Lai Fong and the Afong Studio

Art has always been an important form of human communication, expressed in images and designs that portray the artist’s feelings, emotions, and opinions in regard to various life issues. It has existed for a long time, ever since people started to draw on the cave walls and to design various forms of artwork that represented their culture and their beliefs. This research paper will delve into the early art forms of photography in China, specifically in Hong Kong. It will mainly focus on analyzing the work of Lai Fong, the great Chinese photographer, and on his Afong Studio, with detailed discussion of his works and his contribution to the photography culture in Hong Kong.

Early Chinese Art form Photography

Early Chinese art form photography dates back to the 19th century, with major contributions done by the greatest photographers and artists, such as Felice Beato, John Thompson, and Afong Lai — a Chinese national. The history of photography in China started with the arrival of European photographers at the beginning of the 19th century, in the town of Macao, where many of them chose to set up their photo studios. The art of photography then started to spread among the local communities with astonishing speed, and by the end of the 19th century, every big city in China had studios where the middle-class families could be photographed and have their photos as portraits. A lot of prominent personalities also had their portraits made.

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The stage of early photography in China had a unique cultural heritage aspect, since it depicted traditional Chinese methods and techniques of art that were in use during that particular period in time. Commercial photographers advertised their studios by using photos they had made themselves. Photography was also used for medical purposes, in order to make graphical representations with rather disturbing content, depicting the effects of illnesses on the body (Roberts 399). These photos circulated among all layers of society, including tourists at the souvenir shops. The history of Chinese photography is full of cultural significance, since its content portrays the day to day life of Chinese people.

Early Photography in Hong Kong

The city of Hong Kong in China was perhaps the most artistic one among many other Chinese towns. The island town was created as a British colony in the year 1842, predominantly with British population. By the year 1970, Hong Kong had one of the largest numbers of police officers in the colony. They kept criminal records in form of the photographs that local photographers made under their official work contracts. The system was not only deployed for use in police records, but also for registering sex workers, children, and women who wanted to leave the country as emigrants. These measures were taken in order to reduce the criminal rate, especially in regard to kidnapping and forced prostitution. However, even though such methods of photographic registration were effective, they were also destroying people’s privacy, especially in cases with sex workers who usually preferred to work anonymously in order to keep their reputation untainted.

From 1840, semi-professional commercial photographic studios had started to be established in Hong Kong, but it is not until the arrival of Howard and Weed, a pair of photographers from America, that anything resembling a stable studio was created in town (Roberts 402). Some of the earliest existing studios in Hong Kong include the Ye Chung Studio and the Afong Studio, the latter being founded by the great artist Lai Fong.
History of Lai Fong and the Afong Studio

Lai Fong is considered to be the most successful commercial photographer of the 19th century in China (Elliot 294). He owned The Afong Studio where he created some of his best and most known works. He was very popular among the Western photographers who appreciated his artistry. From the exceptional designs and art forms in his photographs, it can be stated that Lai Fong had good taste and clearly possessed a great admiration for the beauty of nature. His pictures were taken professionally from the creative perspective, considering the artistic positioning and displays of the final art form. Lai Fong’s work spoke for itself and built a good reputation in China — however, very little information is known in regard to Lai Fong’s earlier personal life, except for the fact that his family came to Hong Kong to escape the chaos caused by the Taiping Rebellion.

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Lai Fong’s workplace, the Afong Studio, is believed to have been established in the year 1859, and it is the place
where the great artist created some of his best artwork. He is believed to have previously worked for Jose Joaquim Alves de Silveira at the Hong Kong Studio around 1865, until later on, when he parted ways with his manager in pursuit of a solo career. Lai Fong made albums in which he kept his best works in a series of photographs, comprising more than a hundred images. All of Lai Fong’s work had his signature wordings engraved in them, depicting his studio’s name and its location. His albums were also labeled with the same advertising signature words. In 1870, Lai Fong ran a yearlong advertisement campaign of his points of view of Hong Kong and of treaty ports, such as Swatow and Canton.

Lai Fong’s works were presented in a professional manner, famous for their outstanding accuracy in regard to the smallest details (Lu, Peng & Bruce 489). A simple yet effective example of his attention to details could be found in his printed studio label, which possessed unique cultural designs of Chinese people. It incorporated calligraphy and drawings that used the Chinese architectural art design techniques. However, Lai Fong’s most famous works were portraits that he had made of various people, especially those of prominent personalities like foreign political figures. Lai Fong’s excellent skill set in photography can be also seen in the way he managed to make the portrait of The Dragon Throne of the “Son of Heaven” in Beijing, with impeccable attention to details and good positioning.

Additionally, he had some outdoor scenery photographs, like that of the race courses taken from the nearby Morrison Hill. Many of his portraits that involved people had furniture in the background, usually a well-designed chair which can be assumed to have had a sentimental value to Lai Fong — or it could have been a part of his unique artistry signature. However, my personal favorite portrait by Lai Fong, done in Afong Studio, is the one of a cobbler busy at his workplace, which I think is impressive in regard to the excellent observance of details and a degree of creativity.

