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Last Word: Rediscovering Hong Kong photographer Nancy Sheung’s fantastical perspective

An independent spirit, Nancy Sheung found her voice in the male-dominated field of photography.

On 20 July 1969, Apollo 11 became the first manned mission to land on the moon. The event changed the world – and inspired one of Nancy Sheung Wai-chun’s more abstract photographs.

Reimagining the monumental moon landing, the then-55-year-old artist created an elaborately staged scene that depicts two figurines climbing across an uneven surface. 

The shot provides a peek into Sheung’s inquisitive mind and penchant for experimentation. Despite picking up the craft relatively late, in her 40s, the self-taught photographer had a rare ability to create powerful and poetic images. It was evident to critics and fans alike, and many of her works were exhibited around the world.

“My grandmother is, in my mind, certainly a trailblazer in every sense of that word,” says Sheung’s granddaughter Tiffany Wai-Ying Beres, a curator based in the US who put together an exhibition of Sheung’s works from the family archives in 2015. “She lived her life the way she wanted, and she was, in a way, quite unconventional.”

Expanding the mission 

Sheung was born in Suzhou, China, in 1914 into a well-to-do family of doctors. The family didn’t document much about her early life but Beres, who was born after her grandmother’s death in 1979, has heard stories from her mother, aunt and uncles.

Growing up during a time when girls’ education was often a low priority, Sheung put herself through school by working in an opium den, where she rolled cigarettes and prepared pipes.

Described as a tomboy by Beres, Sheung rode to school on one of the family’s horses. She learned how to shoot a pistol, carried it to school for protection and, as her relatives say, could also “outshoot police officers at shooting ranges.”

Last Word Nancy Sheung 03 The Shadows Credit Estate Of Nancy Sheung
The Shadows
When developing this 1970s photo of a young woman, Sheung used a selective exposure technique in the dark room to enhance the light and contrast. Estate of Nancy Sheung

“It sounds absolutely crazy, but these were the things she would tell her children – and it was part of the way she characterised herself,” says Beres.

Sheung’s independent spirit didn’t keep her in one place for long. After graduating from secondary school, she moved to Guangzhou, China, which was then known as Canton. In the mid-1930s, she married Pong Kuan Wah, a coal merchant, and they relocated to Hong Kong in the 1940s. 

In Hong Kong, Sheung gave birth to six children but was not very involved in day-to-day parenting. Instead, she hired a nanny to raise the children while she pursued other ambitions, from work to travel to socialising. 

Known for her larger-than-life personality, Sheung was reportedly the first woman in Hong Kong to drive a red convertible sports car – said to be a Fiat Spider – and was also an avid mahjong player who would “play games that lasted from day until night,” followed by elaborate banquet dinners. For instance, she threw a huge party in the 1960s to mark the Hong Kong launch of American cereal giant Kellogg’s, says Beres.

Always up for a challenge, Sheung established her own construction and architecture firm, Waifoong Construction, in the early 1950s without any formal education in the field.

She opened her business at just the right time, in the midst of Hong Kong’s construction boom, and became a wealthy entrepreneur. “She was making more money than my grandfather, which was very uncharacteristic of that period,” says Beres.

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By the late 1950s, however, things took a turn. Hong Kong’s economy fell into recession, and Sheung’s business slowed. With more free time, she attended a luncheon at the Hong Kong Club in 1958, where she came across an exhibition featuring black-and-white images by European photographers. 

That marked a turning point for Sheung, who was “taken by the idea of the art form,” says Beres. “It seemed that everything she did, she wanted to be the best,” she adds. “So even though she was an amateur, in the sense that she didn’t do it for money, she approached photography in a highly professional way.”

Armed with her first camera, a Rolleiflex, Sheung apprenticed under local Hong Kong photographers such as Pun Yet-pore, a respected name at the time. She created her own makeshift studio in her Causeway Bay home, converting a bathroom into a dark room, where she experimented with printing techniques such as photomasks and chemical processing. 

Sheung’s photos placed an emphasis on light and shadow, often capturing documentary-style scenes of daily life in Hong Kong. Many pieces highlighted architectural spaces – something no doubt aided by her professional experience in the field – and she also took a large number of intimate portraits of women. 

They show “women in control of their space, who are putting their beauty forward, and are strong in one way or another,” says Beres. “I think because she was a woman, she could connect to her female subjects in a way that perhaps men couldn’t.”

“Everything she did, she wanted to be the best.”

Tiffany Wai-Ying Beres

Until the end

Sheung closed her construction business around 1965 to devote herself to photography. One of very few female photographers at the time, she worked tirelessly to promote her work in Hong Kong and abroad through networking and competitions. 

Last Word Nancy Sheung 02 Moon Landing Credit Estate Of Nancy Sheung
1960s
Moon Landing

“There was a lot of indication that she put herself out there,” says Beres. “I think that was how she tried to establish a name for herself.”

While conducting research on Sheung’s work, Beres learned that her grandmother may have endured instances of sexism from her contemporaries, some of whom downplayed “the importance of her art.” Nonetheless, Sheung had a vibrant portfolio and a raw talent that many experts praised.

“In the 1960s and ‘70s, most photographers were male,” says Edwin Lai, a senior lecturer at the Hong Kong Arts School who curated the 2015 exhibition of Sheung’s works.

“It’s not that there weren’t any female photographers, but they were very rare. Sheung was quite active, and her photos were good – for her to have such a big commitment to it, it was interesting for me.” 

She was a fellow of the Photographic Society of Hong Kong in 1966, won a prize from the organisation, and went on to become its vice-president in the 1970s. She was also invited to join prestigious organisations, such as the Photographic Society of America and the British Royal Photographic Society. 

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Sheung worked on photography “literally until the very end,” as her granddaughter puts it. She died of a stroke in 1979 in her darkroom, marking the end of a two-decade career in photography.

Although many of her images were forgotten after her death, Sheung’s work has recently resurfaced thanks to curators who see “an inspiring story, particularly for women,” says Beres. 

“She wasn’t just documenting things, but conscientiously composing her images and creating these highly aesthetic images of Hong Kong – its architecture, its women, and the environment in which she lived.”

As a complement to Sheung’s “fantastical” life story, adds Beres, her images suggest that she was trying to be “avant-garde” and “a woman who was breaking the rules.” 

A selection of Nancy Sheung Wai-chun’s works will be exhibited at the University of Hong Kong’s Art Gallery in mid-2021, depending on the Covid-19 situation.