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14 July 1936 | Willy Ronis

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One million people marched in Paris on July 14 1936, to celebrate the Bastille holiday and celebrate the victory of Front Populaire in the general election months earlier. Willy Ronis (who took the photo above) called that “It was a party like it had never known before”; soon-to-be a famed photographer, Ronis was just 26 and the above photo was one of his first photos to be sold to a Parisian newspaper.

The photo became the symbol of Front Populaire in that summer of great hopes for social change. The Front, a coalition of Communists, trade unionists, and socialists had won the general election in May and the Socialist leader Léon Blum became the first Socialist — and the first Jewish — Prime Minister of France. He formed a government which included three women ministers at a time when women hadn’t yet gained suffrage. (Women’s suffrage was granted in France only in 1944).

With vigor, Blum’s government set about reforming the French state — many of the measures, good or ill, that we associate today with France where first implemented during his short premiership. He granted the right to strike and collective bargaining, two weeks of paid annual leave (which led to a boom in tourism), and reduced the working week to 40 hours. It was to begin a series of economic intervention that set precedents for the Vichy and postwar governments to consolidate France into a statist nation.

Blum himself was forced out of office in June 1937, as his government divided itself over whether to choose a side in Spanish Civil War.  Blum was briefly Prime Minister again twice (for four weeks in 1938 and five weeks in 1946), but his legacy was made during his first ministry. Despite its bravura reforms and widespread popular support, the Popular Front is now judged as inadequate leaders while Europe darkened into war: “Disappointment and failure,” says Julian Jackson in his seminal Popular Front in France: Defending Democracy 1934–1938.

Centre-left Le Nouvel Observateur was a little more enthusiastic: in 2006, for 70th anniversary of the Popular Front, it called Blum’s first months in office, 100 Days That Changed Our Life.  On the cover of that issue was Ronis’ photo taken on that Bastille Day brimming with expectations and excitements.


Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

November 12, 2015 at 7:05 am

Kim Il Sung

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In recent history, Kim Il Sung holds an unique position; dead since 1994, he remains North Korea’s official leader — an Eternal President, embalmed and ennobled in a massive mausoleum in Pyongyang. His son and his grandson who dynastically succeeded him are merely de facto heads of the country that he had led to ruination and that he remains constitutionally the de jure president.

In 1950, when his ruinous rule began North Korea’s GDP per capita was $650, compared to South Korea’s GDP per capita at $870. At his dead, North Korea’s GDP per capita was just slightly over quarter of the South’s, at $2500 compared to $9,000 per capita. [In 2014, it is one-twentieth the size of the South’s GDP per capita]. See here.

As his Stalinist experiment with Communism failed, he refashioned it into a weird mixture of politics, religion, and eugenics; the ideology — later a cult — was called Juche (and alternatively in that eponymous fashion beloved by despots, Kimilsungism), which his son and grandson further aggrandized. In this system, Kim Il-Sung was the father of the nation, his birthday a national holiday, and his name sacrosanct (it must not be split into two parts by a page break or a line break). A massive highway was built to his birthplace, which was declared a national shrine. The Gregorian calendar was replaced by a Juche calendar, where the birth of Kim Il-sung was year 1; songs were written about 10,000 battles he fought (4,000 during one particularly busy year — one every 2h10m I guess) and won.

Inconveniently for the divine narrative, Kim developed a calcium deposit on his neck in the late 1970s. Its closeness to the brain and spinal cord made it inoperable. Juche ideology scoffs at physical disability and this growth was an embarrassment. North Korean photographers were forbidden from taking photos of Kim which showed the growth. Kim was depicted from his left side to hide the growth from official photographs and newsreels (in his official portrait, he cranes his neck to the right as if to hide it). As the growth reached the size of a baseball by the late 1980s, it got increasingly difficult to hide, and photos were doctored to airbrush it out. [It got to ludicrous degree when Jimmy Carter visited; western news agencies received doctored photos from Korea News Agency.]

