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6 Aug 2019 / by Ellen Oredsson

From the Collections: ‘Two Women (Gloucester Road, 1961)’ by Yau Leung

Monochrome photograph of two women dressed in cheongsams and high heels walking next to each other down a street. We view them from behind. Pillars with Chinese lettering line the street on their left, and shop fronts are seen on their right. A small group of men are gathered further down the street.

Yau Leung. Two Women (Gloucester Road, 1961), 1961. Gelatin silver print. M+, Hong Kong. © Photo Pictorial Publishers Ltd.

Two Women (Gloucester Road, 1961) (1961) by Yau Leung is in the M+ Collections, but what is it, who made it, and why did M+ acquire it?

What is this?

This is a photograph from Hong Kong photographer Yau Leung (1941–1997). He is best known for his pioneering photographs of Hong Kong street life.

The work depicts two women dressed in cheongsams walking down Gloucester Road in the early 1960s. Using a simple yet effective composition, it neatly frames the women with street pillars and shops on either side. Like many of Yau’s photos, it captures an everyday, authentic interaction between Hongkongers in the course of their daily lives. Their dressed-up appearance, however, also imbues the image with old-school glamour. Viewing the women from behind, invited to follow but unable to see the their expressions, we wonder who they are and where they are going.

Two Women (Gloucester Road, 1961) was published in Photo Pictorial, a Hong Kong photography magazine. The magazine was founded in 1964 and ran for almost forty-one years until closing in 2005. It was founded by publisher Li Qing and photographers Tchan Fou-Li and Mak Fung. The magazine was initially created as a channel for the outer world to get to know more about China.

Who is the artist?

A man in a white sailor outfit sits in a rickshaw pulled by a man with bare feet. Another man in a sailor outfit stands on the sidewalk and takes a photo of the rickshaw, which is standing still as he takes it. Two fallen wooden signs saying ‘Danger’ lie on the sidewalk, and written graffiti covers the wall in the background.

Yau Leung. Sailors on Shore Leave, Lockhart Road, Wan Chai, 1966. Black and white print. M+, Hong Kong. © Photo Pictorial Publishers Ltd.

Yau Leung was a Hong Kong photographer best known for his practice of Hong Kong street photography.

As a student in his early twenties, Yau was attracted to photography and attended salon events—exhibitions for photography competitions—to meet practitioners and study their works. He started his career in the 1960s, the golden era of salon photography in Hong Kong. Salon photographs, which were entered into the salon exhibitions, were mainly staged still lifes and portraits with a focus on poetic qualities and beauty of form, rather than reflecting the beauty of real life. At the time, most photographs showcasing daily life were journalistic rather than artistic. There were very few photographers who, like Yau, captured street scenes with significant aesthetic elements.

Monochrome photograph of a news stand. The right half shows the rear view of a person seated on a stool with their head lying on the counter. A low stand next to them displays magazines. Notices on horse and dog racing fill the upper left wall.

Yau Leung. Dog and Horse Races, 1968. Gelatin silver print. M+, Hong Kong. © Photo Pictorial Publishers Ltd.

While working for Cathay Organisation, an entertainment company, Yau accompanied the crew on film shoots all over Hong Kong. This gave him further opportunities to observe the daily lives of people in the rapidly changing colonial Hong Kong, bringing a handy Rolleiflex 6x6 camera with him to capture them. He documented the city’s inhabitants with a sense of authenticity and presence, and his black-and-white street photography works evoke a sense of nostalgia for a past era.

Monochrome photograph showing a three-quarter rear view of a figure crossing a road. The figure carries a shoulder pole with a tin container attached to each end, holding the handle of one tin can filled with water with the right hand. A blurry car is seen in the upper left.

Yau Leung. Water Finding, 1963. Black and white print. M+, Hong Kong. © Photo Pictorial Publishers Ltd.

Yau worked for several organisations and publications throughout his career. From 1965 to 1970, he was a photographer at Cathay Organisation (Hong Kong studio). In 1971, he was a unit still photographer for Shaw Brothers Studio, the largest film production company in Hong Kong, creating glamorous portraits of film stars for use in marketing. He founded the monthly magazine Photography Life in 1973, and, in 1980, he became editor-in-chief of the magazine Photo Art.

Why is this in the M+ Collections?

Monochrome photograph of a woman speaking on a telephone. She grasps the wire and receiver with both hands and has a small smile on her face. She takes up only the bottom right corner of the photograph, with the majority of the space taken up by the black wall next to her, which is covered in monochrome celebrity portrait photographs.

Yau Leung. Film Buff, 1968. Gelatin silver print. M+, Hong Kong. © Photo Pictorial Publishers Ltd.

Yau Leung is one of Hong Kong’s most significant documentary photographers. He was known as the ‘Bresson of Hong Kong’; as in Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908–2004), a French photographer who is considered a pioneer of the street photography genre. Bresson developed a concept that can be found in Yau’s works: the ‘decisive moment’, of waiting for the perfect moment to click the camera shutter. There were very few photographers in this genre working in Hong Kong in the 1960s. There was also no significant photography market at the time, so few photographs from the era remain. Collecting and researching the ones that do is an essential task for cultural institutions.

Monochrome photograph of a misty street with the side view of a woman squatting in the foreground with buckets around, her head turned towards a topless man and a child running behind in the middle ground. A group of people are further behind. Clothes hang from poles at the top.

Yau Leung. House in the Alley, 1960. Black and white print. M+, Hong Kong. © Photo Pictorial Publishers Ltd.

Many artists and makers were influenced by Yau's photographs, such as film director Wong Kar-wai and cinematographer Christopher Doyle (see Maggie Cheung’s cheongsams in In the Mood for Love) and artist collaborative Leung Chi Wo + Sara Wong (see US Navy Man Shooting With His Camera from the He Was Lost Yesterday And We Found Him Today series). Yau’s works span multiple disciplines—Hong Kong visual culture, moving image, and visual art—making them important pieces in the M+ Collections.

Monochrome photograph of a person in biking through heavy rainfall on a Hong Kong street. The person wears a raincoat and wide brimmed hat. A pedestrian with an umbrella runs across the street in the background.

Yau Leung. Downpour on Pedder Street, circa 1969. Gelatin silver print. M+, Hong Kong. © Photo Pictorial Publishers Ltd.

Yau’s photographs of Hong Kong’s street life provide a rare window into the city’s past, showing us what it used to look like and how it developed over time. They present this glimpse from a particularly crucial yet underrepresented point of view: everyday people and their lives in the city’s public spaces. It allows viewers to revisit Hong Kong, whatever their relationship to it, with a historical perspective in mind.

This article was originally published on M+ Stories.

Ellen Oredsson is Editor, Web Content at M+.

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