Saturday, December 9, 2006

Meeting Mr. David Chan in Kowloon

Kowloon, in China, is a peninsula facing Hong Kong Island. Connected by subway and constant charming ferryboats, it is lively and somewhat less stiff than the other side of the harbour. Nathan Road runs its length, like a backbone, an artery of traffic and commerce, life, pleasure and toil in the countless shops and businesses that are based here, in buildings that look like and in fact are gigantic beehives of activity. Luxury well lit colourful shops at street level and sometimes below, more inside alleyways and upstairs. These rely on an army of sales people who work on the pavement dishing out a continuous stream of advertising folders or aggressively try to lure the public into buying something. Typically they are of Indian origin and operate for either a tailor or a jeweller selling replica watches. They do not take no for an answer the first time, nor the second, so that their resilience would become a nuisance, were it not for the fact that so many other pleasant distractions keep the visitor amused and bewildered. Classier establishments rely on their formally dressed clerks to stay on the doorway and courteously invite everyone in. Seeking temporary refuge from this constant flow of impressions and emotions we ventured slightly off the main road, and happened to notice by chance the sign of a camera shop in one sideway gallery. The window was well stocked with many desirable objects, fairly priced, and especially many beautiful and even some quite rare classic cameras. This would in itself have been noteworthy, but, as we were quickly to find out, a few other shops lined the alley, all with comparable or even more impressive displays of photographica. I found it hardly believable to have come across so many cameras in one location as unlikely as this, many of which I had only previously seen in old magazines, or vintage catalogues. To me it seemed nothing short of a collector’s paradise, a photographer’s Eldorado at least for those most nostalgically inclined, in which the pleasure of seeing one item was diminished by quickly finding another, and then yet another in overwhelming succession. Only a few days earlier I had had my first Hong Kong surprise when at a small Kodak Express minilab shop, in a quite shabby street, the owner proved to know exactly which pre war Leica I was carrying, and then as we chatted casually produced from under the counter a perfectly preserved Zeiss Hologon wide angle camera. This latest find prompted me irresistibly to find out about this unexpected phenomenon, to know how and why this concentration of special photographica came into being, why here, and what makes it a good business proposition for a shop keeper. So I walked into the largest of the shops, that of David Chan & CO, and was subsequently kindly given an appointment to meet the owner, Mr. Chan himself. Later on the same day, as we chatted amiably, he lead me to see even more treasures that are kept inside a safe in another shop opposite the main entrance of his place. Mr. Chan’s charm and courtesy are undeniable and I must be excused for a measure of positive bias in retelling his story as well as I can and without even the slightest attempt at challenging his opinions and beliefs on photographic matters. I know quite a few of them to be controversial and could trigger passionate debates among experts, especially the advocates of modern lenses and Japanese products, but this is his version. Personally I love old cameras and lenses and so didn’t find it hard to be convinced by his arguments as I was being congenially fed a delicious lunch in his favourite Chinese sea food restaurant. Seriously, I know that all readers will have the independence of thought to make up their own minds, but this testimonial seems to me too interesting not to be told and comes from someone who has earned the right to be listened to in the time span of 45 years in the photography business. I am tempted to believe him and try out his ideas, if not downright convinced by his words alone. After all, Mr Chan doesn’t need me to believe him, in fact he is not even eager to sell his beloved possessions!
David Chan moved to the city of Honk Kong from Canton in 1962. A young man of 18 at the time, driven by ambition and the extreme poverty of his native town at the time, he applied to every job he would hear about as he had, in his own words, nothing to do. Either with a tailor or apprentice to a jeweller, or any other thing that would come his way. As it happened a photography shop was his first workplace, a junior clerk selling cameras to the tourists in the Kowloon area, not far from his present place. Under British administration Honk Kong was economically thriving. Not without a hint of nostalgia Mr. Chan remembers those times as very good for business, and clever the colonial administration for allowing entrepreneurs to run their companies very much undisturbed. Eager to advance himself, young David worked in the shop from nine in the morning to nine at night, and would then go to English evening classes, from nine thirty to eleven thirty. In ten years time his hard work paid off and he was able to start his own company, a camera shop. Beginning in 1972 and still largely unaware of the value of cameras on the foreign markets, he was buying and selling to generate turn over, and make a profit as best he could, probably missing out on the full potential of a few deals. Eventually it was through the cooperation and friendship with an older gentleman from Japan, Mr Lakajima of Shukiya camera company in Kenzo, an international second hand camera dealer who took him under his wing and showed him the ropes, that his fortunes started to change for the better. Those were the days when American tourists would bring German cameras to Hong Kong and sell them. Other visitors would buy Japanese products. Mr. Lakajima would bring Japanese cameras to Hong Kong, and brought German cameras back to Kenzo. Historically, according to David Chan, the Japanese had studied the German specimen carefully and had reached a few basic conclusions: they were too expensive to make and too difficult to use for the general public. A 1972 Zeiss Ikon Contarex with the 1.4 lens would sell in Hong Kong for 7.000 dollars, when a Volkswagen beetle car could be bought for 8000 and a small apartment for as little as 20.000(!). So they started their own industry on cheaper and innovative products that would prove more user friendly if slightly wanting in mechanical and optical quality. Problem is, Asian people and Mr Chan himself do not like compromises and love German optics and mechanics, and German cars and Swiss watches. They feel that their quality is unsurpassed by Japanese products, even today. The key reason for the existence of shops like these, is this taste for high quality European mechanics and optics. They enjoy the