Photo Series: Between City and Countryside

Figurine of Guanyin

Nestled between the urban areas of Hong Kong and the barren hillsides, lush forest, wetlands and inaccessible shorelines that make up its countryside is a thin strip of land that people routinely use (as a refuge from bustling city life) and abuse (as a dumping ground). I have developed four ongoing series of still life photographs based on the things I have come across find in this ‘borderlands’ area:

  1. Have a Little Faith: (Chinese Folk Religion Figurines and Informal Shrines)
  2. Chairs of Hong Kong
  3. Abandoned Things
  4. Abandoned Places

For all four series (which altogether contain several hundred photos), I have been following these rules:

  • I cannot move the objects being photographed.
  • I cannot re-arrange the scene.
  • I have to use natural light.

Besides being interested in examining how people are using (and abusing) this unique environment, I am also interested in the ways in which the environment leaves its mark on the things people place or abandon there. Many of the objects end up faded, covered with dirt and broken. Nature will eventually claim what it has been given.

Series 1. Have a Little Faith (Chinese Folk Religion Figurines and Informal Shrines)

This photo series features still-life shots of Chinese folk religion figurines and informal shrines in Kong Kong. There are 129 photos in the series (you can view the entire set on Flickr and Google Photos).

Broken figurine by a hillside trail. This scene features the Peaches of Immortality, which grant longevity to those (mainly gods and semi-deities) who consume them. In traditional Chinese culture, peaches are symbols of longevity.

Some Hong Kongers’ come to the urban-countryside borderlands to commune with nature and the gods; they set up informal shrines shrines where they can pray and leave offerings. There may just be a single figurine, or there may be a more elaborate set up with dozens of sculptures and piles of religious texts. Some of the mini-shrines are well-maintained while others appear to have been damaged by vandals or storms.

Though very modest, these informal mini-shrines show a very personal kind of faith.

Hillside figurine of Guanyin
Guanyin: a closer view
Close-up of the armrest of a throne
Broken wooden figurine of Sun Wukong (The Monkey King)
A typical hillside shrine
Damaged figurines
Buddhist mini-shrine, below Lion Rock
Buddhist mini-shrine, below Lion Rock

The figurines, shrines and offerings shown in the photos are from Chinese folk religion. a belief system which draws from Taoism (e.g., the hierarchy of gods and immortals), Buddhism (e.g., ideas of karma and rebirth), ancient shamanic beliefs related to totemism and animism, ancestor worship and local customs (see the Wikipedia page for more detailed information: Chinese Folk Religion). I am definitely not an expert in this area, but here is some information about two of the figures that often appear in the photographs in this series.

1.1 Guanyin

This hillside shrine featured a lot of figurines of Guanyin

Guanyin (known as Kwun Yum in Hong Kong) is considered to be the Goddess of Mercy and is often portrayed wearing white robes, sitting cross-legged in mediation and holding a jar of purifying liquid in her left hand to help ease the pain of those who pray to her. Sometimes she is shown holding a willow branch (used for exorcism) in her right hand. She is often portrayed with a lotus flower, which is a Chinese symbol of fertility and a Buddhist symbol of purity, and pearls, which represent the perfect roundness of a full-moon.

The figurine of Guanyin at right has many of the typical features: white robes, jar, lotus flower, pearls and willow branch.

Her portrayal in Chinese folk religion is a kind of evolution of the Buddhist bodhisattva known as Avalokiteśvara, who is revered for his/her (it’s complicated) compassion. Many Eastern religions have some version of this goddess. In Japan, for example, she is known as Kannon. The Chinese name Guanyin is short for Guanshiyin, which means “Perceives the Sounds of the World”, a phrase describing her empathy.

Guanyin in more colorful robes

1.2 Guan Yu

Guan Yu

Guan Yu (known as Kwan Tai in Hong Kong) is easy to spot. He is the stern-looking red-faced god, often shown carrying his massive guandao (a halberd-like weapon)—Green Dragon Crescent Blade. He is considered a kind of martial god, but that is an oversimplification. He is thought of as a protector—a god who will look after morally upright people while he punishes the wicked. People generally pray to him for strength and success.

Guan Yu

Guan Yu was a real historical figure—a renowned general serving under the warlord Liu Bei. He played a major role in the events that led the end of the Han Dynasty and was a prominent figure during three Three Kingdoms period. He was respected for his loyalty, never-say-die spirit and strong business acumen. In Hong Kong, therefore, he is frequently worshipped by police officers (justice!), organized crime members (brotherhood!) and business people (financial success!).

