AFONG Lai, Western man in Hong Kong in Chinese costume Enlarge 1 /4
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China 1837 /1841 – British Hong Kong 1890

Western man in Hong Kong in Chinese costume [Western man in Chinese costume in Hong Kong studio] c.1885 Place made: Hong Kong
Creation Notes: see inscriptions
Materials & Technique: photographs, albumen silver photograph cabinet card Support: in original red lacquer frame

Dimensions: image 14.6 h x 9.5 w cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 2006
Accession No: NGA 2006.747

It is not known how Chinese photographer Lai Afong learned the wet-plate process in the 1860s, but by 1870 he had opened his own studio in Hong Kong under the familiar name Afong and was marketing beautiful views of the region. His studio was one of those favoured by local British vice-regal patrons and affluent travellers. The Scottish photographer John Thomson, who worked in Hong Kong in the 1860s, praised Afong for his artistry in landscape work and as a man of cultivated taste, imbued with a wonderful appreciation of art. In the 1870s the studio had secured patronage from the governor of Hong Kong and visiting royals. Ownership of the Afong studio passed to his son in the 1890s.

The Afong studio was very active in the 1880s and 90s, with stylish portraiture as well as elaborate tableaux of ‘types’ for the tourist trade, such as extravagantly dressed beauties, opium smokers and gamblers. Authenticity mattered little; subjects were often studio assistants using a stock studio wardrobe.

While Asian clients liked to have their portraits taken in partial western dress or with a few symbolic props like bowler hats, umbrellas and watches, Westerners often had themselves photographed in Chinese dress complete with opium pipe. The same man seen here had himself photographed in Yokohama by the Kimbei studio wearing a kimono and holding an umbrella. Dressing up for the camera was more than just a bit of fun; it allowed people of all races and gender to explore new identities though portraiture.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2014
From: Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2014