LEONG KA TAI2013-10-20 10:12:06 N29.917 E122.983, 2013, photograph on matte photo paper, 47.4 × 71 cm. Courtesy the artist. 

Over the Ocean, On the Road

Leong Ka Tai

HKDI Gallery
Hong Kong

Recently celebrating his 70th birthday, the widely respected Hong Kong photographer Leong Ka Tai, locally known as “Uncle Tai,” demonstrated an alternative way to enjoy one’s late 60s. Accompanied by his wife Rebecca Ng, Leong embarked on a five-month-long voyage across the Pacific Ocean to South America in October 2013. Leong’s photographic journal and collaborative work from this trip, “Message in the Bottle,” are showcased in “Over the Ocean, On the Road,” a multimedia exhibition at HKDI Gallery.

With a photographic career that has spanned over 40 years, Leong began as an engineer in England, but quit in the early 1970s to pursue photography in Paris—a career shift he describes as “the best decision” he has made in his life. During the early 1980s, after his focus turned from studio work to documentary photography, Leong traveled extensively in the Asia region, including China and India.

Leong’s photojournalistic works of regional cultures have gone on to be featured in magazines such as National Geographic and The New York Times. His enthusiasm to tour the world has not faded with age, as seen in this show of his recent works where Leong, starting in Hong Kong, made his way across the Pacific Ocean on a container ship for 35 days with his wife, ending in South America, where they stayed for over three months.

Installation view of LEONG KA TAI’s “Over the Ocean,” at HKDI Gallery, Hong Kong, 2016. Courtesy HKDI Gallery. 

“Over the Ocean, On the Road” at HKDI is presented in two sections. The first part, “Over the Ocean,” displays documentation of Leong’s 35 days aboard a cargo ship with 26 crewmembers. Unlike ordinary photo exhibitions, none of the prints are hung on walls; 24 photographs of Leong’s time on the ship are shown individually on podium stands, where each surface moves and tilts horizontally at a different pace. Seen together, the oscillation of the stands create an undulating rhythm, much like an ocean wave. In 2013-10-20 10:12:06 N29.917 E122.983 (2013), the expansive ocean gives way to a capricious sky shielded by a dense layer of clouds. Glimmers of light that skim atop the water’s surface make for a dramatic seascape. Besides documenting nature, Leong also spent time recording the life of his fellow sea travelers. The work titled 2013-10-19 10:18:06 N29.935 E121.869 (2013), for instance, captures crewmembers manning the console panel. The overexposed whiteness of light streaming into the ship’s front windshield evokes imagination of the unforeseen destination.

Displayed on a curved wall nearby is Leong and Ng’s collaborative work “Message in a Bottle” (2013), which comprises 32 different videos that play simultaneously. They invited friends and artists to write letters, which were inserted into bottles that the duo then threw into the sea, one per day during the journey. The process of preparing each bottle—involving the recording of the date, time and location of its release into the sea—were documented in videos, which were shown at HKDI, and copies of the letters are also being exhibited on flip-board stands. Many of the heartwarming letters speak of building up yuan, the eastern concept of natural fate and potential relationships. One of the letters includes a colorful illustration of a flow chart explaining Leong and Ng’s project on one side and an open message written in expressive Chinese calligraphy. The latter reads: “Dear friend, even though you cannot read Chinese . . . I wish you and your descendants the very best.” The work offers insights into how people try to communicate with an unknown receiver, in much of the same way as between artists and the viewer of their work.

Installation view of LEONG KA TAI’s “On the Road,” at HKDI Gallery, Hong Kong, 2016. Courtesy HKDI Gallery. 


LEONG KA TAI2013-12-25  09:15:13 Cusco, Peru, photograph on matte photo paper, 47.4 × 71 cm. Courtesy the artist. 

The second half of the exhibition, “On the Road,” presents photos of Leong’s three-month adventure through South America, which led him to countries such as Columbia, Chile and Ecuador. Propped in the center of the gallery is an array of 23 vertical wooden stands, on which prints are displayed on both sides. Visitors must navigate between the stands to find various scenes, an experience similar to the photographer’s journey of wandering between the unfamiliar streets and villages he photographed in South America. The work 2013-12-25 09:15:13 Cusco, Peru (2013) illustrates the unique traditions of Christmas in South America. Dressed in traditional costumes and floating scarves, masked Peruvian dancers embody the colorful vitality of summer in Cusco, also known as the “Imperial City.” Meanwhile, in 2014-02-02 17:18:22 Trinidad, Cuba (2014), the scene calms down from the festive crowds in Cusco, switching to a quiet village over 500 miles awayThe harmonious contrast between canary yellow colors, the light blue sky and dark silhouettes of children capture the warmth and joy of life’s simplicities. Leong’s keen eye for photography hones in on the intrinsic values of life.

“Over the Ocean, On the Road” is compelling not only for capturing Leong’s incredible voyage around the world, but also for its innovative and interactive layout that pushes the conventions of photographic exhibitions. The multimedia show offers insights into Leong’s life-long fascination with human connection through the camera lens, which also captures the sincerity of its beholder.

“Over the Ocean, On the Road” is on view at HKDI Gallery, Hong Kong, until May 30, 2016.