By the time Carter was in Pyongyang, Kim’s rule has been thoroughly discredited. Even as he clung to power as Communism imploded elsewhere — in Eastern Europe, in Mongolia, and in the Soviet Union — and as China embraced market economy, he was a lone anachronism from a bygone age. Subsidies from fellow travelling nations stopped, and his isolation was clear when soon-to-be-former-Communist countries ignored his tantrums to participate in the 1988 Olympic Games in South Korea. By 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev was paying a state visit to South Korea.

Yet his thuggish regime limped on, under a potent mixture of propaganda, cultist control, and downright repression, to become a nuclear power. A suitably noxious legacy for a man who nearly got two American presidents to drop atom bombs on him.

[Above it one of the few photos where the lump was in display. Most North Koreans living today (and many outside Korea too) probably didn’t even know about this. Astonishing if you think about it: Kim died only 21 years ago.]

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

November 6, 2015 at 10:07 am

Posted in Politics, Society

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Murder of a Reporter | Jose Luis Cabezas

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On February 16, 1996, Cristina Cabezas posed for her husband on the beach in Pinamar. Her husband, Jose Luis, pretended to take photos, but the subjects were not his wife nor his daughter. Pinamar is an exclusive beach resort the Argentina’s Atlantic coast, visited by influential people, and also on the beach was the tycoon Alfredo Yabrán and his wife.

Reclusive Yabrán had been in news for six months. It began when Minister of Economy Domingo Cavallo accused Yabrán of being “head of a mafia entrenched in power.” Embattled Cavollo, who was about to be scapegoated for his ambitious reforms which had soured due to the Mexican financial crisis, blamed the then President of Argentina, Carlos Menem and cronyistic cadre of corrupt businessmen who surrounded Menem, of whom Yabrán was the most prominent.

Up to this point, Yabrán had been linked to only a handful of small companies, but Cavallo accused him of owning, through proxies, other major economic entities, including postal, printing, logistics, and security concerns. This network, Cavallo revealed, was used to traffic drugs and weapons.

The press did not have any pictures of Yabrán and struggled to get any: “My picture to me is like shooting myself in the forehead,” he once told an interviewer. “Not even the intelligence services have a picture of me,” he boasted. In his rare interviews, he demanded that the journalist be not accompanied by a photographer.

José Luis Cabezas got the photo, but it cost him his life. The photo was published on the cover of the magazine Noticias on March 3rd. Noticias was known for its exposes on corrupt politicians and businesses, and his appearance on the cover did not please Yabrán. Within a year, Cabezas was kidnapped, tortured, and killed with two shots to the head. The body was placed inside a vehicle rented by Noticias, and burned.

The scandal and gruesome murder that ensued led to series of events which doomed many of its participants. Menem forced Cavallo to resign; Cavallo was later briefly jailed on trumped-up charges of weapon trafficking. Menem’s attempt to run for a third term was ruled to be unconstitutional, and his party was thrown out of the office. After Cabezas’ murder, publicity forced Yabrán to come out of his reclusive lifestyle and face public scrutiny.  Under a judicial investigation, Yabrán committed suicide on 20 May 1998.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

November 4, 2015 at 6:23 am

The Man in the the Hathaway Shirt

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mas1851 hathaway-shirt

During a late night movie recently, I told a couple of friends that Nick Fury, the cyclopean leader of The Avengers is the modern Hathaway man. Blank stares greeted me — the Hathaway man has left modern culture references as quickly as it had entered them.

There once was a time he captivated the whole chattering classes. A brainchild of David Ogilvy, the legendary British ad-man whose name is still plastered on one of the world’s largest marketing firms, the Hathaway man promoted a New England shirt company which was both literally and figuratively starchy.

