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Chinese photographers on Queen's Road, Hong Kong
John Thomson The Straits of Malacca, Indo-China, and China; or Ten Years' Travels, Adventures and Residence Abroad (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Low & Searle, 1875), p.188-192.
Retracing our steps to Queen's Road, we pause before a display of huge signboards, each one glowing in bold Roman letters with the style and title of some Chinese artist. The first we come to is that of Afong. photographer; to this succeeds Chin-Sing, portrait painter. Then follows Ating; and many others make up the list of the painters and photographers of Hongkong. Afong keeps a Portuguese assistant to wait upon Europeans. He himself is a little, plump, good-natured son of Han, a man of cultivated taste, and imbued with a wonderful appreciation of art. Judging from his portfolios of photographs, he must be an ardent admirer of the beautiful in nature ; for some of his pictures, besides being extremely well executed, are remarkable for their artistic choice of position. In this respect he offers the only exception to all the native photographers I have come across during my travels in China. He shows not a single specimen of his work at his doorway, whereas his neighbour Ating displays a glass case containing a score of the most hideous caricatures of the human face that it is possible for the camera obscura to produce. Ascending a narrow staircase we reach the showroom of this celestial artist; and there, in another case of samples, we find representations of men and women, some looking as if they had been tossed against a wall and caught in a moment of intense excitement and alarm; others with their heads to all appearance spiked on the iron rest; while, as far as the natives were concerned, the majority wore the Buddhistic expression of stolid indifference, and were seated all of them full front, with limbs forming a series of equal angles to the right and left. A Chinaman will not suffer himself if he can avoid it to be posed so as to produce a profile or three-quarter face, his reason being that the portrait must show him to be possessed of two eyes and two ears, and that his round face is perfect as the full moon. The same careful observance of symmetry is carried out in the entire pose of the figure. The face, too, must be as nearly as possible devoid of shadow, or if there be any shadow at all, it must be equal on both sides. Shadow, they say, should not exist; it is an accident of nature ; it does not represent any feature of the face, and therefore should not be pourtrayed; and yet they all of them carry fans in order to secure that very shade, so essential to existence in the South of China, and the element though they fail to recognise it as such to which, in conjunction with light, they are indebted for the visible appearance of all things animate and inanimate which make up the Chinese Empire.
The walls of Ating's studio are adorned with paintings in oil, and at one extremity of the apartment a number of artists are at work producing large coloured pictures from small imperfect photographs. The proprietor has an assistant, whose business it is to scour the ships in port in search of patrons among the foreign crews. Jack, desirous of carrying home a souvenir of his visit to the wonderful land of pigtails and tea, supplies a small photograph of Poll, Dolly, or Susan, and orders a large copy to be executed in oils. The whole is to be finished, framed and delivered within two days, and is not to exceed the contract price of four dollars, or about one pound sterling in our own money. The work in this painting-shop, like many things Chinese, is so divided as to afford the maximum of profit for the minimum of labour. Thus there is one artist who sketches, another who paints the human face, a third who does the hands, and a fourth who fills in the costume and accessories. Polly is placed upon the celestial limner's easel an honour, poor girl, she little dreamt of and is then covered with a glass bearing the lines and squares which solve the problem of proportion in the enlarged work. A strange being the artist looks ; he has just roused himself from a long sleep, and his clothes are redolent of the fumes of opium. He peers through his huge spectacles into poor Polly's eyes, and measures out her fair proportions as he transfers them to his canvas. Then she is passed from hand to hand until, at last, every detail of her features, and dress, has been reproduced on the canvas with a pre-Raphaelite exactitude, and a glow of colour added to the whole which far surpasses nature. But let us examine the finished work. The dress is sky-blue ! flounced with green. Chains of the brightest gold adorn the neck. There are bracelets on the arms, and rings on the fingers gleaming with gems. The hair is pitchy black, the skin pearly white, the cheeks of vermilion, and the lips of carmine. As for the dress, it shows neither spot nor wrinkle, and is as taut, Jack will say, as the carved robes of a figure-head. On a very square table by the side of this brilliant beauty stands a vase, filled with flowers that glow with all the brilliant hues of native art.
Surely all this will please the lover, and indeed it does. John Chinaman, he declares, made more of the lass than even he thought possible, and there is a greater show of colour within the frame than he ever beheld before. He proudly hangs the picture above his bunk; but still, at times, he has his grave misgivings about the small hands and feet, and about the rainbowhued sailor's goddess into which Poll has been transformed.