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Portraits of a City

Adrian Lo (left) and Tian Macleod Ji
Adrian Lo (left) and Tian Macleod Ji with their “Switch On Your Creativity” award at the Milan Expo 2015 for their short documentary on Sun Wah Kee

Produced by filmmakers Adrian Lo and Tian Macleod Ji, documentary film series Portraits of Hong Kong tells stories of life in the city by turning the camera on neighbourhood businesses; from a traditional Cantonese cha chaan teng to a cheongsam tailor, while paying homage to traditional culture.

The short films have attracted local and international attention, including at the Milan Expo 2015, where a profile on the local Cantonese tea house Sun Wah Kee, won the international short film competition “Switch On Your Creativity.”

“The integral message of this project was the sustainability of culture and identity in a setting of urban gentrification, and the aim with Sun Wah Kee was to create a film about sustainability in an urban context,” says Mr Lo.

The Ordinary as Extraordinary

Linva Tailor
Linva Tailor has been making bespoke cheongsams in Central for more than half a century

What makes the two profiled businesses so special isn’t instantly apparent. “Sun Wah Kee is not necessarily a restaurant you notice, and it’s located on Wharf Road in North Point, where there are lots of great places to eat, including a Chiu Chow restaurant mentioned in the Michelin guide,” says Mr Lo. “But it has a really loyal customer base. Chef Wong is part of many people’s everyday lives and that’s why it has survived.”

Meanwhile, Linva Tailor was long on Mr Lo’s radar as he used to work nearby in Central and became friends with the owners, Mr and Mrs Leung. “They're really interesting characters and had plenty of interesting stories to share having lived in Central for half a century. They’re devout Catholics, so as well as making cheongsams, they were trained in Rome to make Catholic robes,” he says.

Sun Wah Kee
Sun Wah Kee is a traditional Cantonese tea house known as cha chaan teng

While the popularity of the cheongsam has waxed and waned in recent years, Linva’s business continues to endure. “There’s a sense of perseverance and duty, both in their work and to their customers,” says Mr Lo.

Following their win in Milan, the filmmakers were commissioned to produce a 10-minute short about Japanese pottery, A Way of Life, by Hong Kong gallery Waka Artisans. “As with Linva and Sun Wah Kee, we tried to stay true to the interviewees – we just pointed the camera at them and let them talk.”

Passion over Profit

Adrian Lo
Portrait of Hong Kong series filmmaker Adrian Lo

More of a passion project than a business, Portraits is currently self-funded. “We’re not immediately concerned about working out how to monetise this, but if we do end up making an income from it, then, great.” The two are now studying funding options for their filmmaking series. “We have to work out how to keep this going,” says Mr Lo.

Helping hands have already been extended by the local community, with Kennedy Town art gallery DreamlikeBubbles providing free space for the launch party. “The owner funded a projector and helped us gather like-minded individuals for the event. We had about 40 people turn up, which was awesome.”

Spreading the Word

The ultimate aim behind Portraits of Hong Kong is to foster a greater sense of community among the city’s residents. “As a filmmaker and musician, I’m creating intangible products. When creating works of art, it’s easy for messages to be lost in an intangible, virtual world. We don’t want that to happen to our documentaries. We hope they can generate some discussion and raise awareness.

Their work has already evoked strong memories among viewers. “On our Facebook page, someone commented that they remember being a trainee tailor in Central and thanked us for sharing the Linva story. Even though that was just one person, that meant a lot to us.”

The films have also encouraged viewers to suggest who the filmmakers should spotlight next. “I love it when people come up to us after they’ve watched our work and say, ‘we know some interesting people you should profile’. It’s great as it shows that we’re engaging people,” he adds.

Capturing Diversity

With two films under their belt, the filmmaking duo plan to release another by the end of the year.

By creating another short film, Mr Lo says it hopes to get its message across to a wider audience. “There are so many different avenues to go down, with Hong Kong being such a vibrant city. We’re sitting on a very unique urban context that allows different cultures to be in one place or area of town. Hong Kong for us is an open and diverse place, and being able to tell these stories and bring them to an international audience is something that we truly appreciate.”

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