In 1951, when CF Hathaway engaged Ogilvy, the company has never advertised before; their budget was an ad-campaign ($30,000) was small compared to those of bigger American conglomerates. Wishing to do something unique, Ogilvy remembered Lewis Douglas, the American ambassador to UK, who wore an eye-patch after a fishing accident; he built the story around the eye-patch, creating an interesting narrative, and put the ad in The New Yorker. Within a week, every Hathaway shirt in whole New York was sold.

Ogilvy quipped, “For some reason I’ve never known, it made Hathaway instantly famous. Perhaps, more to the point, it made me instantly famous.” Indeed. For next two decades, subscribers to The New Yorker developed a habit of flipping through the magazine first thing to find the Hathaway ad; each week they were treated to a different story: the Hathaway man getting his mustache trimmed, composing music, playing chess, drinking wine, stepping off a plane, conducting the Philharmonic, etc. — typical activities associated with a debonair man of leisure. Appropriately, the man in the ad was Baron George Wrangell, émigré nephew of a White Russian general.

The ad quickly entered the cultural landscape. Manhattan’s James McCreery & Co. department store, advertising a “girdle,” depicted a young model clad in nothing but a girdle, a halter and an eyepatch. Nick Fury himself who debuted in 1963 perhaps owe a thing or two to the baron. And modern advertising campaigns, which shows well-heeled attractive people doing improbably daring/quirky things (Old Spice’s Smell like a Man; Dos Equis’s The Most Interesting Man in the World) share a lot of their DNA with Ogilvy’s creation.


Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

October 16, 2015 at 5:49 am

Shackleton Expedition, Frank Hurley

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The heroic age of maritime explorers come to a crushing close on a remote island in the South Atlantic a hundred year ago this month. Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew had been trapped by pack ice since February, but on 27 October 1915, his ship, the famed Endurance, succumbed to the pack’s pressure. The crew survived on a drifting ice floe for six months before decamping onto a nearby Elephant Island, and eventually sending help to South Georgia (now part of Falklands).


He had already been a hero to many, but this daring 720 nautical mile voyage in a ketch (named James Caird) from Elephant Island to South Georgia propelled Shackleton into the pantheon of great British explorers.  The Endurance had left Plymouth in August 1914 at the First World War, and Shackleton and the crew had offered their services to the war effort. The War Office replied with a single-word telegram: ‘Proceed’. Since then, they had been out of contact with the wider world, and upon arriving at a Norwegian fueling station of Stromness on South Georgia on May 1916, Shackleton asked a question that was to elevate his voyage into an epic saga: “Tell me, when was the war over?” [The source here was Shackleton’s own panegyric account of his adventure, South!, so the story might be apocryphal].

The voyage of Endurance and James Caird was helped on their way to fame by photos of Frank Hurley, the official photographer of this expedition (and many other polar adventures). He produced both black-and-white and colour images of the expedition and later even produced a documentary film; Hurley chose unusual vantage points (climbing up into crow’s nest and yardarms) and was also not above restaging or tinkering with photos to make them grander. In order to stage icy breath and vapor come out of crew members’ mouth and ears, Hurley used cigarette smoke and rubber tubes.


For the famous photo of Shackleton’s departure from Elephant Island, Hurley added a brooding cloudscape; the above photo of Shackleton’s crew getting ‘rescued’ and greeting the returning explorer on his ‘return’ was a photo taken at the time of Shackleton’s departure.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

October 13, 2015 at 5:08 am

Long Live the Queen

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Queen Elizabeth II is Britain’s longest reigning monarch today. It was an awkward journey for her.


In 1953, when it was being discussed to televise her coronation, the Queen was reluctant. She was a shy, private girl: no cameras were allowed inside the Westminster Abbey for her wedding. She was equally unenthused about having her Christmas message to the nation or her Trooping the Colour ceremonies televised. The BBC was ordered not to let camera lenses linger on her face too long.

