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An old photo of King’s Theatre in Central (1940) Photographed by Harrison Forman (1904-1978)
Photograph: Courtesy Old HK in ColourKing’s Theatre in Central (1940) Photographed by Harrison Forman (1904-1978)

Old HK in Colour: recolouring photo project that brings the past to life

Relive the sights of old Hong Kong one recoloured picture at a time

Written by
Time Out Hong Kong
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Monochrome gives photographs a sense of historical distance and evokes nostalgia as it captures a moment in time when colour is not yet available for images. And though it provides the viewer with a sense of contemplation, important details in pictures are often lost in monochrome. Recolouring old photos, and even moving films, brings out more details and makes the objects or subjects come alive. And that is one of the reasons that Old HK in Colour started their recolouring project with resulting pictures published on their Instagram account @oldhkincolour – currently amassing more than 13,000 followers, with new pictures posted daily. "We couldn't find any Instagram pages promoting the culture of old Hong Kong with colourised images/animations and bilingual descriptions," says Old HK in Colour founder Mr Siu, who refuses to disclose his full name. "[So] we tried to establish our own for non-commercial, educational purposes, and it seems that Instagramers from all around the world love what we have done so far," he adds. 

Established at the beginning of 2020, Old HK in Colour was created by an independent team of researchers based in Hong Kong. The group is a non-profit organisation focused on colourising and animating old Hong Kong photographs utilising AI and post-editing methods for public education but not for commercial distribution. The images they have reproduced capture some of Hong Kong's most famous and notable historical gems in a fresh light.  

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This shot of the infamous Kowloon Walled City in the 70s – known as Hong Kong's overcrowded slum – is newly rendered in tones of red, green, and grey

"We believe that the colourised images can provide people with new, primary, and valuable sources to imagine different historical scenarios in old Hong Kong and learn the history of the city innovatively," says Mr Siu. Photos are gathered from friends and supporters, as well as public online databases. The process of colourisation takes around one hour and involves pre-processing to enhance image quality and resolution as well as post-editing and adding colour by drawing upon a wide range of historical sources. 

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Hollywood legend Bruce Lee and his famed teacher, Ip Man, comes alive in this recoloured picture taken in 1958.

"Traditionally, textual resources, such as newspapers and official documents, are major sources for studying history. Some people may find it boring to read and easily lose their interest," he explains, "with the help of visual technology, image restoration, and 3D rendering, recoloured historical photos may be used for subjects tackling the history of Hong Kong." 

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The photojournalism project breathes new life to old Hong Kong architecture as well as seismic political turning points in the city's history.  

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This image depicting celebrations in Hong Kong in the wake of Imperial Japan's surrender in World War II, saturated with a newfound vibrancy, feels like it was just taken yesterday.

Old HK in Colour provides their followers a glimpse of the black and white image before and after recolouring, and also posts a present picture as a comparison. The IG account also states details of the year it was taken and the source of the material. And to encourage engagement from their followers, they post polls and quizzes about Hong Kong's history. "We feel flattered by the support of our followers. Hong Kong has been a world-renowned cultural hub where East meets West, and the colourised photos that we create attract Instagrammers around the world to learn more about the city, and help some of them recall their childhood memories in Hong Kong," explains Mr Siu. 

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Dedicated to the preservation of Hong Kong culture in a time of tumultuous change, the founder of Old HK in Colour plans to keep educating the public via their platform. "We hope to further develop [digital] techniques in the future and generate new educational tools that can be used in other disciplines," shares Mr Siu. In the future, Old HK in Colour aims to launch more research projects that will foster cultural revitalisation and heritage conservation. Currently, the group has a Patreon account (a membership platform that allows creators to get financial support from their patrons) to help fund their efforts. Patrons can get access to high-resolution colourised images only for educational purposes and not for commercial distribution as these images may be subject for copyright from the original photographers. Tiffany Tsoi

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