One interesting thing that I read about him was that after he (the man) was executed, he wasn’t worshipped as a god at first. Initially, it was his enemies that prayed to him—to avoid facing his wrath from the afterlife.

Guan Yu
Example of an urban shot (I have no idea why the items were arranged in this way)

To see the entire series of 129 photos at a higher resolution (e.g., 2048 x 1365) you can go to the Flickr album or the Google Photos album.

Series 2. Chairs of Hong Kong

Elderly people also come to such areas to get some morning exercise, relax and hang out with friends. To make the experience more comfortable, many regular visitors bring their own chairs (and leave them there so the chairs are always their waiting for their owners).

Support you

I’ve made this series in black and white in order to focus more attention on shapes and textures as well and to make sure the vibrant colors of many of the backgrounds don’t overwhelm the subject of the photographs.

The two of us
The two of use: detail view
Two chairs
A stool
At the seaside

To see the entire series of 50 photos at a higher resolution (e.g., 2048 x 1365) you can go to the Flickr album or Google Photos album.

Series 3. Abandoned Things Photo Series

Abandoned Portrait
Abandoned Portrait

I’ve been taking pictures of abandoned objects, like this cowgirl portrait, around HK. Almost all the several hundred photos were taken in areas of Hong Kong where urban areas border on the countryside. There, the forests are filled with all kinds of things that have been discarded—electric appliances, vehicles, toys, furniture, even disco balls. At one point, all the objects served a purpose; some may even have been treasured. And then they were dumped and forgotten. Once abandoned outdoors, the objects are at the mercy of nature, and nature isn’t known for her mercy. The mute objects hold untold stories. Why, for example, would be one shoe left on a ledge below a highway overpass?

Here are some of the images. Click on any of the photos to view them as a slide show.

See the complete set of photos on Google Photos:
Abandoned Things: Main Set (450 images)
Abandoned Things: Toy Story (55 images) Plush animals and dolls.
Abandoned Things: Bicycles Only (60 images)
Dumped Things (55 photos) These are from an something like an informal dump that someone is operating. Some interesting scientific equipment has been left here.
Digital Harinezumi+ Series (138 photos)The Digital Harinezumi 2++ (digital toy camera) is a toy camera is like a small digital version of a lomography camera. Its main weaknesses are its tendency to overexpose light tones and go out of focus on some areas of the picture.

Series 4. Abandoned Places Photo Series

This is a series of (mostly) black and white photos of abandoned buildings.

One set of images was shot with a lo-fi digital toy camera (Digital Harinezumi 2), giving the photos a dark and dreamy vibe, as in the following photo, where only part of a door frame emerges from the darkness.

Abandoned house between Ma On Shan and Sai Kung

Other photos were taken with a ‘normal’ camera (a SONY NEX-7) and a lot more detail is visible.

Abandoned house between Ma On Shan and Sai Kung
Abandoned house between Ma On Shan and Sai Kung

I’ve used black and white images for this series for two reasons: (1) to put more focus on the textures and (2) to blur the boundaries between natural and man-made, making it difficult to draw a line between what is ‘builiding’ and what is ‘forest’.


I used the black and white photos as background image to this song in my free background music series: Arpology 2: Ambient Version.

Related to this series is set of photos taken in a village on Yim Tin Tsai, a small island off the coast of Sai Kung. Many of the houses in the village have been abandoned, but the remaining villagers seem to be quite happy to open up the safer abandoned buildings as a kind of local tourism sightseeing destination and as a way to help revitalize the community.

Yim Tin Tsai
Mahjong set in an abandoned building
Yim Tin Tsai: Window and vines
Yim Tin Tsai: Building Interior

Here are links to the albums:
Abandoned Places (SONY NEX-7, 32 images): Flickr / Google Photos
Abandoned Places (Digital Harinezumi 2, (19 images): Google Photos
Yim Tin Tsai Abandoned Village (SONY NEX-7, 35 images): Google Photos

Technical Information

The main challenge in taking many of photos is that they were in quite dark forested areas and I only used natural light (of which there was not much!). However, many of the figurines in the Have a Little Faith series are white or red, so in most cases, it was easy to visually separate the subject from the background.

I used three cameras for the photos in this series. Most of the photos were taken with a SONY NEX-7, while a few of the more recent ones were taken with a FUJIFILM X100T. When I first started taking photos several years ago, I was using a Digital Harinezumi 2 Toy Camera. It is kind of like a lomography camera, but it is a digital camera.

Text and photos by longzijun

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