These stories make it all the more ironic that hers is now the most famous face in the world. During her sixty plus years on the thrones – changes have been swift and transformative. Many a political entity which sent delegations to her coronation – the Soudan, the Gold Coast, Malaya, Somaliland, Tanganyika, North Borneo, Basutoland, Aden Colony, the Gilberts, the Ellices, British Honduras, Condominium of the New Hebrides, British Solomon Islands – left the empire and are now defunct. Age of television has given way to age of internet.

Elizabeth received these changes with equanimity, if not affection. Increasingly junior members of the royal family were dispatched for the former colonies’ independence (The Prince of Wales proved to be a notoriously unwilling attendant, especially after an awning fell onto his head during the Bahamas’). She was also more modern than her stiff exterior suggested: her favorite prime minister was said to be anti-establishment Harold Wilson. Long before she gamely allowed herself to be filmed for a skit during London 2012 Opening Ceremonies, she welcomed television cameras inside the Buckingham Palace for an awkward documentary. The Buck House itself was opened for the public in 1993.

The Queen truly belonged to another age, something which didn’t endear her to her subjects as she grew older. She showed more emotion on a fire at Windsor than at the death of her wayward daughter-in-law. Power too was elusive: on rare occasions when she made political noises – as during last year’s Scottish independence referendum and during Mrs. Thatcher’s premiership – she was criticized, albeit reverentially.

Yet she soldiers on. Today, she is the longest reigning monarch in British history. For me, the best moment that encapsulated her reign was fifteen years ago, on the millennium night. Her social awkwardness was in full swing as she held hands with enthusiastically populist Tony Blair to greet the New Year at the millennium dome. Wearing a faint look of disdain, she halfheartedly sang Auld Lang Syne, drank champagne, and looked positively discomfited throughout the evening.

That made my millennium night; long an anti-monarchist, I cheered, “Long Live the Queen” for the first time that night. It seems all those hearty proclamations have been answered.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

September 9, 2015 at 3:58 pm

Tiananmen — The View from the Communist Party

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This is the time of year when this blog remembers the massacres at Tiananmen Square. Somebody has to. But this year, we change our tactics a bit and will recount how the Communist Party also used power of images to shape the narrative of Tiananmen.

Busy was the Chinese Communist Party in the first few days after it brutally suppressed pro-democracy demonstrators on June 4, 1989. As bloodstained cobblestones were replaced out of Tiananmen, the government stuck to an official line: a violent “counterrevolutionary turmoil” had been staged by civilians, who attacked the government institutions and soldiers.

Central to this narrative was a series of horrifying photos, which were gruesomely reproduced all over state media outlets; charred corpse of Cui Guozheng, a soldier who was stabbed to death on a pedestrian bridge and subsequently lynched from it (reproduced above), is perhaps the tamest of these photos.

Still more vivid are the accounts of the death of a 25-year-old soldier named Liu Guogeng. His burned corpse had been disemboweled and hanged from a blackened public bus, naked except for his socks and an army hat. The government’s news channel alternated between his corpse and his family while announcing in somber tones that Liu was killed, trying to rescue a man from a boisterous crowd. He became an instant martyr, while his weeping father was shown on television being consoled by the country’s leaders. (Photos are a bit too graphic too publish on the front page, but they are linked here, here, and here.)

The second link is from the government’s official history was published in a book called The Truth about the Beijing Turmoil, which devoted a full two-page spread to Liu: “A group of rioters turned upon [the soldiers] ferociously. Bricks, bottles, and iron sticks rained on their heads and chests. The driver was knocked unconscious there and then. Liu Guogeng was first beaten to death by some thugs, then his body was burned and strung on a bus. Afterwards, his body was disemboweled by a savage rioter.”

Demonstrators who had been there that day told a different story. Liu had shot four people with his AK47 and was lynched when he ran out of ammunition. In fact, on the bus next to the corpse were students’ angry condemnations: “He killed four people! Murderer! The People Must Win! Pay Back the Blood Debt!”

