February 21, 2013, by Kathryn Steenson

China’s Photograph Fever

Street View of the Chinese Quarter in Victoria, Hong Kong, about 1860. Photo 15.

In recent years, there has been a surge of interest in exploring China’s history. During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, the Red Army obliterated much of the country’s heritage, including photographs. Keeping archives was a subversive act; it became dangerous even for people to be caught with their own family albums. Huge quantities of irreplaceable images were deliberately destroyed.

Very little survives today, and much of it is outside China. Many of the photos were taken by foreigners who lived and worked in China, and who took their albums home with them when they left.  Such is the case with our photographs of China in the Newcastle Collection.

Henry Pelham-Clinton, 5th Duke of Newcastle-under-Lyne, served as Secretary of State for the Colonies between 1859 and 1864, including the then-British colony of Hong Kong, China. Hong Kong was under British control from 1841 to 1997, with a brief interruption during WWII. Its location and deep natural harbour made it desirable as a trading post.

Among the Dukes of Newcastles’ political papers is a small photograph album entitled ‘Views in Hong Kong’.  The volume (Ne C 11121/1) containing 19, slightly faded, black and white photographs of bustling city life is undated, but other documents kept with it indicate a date of around 1860. The examples here are typical of the style and subject matter. All but one are landscapes and street scenes in and around Victoria.  The most frequently featured places are Victoria Harbour, various Government and military premises, Queens Road, and the Chinese Quarter. A smaller album (Ne C 11122) entitled ‘Views of Canton’ (Guangzhou) from around the same time has not been digitised but is available for consultation in Manuscripts and Special Collections.

View of Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong, around 1860, taken from the upper balcony of Government House. Photo 4.

Since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, the Chinese government has sought to educate people about their country’s history. The heritage sector, especially museums, attracts enormous interest within China. Outside China, too, there has been a major increase in interest in China, with increasing trade links, a rise in the number of British schools teaching Mandarin and the opening of the University of Nottingham’s Ningbo Campus in 2004.

More photos from the ‘Views in Hong Kong’ album are available from our Historic Collections Online gallery. The Duke of Newcastle’s Colonial Office correspondence relating to Hong Kong and China can be found in our online catalogue. All items can be viewed in the Manuscripts & Special Collections Reading Room.

Posted in DigitisationFrom the collections