics classes.  1997 was a year that most Hong Kong people dreaded for decades leading up to it,

To those unfamiliar with Hong Kong, here’s a short history lesson:

·         1839: Britain occupied Hong Kong during the First Opium War (1839-1842), then a sparsely inhabited fishing village

·         1841: defeated in the Opium War, China ceded Hong Kong Island to the British

·         1842: the Treaty of Nanking formally ended the First Opium War

·         At the end of the Second Opium War (1856-1860), China was forced to cede Kowloon Peninsula and neighboring islands to the British

·         1898: under the Second Convention of Peking, Britain asked for and was granted an additional 99-year lease to Hong Kong

·         1984: British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher signed an agreement on date and terms of Britain’s handover of the colony to China.  Hong Kong’s fate was sealed.

Hong Kong is a city rich with history.  Within a span of 100 years, it rose from a humble fishing village to a thriving metropolis and, for many decades, the window into communist China. 

Under British rule, laissez faire nourished the entrepreneurial spirit of the Chinese who escaped the mainland.  The British colony flourished as the commercial gateway from the West into the East.  It became the financial hub of Asia and was the exotic travel destination for many.  Travel posters were commissioned by the Hong Kong Tourism Association.  Airlines such as BOAC, Cathay Pacific, Qantas and TWA overprinted their slogans on the posters to attract the well-heeled travelers. 

One artist noted for this type of posters is the Chinese American watercolourist Dong Kingman. (曾景文, 1911-2000).  Hong Kong Baptist University art historian James Ellis said Kingman’s posters “exhibited interesting and sophisticated blends of Eastern ink painting techniques and Western watercolour techniques.”

Kingman, second of eight kids, was born in Oakland, California, to Hong Kong immigrants.  When World War I broke out, the family moved back to Hong Kong where the young Kingman discovered art.  His mother recognized his interest and encouraged him to practice drawing and painting. The teenage Kingman studied painting at the Lingnan Academy under well-known, Paris-trained Chinese painter Szeto Wai, (司徒惠; 1913-1991).  At Lingnan, Kingman studied traditional Chinese art, but became increasingly interested in Western artists such as Monet and Renoir and their use of light in their works.

By the time he was 18, he moved back to California, working in factories and restaurants while pursuing his love of art.  He began submitting his work to art shows and, in 1936, was hired by the federal government for the Works Progress Administration.  It was also that year that he held his first solo art show at the San Francisco Art Center.  His work was well-received and his name began to catch on in the art world.  He was hired on to teach art at the Academy of Advertising Art in San Francisco.

In 1940, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City purchased one of his pieces, “A Morning Picture” – the first piece of Asian American art to be displayed there.  Under the U.S. State Department’s education exchange program, Kingman went on a tour of Asia in 1953.  He painted scenes he saw, which were described by the New York Times as, “cheery, gently humorous” and were exhibited throughout the U.S.

Kingman was the first American artist to be accorded a one-man show in China since diplomatic relations between the two countries resumed.  In 1981, the Ministry of Culture of the People's Republic of China exhibited 103 of Kingman's work in Beijing so that the Chinese might be exposed to his work, which they deemed worthy. More than 5,000 people attended on opening day. In 1994, an exhibit titled "40 Years of Watercolors by Dong Kingman" was put together in Taiwan by the Taipei Fine Arts Museum.  His paintings are in approximately 60 public and private collections worldwide, including Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Brooklyn Museum; deYoung Museum, San Francisco; and Art Institute, Chicago.

There are vintage Hong Kong travel poster collections at both the University of Hong Kong and, also, at the Hong Kong Baptist University.  The HKU collection includes 500 items donated by the Hong Kong Tourism Board and includes many photographic posters from the 1980s and 1990s.  HKBU’s collection focuses on older illustrated works and includes a large number of Kingman’s posters that were acquired from a private collector who returned to the UK in 2016.

Many of these travel poster images will probably be interpreted as “condescending” portrayals of the locals by today’s politically correct zealots. But they represent a quaint way of life of a bygone era.

So, when this writer is feeling nostalgic about a Hong Kong that is no more, it is these four Kingman posters commissioned by the Hong Kong Tourist Association in 1961 that bring back happy memories.  They captured images of the city’s heritage and landmarks from a happy childhood.

 

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Ladder Street: The first of four posters commissioned by the Hong Kong Tourist Association.

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The Orient is Hong Kong: the scene looks toward Hong Kong island from Kowloon, includes the iconic clock tower at the railway station. Kingman's distinctive style comes through strongly in this poster.

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The Noon Day Gun in Hong Kong: one of Hong Kong’s oldest colonial symbols - the firing of the Noon Day Gun in Causeway Bay - is a tradition carried out at Jardine Matheson at noon daily.

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Moon Festival in Hong Kong: The vivid festive lanterns, neon signs and playful celebrants give the poster a “whimsical” quality. 

 

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