“The Truth about the Beijing Turmoil” featured four photos of Liu, all framed in such a way as to exclude the words next to his corpse (which are shown in the last link photo above). But by then, history has been rewritten. The Communist Party stopped talking about “counterrevolutionary turmoil”. Instead, it euphemistically became “turmoil”, then “political storm”, and eventually “June 4th incident”; the party decided that outright censorship of the massacre was more effective than unconvincing lies. Just one year after the massacre, the Chinese president was on American television, telling an interviewer, the killings had been “much ado about nothing.”

(Footnote: Demonstrators indeed killed seven soldiers that night. According to the Chinese Red Cross, 2,600 demonstrators were killed — a figure confirmed by the Swiss ambassador who visited Beijing’s hospitals and claimed 2,700 had died).

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

May 15, 2015 at 7:19 am

Posted in Politics, Society

Borneo, 2001.

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(contd. from the previous post)

After East Timor gain its independence, Indonesia’s descent into chaos continued; a shocking nadir was reached in 2001, when the Dayaks of the Borneo Island began butchering the Madurese migrants. The tribal war between Madurese and the Dayak began in late 1996, when over 300 people died in ethnic violence in West Kalimantan which lasted for six weeks. Madurese women were beheaded by the Dayaks and their heads were paraded around town. (The ancient Dayak custom claims that bringing home a victim’s head and burying it with their ancestors’ bones will ensure that the victim will be their servant in the afterlife.)

While the re-flaring of tensions only followed after General Soeharto stepped down, his coercive policies were the cause. Madura island, in east Java, is famous in Indonesia for its barren soil and as a place to leave. Soeharto continued — and escalated — the Dutch policies of transmigrating people from more populated Javanese islands to the less populated tribal lands in Irian Jaya and Kalimantan. In latter case, the government granted the Madurese logging rights and allowed them to clear forests for palm oil cultivation, even in the forests that were sacred to the animist Dayaks.

In December 2000, there was a murder in Kereng Pangi, a small village near Sampit. A group of Madurese allegedly tortured and then killed a young Dayak after a gambling brawl. The murderers, the Dayak elders claimed, bribed the police to escape justice. Decades of bitterness at the Madurese control of businesses and markets turned violent as a tribal reprisal by the Dayak followed; atavistic feelings are invoked in this ‘land of head-hunters in a perpetual state of war with one another’, as the Economist wrote. The police, as it had in East Timor, was unwilling to save the persecuted.

The iconic photo was the conflict was taken by Charles Dharapak, an AP journalist. In the photo above, Fabian Charles, a Dayak gang leader, stands in front of two Madurese settlers he said he and his gang killed and beheaded.  The photo made the cover of Time magazine, whose Indonesian distributor refused to distribute it.

(For more on the collapse of plural society in Southeast Asia, read this).


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Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

April 17, 2015 at 5:55 am

East Timor, 1999

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Indonesia that gained independence in 1950 was an artificial state, cobbled together from an assortment of sultanates and princely kingdoms by her Dutch colonial masters. The Dutch and the succeeding elite has concentrated power and privilege in the island of Java, where half of the nation’s population resides.

Over the next five decades, secessionist movements were brutally suppressed, be they Christian Ambonese in the South Moluccas or fundamentalist Muslims in Aceh. A centralizing ‘Indonesian identity’ was forged as the country replaced the Portuguese and the Dutch as the imperial power in East Timor and Irian Jaya respectively.

In the late 1990s, this Indonesia — built on political paternalism and economic prosperity — tottered as Asian Financial Crisis hit kleptocrats and crony capitalists hard. The country’s dictator, General Soeharto, stepped down and the secessionist movements gathered momentum once more. In 1999, East Timor was allowed to vote on a referendum for independence — a feat unthinkable under Soeharto, not least because the strongman’s family owned 40% of East Timor.