At the time when Afong Studio opened, the Hong Kong photography market was saturated and thus possessed the competing Chinese studios, like Ye Chung and Pun Lun. With the creation of Afong Studio, the competition and commercial pressure in the business began to increase. In turn, it created the price wars among many competing parties. Economic depression in China and the high rate of competition were among the major challenges faced by Afong Studio, as it strived to grow and develop its particular brand in the market (Lu, Peng & Bruce 527).

Lai Fong not only promoted his studio by having high-quality work, but also by setting the reasonable pricing patterns, thus adding to his business’s competitiveness in the available market. He also practiced good entrepreneurship by utilizing the untapped market based around the alien immigrants and visitors. Lai Fong did a lot of advertising in local newspapers printed in English, and in 1872, Lai Fong decided to transfer his work to another location, where he could easily establish his professional brand. Consequently, he moved Afong Studio to the nearby street of Wyndham, where he settled.

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Lai Fong photographed many local events and social gatherings, like the devastating typhoon that had hit the island, leaving many people dead and a lot of property destroyed. He captured the events in a collection of views that depicted the effects of the typhoon in a very comprehensive and detailed way, vividly expressing the magnitude of the disaster that had taken place in Hong Kong. From Lai Fong’s portrait photo of an unofficial foreign personality with his studio’s credit at the bottom, it can be clearly seen how much creativity and professionalism he had when it came to photography and other forms of art.

In a short period of time after having changed locations, Lai Fong’s business began to grow and to develop, as it propagated the market to a bigger audience, far beyond the local population of Hong Kong. His works spread across China and across the borders, making him one of the most demanded photographers at the time. At one time Lai Fong traveled to the Formosa location in Taiwan, in an escapade aimed to gain new knowledge and experience in the field of art, specifically in photography. It was reported that Lai Fong returned home with a series of excellent photos, most of them being the residents’ portraits (Elliot 299).

Lai Fong’s skills and creativity were applied in his artistry, where he expressed himself and the desired emotions of his customers through his work. He tried to reassure his customers of quality services provided by his team, consisting of skilled staff, with two people being the American photographers. He also secured photo sessions with some popular personalities for whom he created portraits and other photographic work, thus raising his status and solidifying his reputation as being the best at what he did. Lai Fong used the opportunity provided to him as a stepping stone to reach greater heights. He applied professionalism and high quality of work in order to produce some of the best art in photography that China has ever had (Elliot 304).

Lai Fong’s entrepreneurial intellect enabled him to not only shine in the field of photography, but also in other unrelated business ventures, like buying and reselling of land and investment in other companies (Roberts 416). His prosperity was evident from the number of opportunities that had presented themselves to him. Lai Fong even became a company manager and applied for the British citizenship, which he received from the Governor of Hong Kong, Sir George Bowen, in 1883. The Afong Studio kept changing locations, and it settled at Queen’s Road in 1884, before moving again two years later.

In 1889, Lai Fong’s business experienced a sudden sharp decline, probably since he had tried to expand it too fast without any consideration to the consequences of those actions. He died in 1890, at 51 years, leaving his business significantly disadvantaged and drowning in debts. However, the business was later taken over by Lai Fong’s daughter-in-law who was able to make it profitable again.

The Afong Studio after Lai Fong’s Death

After Lai Fong’s death in 1890, the Afong Studio still operated well for many more years under a different administration, with services similar to those of Lai Fong being provided to the market. His works still sold well, with many of his photos reaching massive audiences around Hong Kong and China. His eldest son, Lai Yuet-Chen, later took over the business and continued his father’s legacy. The Afong Studio offered a print and development service for tourists, enlarging and reproducing paper canvas and offering outdoor scenery photography. Later it received a government contract and started to make passport photos for women and children. The business grew and developed other branches, from which a lot of works were produced, including oil paintings and miniature art forms, offered at good prices. All visitors and tourists to the island of Hong Kong were directed to the Afong Studio, where they had their needs tended to by a team of skilled and dedicated staff who made sure to promote the establishment’s good reputation. However, there were some major competitors of the studio, the biggest one being Mee Chung & Co, where various types of work were also done, with wide recognition in Hong Kong and China. After the death of Lai Fong’s eldest son, who was the current administrator of the establishment, the business continued to function under his wife Cheung Yuen Ming. The Afong Studio is recorded as being the longest running photography establishment in China with a lifetime of over eighty years after being founded (Lu, Peng & Bruce 520).

Other Chinese Studios in Hong Kong

Apart from the great photographer and artist Lai Fong, there existed other famous Chinese artists in the photography business. The Ye Chung Studio was Lai Fong’s main competitor in Hong Kong, with multiple names that referred to the same studio. Another big competitor of the Afong Studio was the Pun Lun Studio which diversified from the Chinese photography method of using portrait orientation to using the landscaping technique. Liang Shitai was also one of the most popular photography artists to emerge from Hong Kong. Hing Qua John & Co and Kai Sack studios were other popular photography establishments in Hong Kong.

