The Way We Were is a photographic journey down memory lane through the vast collection of work by the iconic Keith Macgregor that throws you back to Hong Kong during its prime: namely the 70s and 80’s. The exhibition bursts with nostalgic street scenes steeped in colonial and local culture, city panoramas and images of life on the sea in full colour and black & white. Importantly, this also marks the first exhibition showing a selection of Macgregor’s latest series titled ‘Neon Fantasies’; a passion project where the artist imagines a reverse reality where the city multiplies in illuminated neon signs. Photographed street scenes are digitally collaged with photographs of the greatest, now mostly lost neon signs creating Blade Runner-esque images that are simultaneously historical and futuristic. In fact Macgregor’s own life story exemplifies the era in question, full of playful ambition, entrepreneurial spirit, chance encounters and good old hard work. The Way We Were expresses a city abound in colour, diversity and optimism, a documentation and flashback to a time where the ‘Hong Kong Dream’ was forged and people went ‘all in’ on the game of life.
Hong Kong was a magic place to find yourself in the 1970s and 1980s; full of all the right ingredients to stimulate the senses and spur the imagination. The ‘Pearl of the Orient’, as it was often referred to at the time, was fertile ground for entrepreneurs, go-getters and adventurers, a place where you could dream big and play till your energy was spent. It was not a place for the faint-hearted. There is no doubt the ‘gung-ho’ attitude was immensely contagious and far reaching to all levels of society. The still colonial city offered the very real possibility for those from humble beginnings to reach incredible levels of success. This unique atmosphere encouraged people to try their hand at new trades or embark on unknown endeavours. From plastic flowers to presiding over a multi-billion dollar business empire... Hong Kong gave birth to stories like the one of Lee Ka-shing and many other rags-to- riches memoirs. At night, neon lit streets had anything and everything on offer from sailors’ drinking holes, mahjong, gambling & massage parlours to high-end gentlemen’s clubs and the most luxurious of hotels.
Landing at Kai Tak Airport was an experience unto itself, the plane would take a sharp twist over the Hong Kong harbour before descending rapidly onto the runway on sea level, coming so close to the buildings that from the plane’s window one could catch glimpses inside people’s homes. Stepping off the plane, the hot and steamy air viscerally attacked you with smells that would come to signify this ‘place’ like no other. You entered a world of cheongsam clad women serenely gliding through the streets during the day alongside rickshaw drivers transporting customers and labouring coolies. The night was ruled by the triads with nothing escaping their watchful eye, including the control of drugs, extortion, gambling and prostitution; during this period gang fights were regular as they battled out their territories.
To escape the restless city, one only had to gaze dreamily at the rust red and patch-worked white sails of seafaring Chinese junks who shared the harbour with freighters, military vessels and an increasing amount of cargo ships. Hong Kong was still under British rule, even though it was soon to come to an end. Right at the very heart of the city, next to the Bank of China and the Hong Kong Club was a very large green field: the Hong Kong Cricket Club. This was next to the tallest building in Asia, Connaught Centre, now better known as Jardine House.
Keith Macgregor, born in Bangalore at the end of the war, was not the first family member to call Asia home. The history of the Macgregors reads like a series of James Clavell novels. His great grandfather, John Macgregor, was one of the first Scottish pioneers to venture out to Shanghai in 1858 when he arrived as a merchant seaman to set up what would become a successful wine and spirits trading business called Caldbeck Macgregor Limited. He was a colourful and well-known character in Shanghai society. He was not only a successful wine merchant but also a devout Scottish Christian thusly nicknamed “The Missionary”, in addition he was also madly keen on horse racing. He built up a stable in Jessfield Park, Shanghai, of over 30 Chinese ponies which he raced and often rode himself under the pseudonym of “Mr. Risk”.
By the time Keith was born, Caldbeck Magregor had expanded to offices all over China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, London and later even Kenya. In Hong Kong the company’s business was run by ‘Uncle Jack’, Keith’s grandfather and then after he retired, by his father Robin Macgregor.
As was customary, Keith was sent to boarding school in the UK and then attended Oxford University. He originally longed to break free of his Asian heritage and as such moved to New York to find his own path. Yet fate had different plans for him and when his father passed away suddenly he returned to Hong Kong in 1969 to handle the family’s affairs and support his grieving Mother. The family business had been sold in 1967 so there was no future there and the prospects of joining one of the small number of British ‘Hongs’ or banks did not attract him in the slightest. As he had learnt the skill of printing photographs while working in New York he decided to try his luck at photography, starting by taking portraits of children and families whilst at the same time photographing Hong Kong and around Asia for personal enjoyment. His photographs of Hong Kong were first made public in the form of a solo exhibition at the Excelsior Hotel in 1974 which resulted in the publishing of his Hong Kong calendars a year later. The great success of these led his friends to persuade him to improve the quality of Hong Kong’s rather poor postcard selection at that time. Thus Keith created his own collection of iconic black bordered postcards which were sent out all over the world in millions and shaped how people abroad viewed Hong Kong during that period. Keith had arrived back in Hong Kong with the simple goal to help his mother, yet in a few years he had established himself as a photographer, publisher, business owner, husband and father.