On August 26, four days before East Timor was to vote for independence, violence erupted between pro-independence supporters and the Aitarak, a much-feared, black-clothed militia sponsored by the Indonesian government to disrupt the vote. In East Timorese capital Dili, the Aitarak attacked independence supporters with M16 rifles, homemade grenades, and pistols. Indonesian police waited hours before responding, even though their headquarters were nearby.

Time magazine’s photographer John Stanmeyer remembers the day:

Just then Joaquim Bernardino Guterres entered my life. He was barefoot and armed with two rocks to protect himself from the militia. He ran up to a group of nearby policemen and begged them to intervene. They ignored him. He asked more passionately, and the police began to punch and kick him. Guterres broke away and ran toward me. Just as he passed, the police shot him dead — for asking them to stop the killing. The police hadn’t noticed me, but after the images appeared in Time and on CNN, I had to leave East Timor because of potential threats. I think about Guterres nearly every day. I want to make sure that no one forgets his senseless death. He is no different from the rest of us. One day we, too, might need to fight for our basic human rights. We can only hope that we aren’t killed by the ones who are supposed to protect us.

Stanmeyer won third place in the spot news stories category of the World Press Photo Contest for this photo-essay. For the East Timorese, harsher days were ahead. After the vote, where 78.5% chose independence, Indonesian army sent in militias to destroy the province’s public and residential buildings and torch its factories and plantation. About 70% of its economic infrastructure was destroyed.




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(I have been backpacking in South East Asia for last few months. The region’s violent recent history is not well-covered or well-remembered. For an excellent source on Indonesia, see also The Act of Killing. Review.)

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

April 14, 2015 at 4:27 pm

Posted in Politics, Society

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Jackson, Mississippi. 1963.

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America’s current debate on its multiracial present should benefit greatly from remembering a moment from its recent past.


It was a photograph which was widely reprinted back then, but not much since; of the United States’ civil rights struggle in the 1960s and the 1970s, many iconic photos had been made, but only a handful conveys the scale of anger and hatred this photo captured on May 28, 1963.

Sitting at the whites-only counter at a Woolworth’s five-and-dime store in Jackson, Mississippi were three protestors (l. to r.): John Salter, Joan Trumpauer, and  Anne Moody. All three were from Tougaloo College, a historically black college which became a centre of activity for he civil rights movement in Mississippi during the tumultuous 1950s and 1960s. Salter, a Native American who later assumed the tribal name Hunter Bear Gray, taught sociology at the college, while two girls were students there. In fact, Trumpauer (soon to be Joan Mulholland) was one of two white students at Tougaloo.

The moment was captured by Jackson Daily News photographer Fred Blackwell, who stood atop the lunch counter to take pictures. In the photo, the trio’s peaceful sit-in to integrate the department store’s lunch counter was drowned out by the angry white-mob. The mob doused the trio in ketchup, mustard and sugar — an abuse that lasted for some three hours until the manager closed the counter for the day.

Take a good look at the young man pouring sugar over Trumpauer’s neatly coiffed hair, and then at the man smoking a cigarette, and at glaring eyes of the rest of the spectators. There were looks of anger, disdain, and apathy. Unsettlingly, they were not fighting some rearguard action for segregation. The majority of the mob were teenagers and students from nearby Central High School.

It has been over half-a-century since that sit-in. With a black president in the White House, America has indeed come a long way from those dark days, but many commentators often forget that there are many for which segregation and Jim Crow are memories, not history. For each heralded memory of marching with Dr. King at Selma, there is perhaps a hidden one of dousing sit-in girls with mustard. Misguided teens they might have been, but now many members of that mob are in their seventies. Do they still hold the beliefs they so vociferously displayed on that May afternoon fifty-two years ago? It is for them to answer — but America should ask such uncomfortable questions frequently if she hopes to become a ‘post-racial’ society.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

January 19, 2015 at 5:55 am

Heinrich Harrer’s Tibet

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As 65th Anniversary of the Communist Takeover of China approaches, Iconic Photos is looking back at the world it changed.


