Colouring a black-and-white world

Colouring a black-and-white world

Today's photography captures the rainbow, but years ago, craftsmen used palettes to work magic


The sequence of photos shows how Tai Hang-shuen, a master hand-colourer for decades, plied his craft.
The sequence of photos shows how Tai Hang-shuen, a master hand-colourer for decades, plied his craft.
Photo: Dickson Lee/SCMP
High-resolution, brilliantly coloured photographs are just a snap away nowadays. But that wasn't the case in the 1950s.

Our parents had to pay HK$5 for a dozen passport pictures at a professional studio, in an era when a bowl of wonton noodles cost HK$1. And the photos were black and white.

That's why, besides a photographer and an assistant, who developed the film in the darkroom, shops employed a third person to hand-colour and edit pictures - like a human version of Photoshop. Tai Hang-shuen, 74, is one of those few surviving experts.

When he was 15, Tai followed in his father's footsteps, working in photographic studios. For 57 years, he laboured in the darkroom, editing imperfections (such as dark circles, moles and pimples) on negatives with a sharpened pencil and gave colour to pictures.

He used a book of 12 dry, pressed watercolours designed for painting the photos. It is as transparent as the traditional version, but waterproof.

Last week he showed Young Post how he worked by using his own black-and-white picture. He first swept some orangey-beige paint across the forehead near the hairline and along the jaw line. He then lightened the colour by giving the tip of the brush a quick lick - at the end of the day his tongue was rainbow-coloured - and worked his pen across the rest of the forehead, cheeks and nose until the face was no longer greyish. If he made a mistake, he corrected it with a damp cotton ball immediately.

He dabbed the lips pink and the hair dark blue. About 30 minutes after he began, the picture resembles one developed in colour.

Tai and his friend's shop served mostly female factory workers who came to have their pictures taken on payday. "It was a luxurious way to pamper themselves in those days," he says. "Sometimes there were lines outside the shop, each girl in her best outfit, coiffed hair and make-up. They wanted to pose like the film stars and singers they saw in magazines."

Most studios in the 1950s were on Shanghai Street, Castle Peak Road and in Wong Tai Sin, according to Simon Go Man-ching, who published a book in 2011 on the subject. Only a handful of those shops remain, all run by people in their 70s or older. "When they [die], the shops will close," Go says. "This trade did not appeal to the next generation."

Tai says he was in the last batch of apprentices. The popularisation of colour photography pushed these traditional studios further towards extinction.

"It's a dying art," he says. "When you have colour photography, who needs to have their pictures painted?"

Even so, there still is cultural interest. Photographer Veron Sung Poh-yi sought out Tai at a traditional art festival in October to learn the craft.

"He is the master as a make-up artist for photographs," Sung says. She adds that, for her, the hardest part is mixing the colours to get the beige just right and defining the light and shadow on the face in the photo.

At her studio in the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre, Sung reinterprets the technique in a contemporary manner by, for example, partially colouring an old Hong Kong street scene so that the shop signs stand out.



To post comments please
register or