Mr. Chan Kwan Quan kept saying that it is easy to remember the opening date of his photographic studio “Mei Wa Zi”. It is because one famous Hong Kong actress, Linda Lin Dai committed suicide on the same day (July 17, 1964). After 52 years, although Hong Kong has changed a lot, Mr. Chan still insists on keeping the traditional way of operating his business. He has never changed the shop appearance, still uses the film camera and the old background flats which he has been there for over 50 years. When I entered his studio, I thought I had travelled through time and made a visit to the 1960s Hong Kong.
Before Mr. Chan opened this studio, he was originally working with his father as an electrical and plumbing engineer. At that time, their business was quite successful. They had many loyal customers, including several Cantonese opera troupes (Outdoor performance needed temporary electricity). Logically, Mr. Chan shouldn’t have had anything to do with photography. However, when one day his father gave him some film rolls and encouraged him to try photography, this changed his whole life. He found out that he had great interest in taking photos (film only). Therefore, he finally decided to become a full-time photographer.
Each photo has its own story. After all these years, Mr. Chan still remembers most of the stories behind the photos. When he took out some old photos and used them as examples to teach me the right way of taking a good photo, he told me that: “When this girl first came to my studio, she was very nervous. Therefore, her smile was very strained. I then tried my best to help her relax slowly […] She found me again when she graduated from university. Due to the past experience, this time she performed much better […] On the other hand, her sister was easier to deal with.” It was really not difficult to feel Mr. Chan’s passion towards photography while listening to his story.
Actually, there are still many photography studios in Hong Kong. Modern studios have moved their shops from the street to industrial buildings in order to enjoy cheaper rent. Their cameras and equipment have also changed into more digitised and more advanced devices. However, until now, Mr. Chan insists on using the analogue camera as before, which has higher costs and is more difficult to handle. The reasons behind are not only because of the quality of the photos, but also because of the process that carries a deeper meaning. Since the cost of one film roll is at least HK$60, it is hard for Mr. Chan to charge the customers a lower price. Therefore, every time before he presses the shutter, Mr. Chan needs to think carefully and be well-prepared: “Sometimes, I need to talk to them and make them feel relaxed […] Sometimes, when there is a baby, we need to wait for half an hour or even more until he/she wakes up […] When I am going to shoot the photo, I need to consider which method is the best. Should I shoot from 1 to 3? Or should I lower the curtain? Or should I suddenly press the shutter so that I capture that beautiful moment? We need to know that we cannot preview the film photo before it is developed, so every chance is precious. That’s why I need to use at least 2 hours to finish a job.” This is also the most significant difference between digital and analogue photography. Mr. Chan remembers when the HKTVB (TV broadcasting station) came to his shop and did some photo shooting, the TVB photographer who used a digital camera just kept pressing the shutter. He understands that digital camera is more advanced and more convenient, but all the photos just look very similar to each other and lack character. It is because people don’t need to think twice when shooting, without the limitation of the film roll. They are just seeking satisfactory quality out of large quantities, but not pursuing perfection.
“If I did not own this shop (no need to pay rent), this business would have closed down years ago (due to the high cost).”
Of course, 52 years ago people did not have smartphones or digital cameras. Therefore, if they wanted to a take photo (especially a family photo), and since buying a film camera was very expensive, they would go to the studio and find Mr. Chan. Having encountered many customers in the last 52 years, Mr. Chan has many funny moments to share with us for sure. “In the past, taking a photo in a photography studio was quite expensive and not everybody could afford it. Therefore, if you were able to go to a studio, others would think that you were wealthy. One day, a male customer brought some friends to my studio and said that he would pay for his friends. After finishing the photo shooting, he paid HK$10 (HK$50 was the full payment, which was considered very expensive at the time) as deposit and claimed that he would pay the rest when he came to pick up the photo. In the end, he never came back to my studio. This man had just come to show off in front of his friends.”
Mr. Chan shared another interesting story about how he prepares for his shooting. Besides considering the lighting and the background, Mr. Chan would also take the customers’ “Min Seong”(Chinese traditional study of “reading people by observing their faces”) under consideration. Once, Mr. Chan’s old friend brought his daughter to visit him and take a few photos. The girl’s face was diamond-shaped and in Mr. Chan’s opinion her hair style on that day did not match her face. “According to “Min Seong”, diamond-shaped faces are not very good, especially for girls. They have a bigger cheekbone, which means that they might gain more power in life but are quite rude at the same time. Due to the big cheekbone, their Nasolabial Folds become more obvious and this makes them appear serious and angry. On the other hand, their chins are slimmer than others, which means that they are more sarcastic. Therefore, since that girl’s hair was very long and thick, her image had become more aggressive […] So, I asked her to have a haircut and come back another time.” said Mr. Chan.