Contributions of Lai Fong (Afong Studio) to Chinese Culture and Photography

To me, Lai Fong was the greatest classic photographer that China has ever had. He combined and integrated unique skills and techniques for operating the very competitive market in photography, creating excellent and inspiring works of art. He had good marketing skills with the focus on achievement and customer satisfaction. Afong Studio, before its big downward spiral after Lai Fong’s demise in 1890, had been the most successful photography studio in
China with competitors only hoping to reach such a degree of greatness.

Apart from being a very good entrepreneur and skilled artist, the great photographer Lai Fong was a national treasure to China and an inspiration to many future artists who followed in his footsteps. Up to date, Lai Fong and the popular Afong Studio, named after him, are a source of pride and cultural heritage to Chinese people who consider him a legend in the history of China. Despite the fact that China was colonized by Westerners and was thus limited in terms of expressing its unique culture and traditions, artists like Lai Fong and those who followed his example were able to fight many challenges being an artist and businessperson presented at the time. Lai Fong was able to make a name for himself in the highly competitive market of photography that was occupied even by Western photographers. Lai Fong’s legacy and prosperity were something to be reckoned with in Hong Kong and China. Even in the exterior of China, among the foreigners, the name Lai Fong was held in high respect and had a great reputation among people.

Some of Lai Fong’s artistic works of photography had recorded many popular Chinese events and gatherings and were later used as historical references for study and other educational purposes. His artwork is still available in museums all over China, where many locals and tourists go to learn more about this great artist and his contribution to the rich Chinese culture and heritage. Lai Fong’s artistry laid the groundwork for future artists and photographers in China to build upon his vision and great skills in the field of photography, coming up with other great works of art. In my opinion, if it had not been for Lai Fong’s contribution to the field of photography, many of the modern artists and photographers would not have been as good as they are now, or they would not have even existed in the photography industry.

The Afong studio still exists and is a national symbolic mark of China. It attracts many tourists yearly, those who visit Hong Kong to catch a glimpse of the famous Lai Fong’s place of work. They also go there to learn more about other famous artists and their contribution to China and its culture.

Problems Faced in the Chinese Photography Industry (18th –Early 19th Century)

Lai Fong and other famous Chinese artists might have had prosperous careers of great opportunities, but it did not come easily, especially since Hong Kong at the time was under British rule, which meant that the local talent could not get as much opportunities to shine (Elliot 314). They were curtailed by the colonization of their home and its effects, especially in regard to their culture which was being destroyed by the Westerners. It pushed Lai Fong to apply for a British citizenship, which according to my understanding was a strategy to try and expand his business with the support of the British government. Lai Fong got his wish and was made a British citizen by the Governor of Hong Kong, with accompanied support of the Legislative Council. It allowed Lai Fong to have privileges of a full British citizen, but only within his colony limits. It could be seen as a good bargain for Lai Fong, but from my perspective, it was still a limitation to his great artistry and skill set which he could not share with the world outside of China.

Competition was also a major problem existing in photography and art in general during the 19th century. This is especially true in Hong Kong, where many photographers and artists, like Lai Fong, Ye Chung, and Liang Shitai, were engaged in stiff competition with each other and with many others within and outside Hong Kong. Also, the high level of competition with Western photographers meant that Chinese photographers like Lai Fong had to work extra hard to try and find ways of standing out among many studios and artists in photography business at the time. Legendary and skilled artists, such as Lai Fong, were able to fight their way through the thick competitive photography and be different from the crowd. It gave them an upper hand and the much-desired prosperity as great artists.

Visual culture, particularly photography, was popular, even though earlier in China, such things had been initially viewed with a skeptical mindset. Photography was not well received among Chinese people who at first had superstitious beliefs and misconceptions about the photographs. This was especially true among the village people, most of whom were afraid of a camera. They believed that it could consume the person’s soul by sucking it out when it was used to take photographs. There exist records of a British photographer who mentioned that kids would often see him come to take photos of them and they would try to take away the camera to stop him from taking their souls (Elliot 309).

Conclusion

With many famous and skilled artists and photographers in China in the 18th and early 19th century period, it can be concluded that China had a lot to offer in the field of photography. Legendary photographers like Lai Fong, with his famous Afong Studio, and Ye Chung of the self-titled studio were skilled artists who contributed a lot to the rich heritage and culture of China’s art and photography. The quality of work they produced was the most prominent feature, making them able to clearly portray the Chinese traditions and beliefs while still managing to transverse boundaries and reach out to many more people. In China, photography as an art was used to express feelings, beliefs, and skills of a particular artist. Lai Fong, being the most famous and prosperous of all of China’s early photographers, was able to capture the world around him with its smallest details and finesses. He inspired many other artists to peruse a career in photography field through his impeccable skill set in artistry and his excellent entrepreneurship practices.

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