Those indeed were the days, the Hong Kong in the 70’s and 80’s. A normal day would see Keith out to photograph by 6 am, possibly followed by dim sum breakfast with his assistant, to then start a long working day at his photo studio in Conduit Road, where Nic-Nac, the handicraft and Asian art shop he set up with his wife Lindsay was born. This was then rebranded to a home furnishing business called Banyan Tree and was one of the first furniture and interior stores in Hong Kong, specialising primarily in hand made products from all over Asia. Together they then opened more locations in Harbour City, Prince’s Building and even expanded to London. The company is now under new ownership and known as “Indigo”. After 10 hours shifts in the stores Keith and Lindsay would meet up with their friends at some of Hong Kong’s great local restaurants, often topped up by a night cap at the Captain’s bar in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. After a few hours of sleep he’d start the same madness all over again.
Often Keith was found hanging out of helicopters flying over Victoria Harbour and the Lamma Channel shooting commercial vessels with his Hasselblads for big shipping clients like Maersk and Sealand. During those aerial sessions he was able to shoot wonderful images of China’s last sailing junks that looked like beautiful butterflies plying their way from Amoy to Canton in the South China Sea.
Apart from the postcards he also published many books that were very sought after. “An Eye on Hong Kong”, first published in 1997, sold out 6 full editions. His 2nd book: “Neon City, Hong Kong, at Night ” also sold out and has since became a collector’s item.
Keith explains, “I moved back to London over 26 years ago but I have been returning to Hong Kong often, twice or three times a year, to take photographs of Hong Kong’s ever changing city landscape. Even though over 70 I have not lost the motivation to photograph this exciting city and I hope still to realise my next publication which will be titled: ‘A love affair with Hong Kong. 50 years through the lens of Keith Macgregor.’ as well as a book of my modern Panoramic images. For now I’m just very happy to stage my first solo exhibition in Hong Kong together with Blue Lotus Gallery. It brings back many good memories to me and I hope it does the same for our visitors. “
Keith will return to Hong Kong to make a special appearance at the exhibition and will give talks sharing his personal stories of Hong Kong during its hay-day. Maybe you remember that time and maybe you don’t, nonetheless The Way We Were will throw you back to what now seems a vanished world. The exhibition will showcase a selection of works from Keith’s historical photos as well as his latest project “Neon Fantasies.”
Neon lights are synonymous with Hong Kong where at one time there were over 100,000 neon signs that decorated the city. It would be almost impossible to remove this visual language from how the city is presented in art and culture, photography and films. Neon first became recognised in Hong Kong in 1920 and the first sign appeared in Shanghai in 1926. Flourishing in Shanghai in the 1930s, Hong Kong was, as always, quick to follow the trend opening a neon light factory in 1932. Seen as effective advertisements and signages, first lighting up the streets of Wan Chai (escorting the growing nightclub scene), followed by Nathan Road in Kowloon. Neon signs gain ever greater prominence in Hong Kong in the post World War II era and in the 1950s “neon boom” in Hong Kong. In the Wan Chai District, the neon streetscape of Lockhart Road emerges in sync with the flourishing nightclub business catering to the Marines as US warships made stops in the city during the Korean War. The emergence of more energy-efficient LEDs in the 1990s initiated the decline and by 2003 Hong Kong’s neon manufacturing relocates to mainland China; companies remaining in the city diversify to LEDs and light boxes. Between 2006 to 2012 a number of emergency reports on street signs are received, raising a public safety issue. The Buildings Department removes about 3,000 unauthorised signboards per year. In 2013, Hong Kong’s “Validation Scheme for Unauthorised Signboards” was implemented, furthering the disappearance of neon signs from the city’s streets.
Keith Macgregor’s Neon Fantasies series imagines a Hong Kong landscape where there are no restrictions on neon lights and where signs take over and cover all the darkness of the night. Where more is more and bigger is better - the works show the psyche of the city that never sleeps. Digital collage of photographs is used to present this alternate reality which also represents a new development in the work of the artist who primarily takes landscape and street photography. At the heart of the project is a nostalgic love affair with the disappearing neon lights, a longing for a bygone era before the city started to become “sanitised” and a deep connection to the place Macgregor once called home. "Neon Fantasies" expresses how the artist believes the city should look like today, abound in colour, diversity and optimism.
Keith Macgregor has been photographing Hong Kong for nearly 50 years. He comes. from a family with long term connections to Hong Kong and China, his great grandfather having arrived in Shanghai in the late 1850s where set up Caldbeck Macgregor Ltd, a wine & spirits importing business which eventually opened offices all over Asia, China & Hong Kong (1884).
Keith was educated in England from 1954, finishing up at Oxford University in 1964. In 1970 he returned to Hong Kong to set up as a portrait and later a commercial photographer which led to the creation of his publishing business, Cameraman Limited. The books, calendars and postcards published were very successful. “An Eye on Hong Kong”, first published in 1997, sold out 6 editions. His 2nd book: “Neon City, Hong Kong, at Night ” also sold out and became a collector’s item. A "50th Anniversary of photographing Hong Kong” edition is in the pipeline, as well as a book of his Panoramic images. Despite having lived in London for the past 26 years he returns frequently to take photographs of Hong Kong's ever changing landscape.