In April 1944, Heinrich Harrer escaped a British internment camp in India to begin his 20-month journey across the Himalayas. Only in January 1946 — long after the war that forced the British authorities to detain Austria-born mountaineer (and as it later transpired, a member of the Nazi party) Harrer – he walked into the Tibetan capital at Lhasa, like a starving beggar.

Harrer was to spend seven years in Tibet, later recounted as the eponymous book and movie (above); under the Potala Palace, he built a skating rink, which brought him to the attention of the palace’s inhabitant, the 12-year old Dalai Lama. For the priest king, Harrer built a cinema, running the projector off an old Jeep engine. Later, he was Dalai Lama’s tutor in maths, geography, science, and history.

Harrer was an avid photographer too. As Court Photographer, he had taken over 2,000 negatives, of which a selection was published in 1991 in the album Lost Lhasa. His book was an unparalleled and sole account of nomadic, feudal, and monastic life as lived by the Tibetans well into the 1940s and 50s.


This life, including the pilgrims’ circuit of Lhasa he documented, was soon to be wiped out by a series of Chinese invasions. Both factions in the Chinese civil war, the Communists and the Kuomintang, had maintained that Tibet was a part of China. At the end of the civil war, the victorious Communists were ready to incorporate Tibet by force.

Two months after the Communist takeover of China, Mao Zedong ordered his army to march into Tibet. Feudal Tibetan theocracy was ill-prepared for a fight and months of frenetic negotiations failed to deliver results. On 23rd May 1951, the Tibetan representatives were forced to sign an agreement which in exchange for nominal self-governance, Tibet agreed to be part of China.

A decade of localized hostilities against the Communist followed; in 1959, the Dalai Lama fled Tibet as the Communists reneged on self-governance promises.


(More photos here and here).

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

September 12, 2014 at 6:26 am

Hong Kong | Fan Ho

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Anticipating the 65th Anniversary of the Communist Takeover of Mainland China, Iconic Photos look back at the world it unleashed. 



Under the Japanese rule during the Second World War, Hong Kong’s population sunk below 600,000. This figure was dramatically reversed after the war; as the communist takeover of mainland China began, Hong Kong’s population jumped to 1.6 million. Shanghai, its greatest rival city, was no longer open to foreign capital, and from 1945 to 1949, financiers, merchants and industrialists fled to the British colony from Shanghai, its greatest rival city. Among the escapees was Fan Ho, a photographer who documented the street life in Hong Kong in those tumultuous years following his arrival.

Those were different days. The notorious Dalton-Douthwaite scandal (where two British soldiers murdered a Chinese girl) was just around the corner. Large immigration forced newcomers to be housed in shacks and squatter huts, built on hillsides and in cemeteries. Welfare support was non-existent, and provided only by volunteers and kaifong associations. Drug abuse was rampant; by 1959, there were around 150,000 to 200,000 addicts, an staggering number of a population of 2.8 million. This was the era of Kowloon Walled City and Triads that ruled it, and this was the Hong Kong that stared back at you from Fan Ho’s black-and-white photos. After Fan Ho took a photo, “with a knife in his hand, a pig butcher said he would chop me. He wanted his spirit back.”

Better days too were just around the corner. In 1961 arrived John Cowperthwaite, a Classicist who was to preside over the colony’s finances for the next decade. He kept personal taxes at a maximum of 15 percent, and balanced the budget aggressively. He was an idiosyncratic man, who never released economic statistics because “once the data was published there would be pressure to use them for government intervention in the economy”, but proved an excellent administrator. Under Sir John, a laissez-faire Gladstonian, the colony’s GDP grew at an astonishing average of 13.8 percent in every year — an unprecedented rate in those slower growth days.

(More Photos Here).

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

September 4, 2014 at 3:46 am


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