Below is a wonderful film providing a tour of colonial Hong Kong in 1938 when the city was still under British colonial rule. It was shot by the filmmaker André de la Varre, and ran in movie theaters after the newsreels and before the main features. He used a small Leica camera, and was completely self-taught, crafting his technique through trial and error as he traveled the world.
What I find most amazing about the film are the images of a much greener Hong Kong which wasn’t nearly so densely built-up as it is today. While the sedan chairs and Chinese-style clothing may have gone many vestiges of the past remain, most noticeably the Supreme Court Building and Peak Tram. The narration provides a quintessentially British commentary on “oriental” life from the perspective of a then confident empire – I’ve transcribed some of my favourite parts below that give a glimpse into what life was like 80 years ago:
On British rule:
The city’s name is Victoria, in honour of England’s great queen. Hong Kong, the name of the island upon which it stands. Under tolerant and wise British rule, with willing oriental assistance, has grown a modern western city in an eastern setting where more than a million contented Chinese dwell in harmony, merging their ancient civilisation, culture, and manors with those of the 20 thousand Europeans who guide or minister to them.
Hong Kong, one of the few free ports in the world, with an always-bountiful supply of cheap, yet highly skilled labour, is to the shopper a paradise of bargains. Not only is the economy a lure, but there is a fascination in rambling through the crowded oriental streets.
The crowded tenements of the colourful Chinese quarters are not the only homes of the Orientals, for some live in costly and magnificent castle-like residences surrounded by all the luxuries of wealth. Others live in smaller villas and roomy flats around the famous happy valley racetrack, reputedly the most beautiful in the east.
On The Peak Tram:
Perhaps the most popular residential sites are those situated on the verdant slopes overlooking the city… To reach the various levels requires but a few minutes by the electric cable tram… The peak cable tram travels to the top station, 1300 feet above sea, in 7 minutes and inhabitants of the colony call this gliding climb a shortcut to fairyland.
On Junk boats:
Junks, scores of junks, picturesque traders of the china seas from time immemorial and perennial homes of countless thousands upon thousands of hardy water folk whose livelihood and heritage is on the seas and rivers they serve. Everyday fleets of picturesque junks find shelter and safety in the friendly harbours of Hong Kong, Britain’s pride of the east and for nearly 100 years the greatest trading centre of, and gateway to, south China.