Mark Leong is a fifth-generation American-Chinese from Sunnyvale, California. After graduating from Harvard University in 1988, he was awarded a George Peabody Gardner Traveling Fellowship to spend a year taking pictures in his ancestral homeland. In 1992, he again visited China as an artist-in-residence at the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing, sponsored by a fellowship from the Wallace Foundation. In 2003, Leong joined the photo agency, Redux Pictures. His book China Obscura was published in 2004, with a selection of those pictures exhibited in the Open Society Foundations’ Moving Walls 12.
Leong’s photographs have appeared in Fortune, GQ, National Geographic, the New York Times Magazine, New Yorker, Smithsonian, Stern, and Time. His work has been recognized with awards from the National Endowment for the Arts (1992), Fifty Crows (2002), and the Overseas Press Club (2007), among others. In 2010, he was named the Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year for his regional coverage of the Asian wildlife trade. Exhibitions of his work include solo shows at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard University (1991), the San Francisco Arts Commission at City Hall (2007), and the Leica Gallery Frankfurt (2008).
The Hong Kong I first visited in 1989 was the essential gateway into China—a British-controlled laissez-faire playground of lucrative pragmatism that fluidly balanced East and West, ancient and hyper-modern, legitimate and underworld. Upon the 1997 transfer of sovereignty from the United Kingdom to China, Beijing’s assurances that “Hong Kong would remain unchanged for 50 years” promised to showcase its good-faith efforts to foster democracy and rule of law. Some 17 years on, however, the lack of universal suffrage paired with fading relevance compared to booming megapolises like Shanghai and Shenzhen are provoking anxiety that Hong Kong is becoming just another Chinese city.
There might be less concern if this were making everybody rich, but Hong Kong’s growing wealth gap is the widest on the United Nation’s list of most highly developed economies. Property values skyrocket while nearly half the population lives in subsidized housing. Even gangsters complain that the scramble for scraps has displaced the sense of brotherly purpose that once drew them in. A former enforcer for one of Hong Kong’s organized crime gangs, the Sun Yee On triad, told me, “It’s more of a business for profit now.”
Hong Kongers who once looked down on visiting Chinese have become resentfully dependent on their spending. They call them “locusts” for consuming apartments, Gucci handbags, iPads, and even—until restrictions were recently introduced—maternity beds, as mainlanders seeking Hong Kong IDs for their babies crowded local mothers out of hospitals. The territory’s reputation for apolitical materialism has given way to constant angry protests concerning residency, spiritual rights, artistic expression, migrant domestic workers, and especially against a Hong Kong leadership seen as more interested in a self-preserving relationship with property tycoons and the China elite than general welfare and freedoms.
Is Hong Kong’s identity at risk? My pictures—of neon streets and rooftop shanties, of globalized domestic workers and elite financiers, of entrepreneurial sex workers and peddlers at international black markets, of open political expression and ancient Chinese tradition untouched by revolutionary purges—show the mash-up that distinguishes Hong Kong from the mainland. At the same time, I hope my work conveys the mounting imbalance and pressure after nearly two decades of Chinese rule.
—Mark Leong, January 2014