Aunt, taken by King's Studio around late fifties.
Some of the photographs my mother left me are over seventy years old. A visual relic I would go over repeatedly to visit bygone eras, especially the early nineteen-fifties. Running through piles of images, some postcard size, others varying but smaller sizes, I was able to walk into fragments of my mother’s life, to connect it with the times. I came across four studio portraits that raised a new train of thoughts. One is a portrait of her sister, my aunt Manah, two black and white photos were gifts from her friends, and in the last picture my mother posed in Cantonese opera costumes.
It was a time before I was born. It was a time when photography was not at all practiced commonly, and too few could afford a camera, a time when photography was regarded as highly professional, a time when studio portraits flourished and many classical Hollywood style portraits were produced.
With instructions from the photographer to cling a little bit to the right, my aunt’s smile was fresh as early Spring. She wore a cheungsam lined with bold embroidery cotton trims . The portrait was not dated. It was taken probably around late fifties. Nicely presented in a fold card, the studio’s name King’s, adorned with a crown, was embossed on the lower right corner of the photograph.
梁素琴 Leung So Kum, Yuet Kong Studio, signed at the back dated 1951.
The beautiful head shot was a gift from Leung So Kum, who rose to become a famous actress active in the 50s and 60s. My mother pursued Cantonese opera as an amateur in her youth. She probably met Leung in the circle of opera singers. Leung gave her this photograph as a gift. An embossed seal on the bottom right hand corner indicated that it was printed by Yuet Kong, the Moon Palace Studio. Leung signed and dated at the back of the photograph November 22, 1951.
The black and white photograph of another famous actress/opera singer Tam Sin Hung, who dressed in Chinese opera costume and held a big ostrich feather fan behind her, was a gift also to my mother. She signed on the front and dated it September 15, 1956. The word Agfabrovira is still visible on the back of the photo paper, a black and white fibre-base paper popular in the 1950s. She remained in touch until my mother died in 2005. Tam was born in 1931 and is still living graciously up to this day.
My mother learned Cantonese opera in her early years. She was passionately in this one-time popular art form and I can still remember her sing. I also remember we owned a book of lyrics from an opera sung by Fong Yim Fun - the Queen of Cantonese opera. It must have been fascinating for her to be staged as a "fa dan" - a female principal role in the Cantonese opera, an image etched on paper in a glamorous look, along side her friends in the acting circle. She went to a photo studio for this shot, fully made up and costumed, a moon fan in her left hand. This photograph was hand-coloured and might be around the late forties. At the back was a chop of Kwong Kwong Studio, which was located on Nathan Road, Kowloon.
In my imagination, she must have lamented that she had never gone professional. A path that she dreamed was cut short by an early arrange marriage. My lament is that I have never asked her too much about her history. My learning of our family’s history was cut short by her death.
Equally sad is stories of the photo studios around that period in Hong Kong were mostly lost. I seem to hear them crying behind the photographs - remember me!
譚倩紅 Tam Sin Hung, studio unknown, signed 1956.
Mother in opera costume, Kwong Kwong Studio, around late 1940s.