lenses that are especially designed for a specific purpose, such as portrait lenses, or apochromatic, macro or commercial types. Furthermore they are convinced that the best times for optics were the fifties and sixties, and are now over, which accounts for their fascination with vintage lenses and cameras. Here they are, in nice impressive rows, the Leicas, the Rolleis, the Linhofs, the Hasselblads and the Zeiss Ikons and the old Voigtlanders –not the new Japanese ones that are looked upon as a way of cheating the client by selling a modern inferior product in the old coat of arms. And many lenses, including good American products like the better Kodaks and the very good Ektar commercial lenses, Schneiders, Rodenstock, legendary Dagors, and on and on. There are also many Japanese cameras, and East German or Russian or Chinese but just for business, not for passion or real interest. This personal attachment drove Mr. Chan in the course of the last twenty years to put a number of interesting cameras and lenses to the side, and to collect without the intention of selling.
These were chosen partly for their quality and rarity but also for some original feature or design that would set them apart. A total estimate of how many cameras are actually held in the collection is not given, nothing is written but a record is kept only in David’s memory. He admits to having tens of thousands cameras stored, partly in the shop and more on another location(?). Much of the display in his downtown shop is actually not for sale, and the better pieces are kept in a safe for fear of his employees selling the items by mistake in his absence. These pieces were lovingly acquired abroad, many in the United States when he travelled camera hunting with his Japanese mentor in the seventies en early eighties. In those days Americans didn’t seem to care much for used classic cameras and sold them cheap. Now they have changed their minds, possibly too late. He expects the value of collectable cameras to increase even more in the future, their present prices being still low in comparison with their future potential, which means that they can be a good investment. Still the whole point to him is not to make so much to make money any more, actually the bulk of his cameras is destined to be donated to the Hong Kong museum, since none of Mr, Chan’s children has an interest in taking over the business. Although he would be willing to sell a piece if double, he doesn’t encourage foreign collectors, ‘heavy guns’ from Japan for instance, to visit his shop for fear that they might pressure him to sell something very rare. He doesn’t advertise, isn’t interested in the internet. I ask him about the future of photography, and he concedes that the digital technology is obviously going to take over from film. Will he change his shop accordingly? NO. Does he like digital cameras? Well, he feels that they are just tools, things to be used and be thrown away when one is finished with them. The design is not as nice as the old cameras, they are not objects to be cherished like a Hasselblad 500 C that he lovingly holds close to my hear while he operates the film holder crank, for me to appreciate its fine working. But there is another dimension to classic lenses than collecting, he points out. Thanks to a wide range of adapters his old super optics from the past can be used on the latest digital SLRs, to great advantage according to him and as advertised in a beautifully printed Japanese catalogue of Gakken Camera Mook Co. Also for analogic cameras there are many adapters for sale, in many combinations that can be even strange and surprising. For instance one to fit an old 80 mm Kodak Ektar originally designed for the first Hasselblad to a Nikon body. Obviously something like this goes at the cost of any TTL coupling of the light meter or automatic pre set f stop. In practice it would sound like a hard bargain, but optically an improvement in his opinion. At last I can’t resist buying an adapter for Hasselblad lenses on Nikon bodies, with the intention of trying out his theory in practice with my Planar on the Finepix S3 Pro at the first opportunity. Could he be right after all, despite all the praise that I have read about new digitars and bad old lenses to be changed or else? As we part, the best of friends from the opposite sides of the world, I am glad to have met somebody who has dedicated his life to his passion and will eventually share it freely with all the future visitors of the museum that will house his collection. Until that day, shop 15, Champagne Court, is the place to be for a glimpse of his achievement. Quite a few other shops have clustered around his place, run by former employees and allegedly all in good harmony with one another with slight differences in prices. They have promising inviting names like: ALL BEST CAMERA WATCH CO, or ALL GOOD FRIENDS CAMERA CO. or even better, ONESTO PHOTO CO. In general in these shops the prices for cameras and lenses of the top makers seem reasonable compared to the Netherlands, sometimes even cheap, but then inexplicably some lesser types could prove relatively expensive, especially some accessories. A set of extension rings for Exakta seem to me quite steep at 1500 HK dollars when you could find it at maybe 15 euros on a lucky but not too improbable day in Amsterdam. It must have something to do with different priorities and interests from the part of the respective collecting communities. So beware and tread carefully to find your best buy, not everything is that convenient and almost all the large format cameras look heavily used with overpriced lenses. Again some local preference and due to rarity in Asia, I guess. But Leicas are not expensive and I was tempted…Still I confined myself strictly to an orgy of window shopping.
There is also a camera repair centre in case you wanted to have your recently purchased camera checked, and a Kodak Expres Minilab called SUN PRINT PHOTO LAB to have your test negatives processed in 15 minutes or printed in one hour. Why not wait in the small typical Chinese snack bar? It’s all in the same narrow passageway, downtown Kowloon, China.
For those who do not want to make the trip, you may enquire by e mail on specific items that you are looking as Mr. Chan will quote and might be persuaded to sell, if they are not unique.


Anonymous said...

hey Emilio,

it was delightful to see such an elaborate post about an oustanding personna, and to learn about your passion for the same matters.

your words really took me back to the genuine experience of chitchatting with chan. he was a true gentleman.


Anonymous said...

Hi emilio,
the story of Mr. Chan seems very interesting to me. I was looking for the address of his shop in internet and I found by chanche your comment. I'm actually in HK looking for old camera, could you give me his contact and his address to visit his shop? thanks elisa (

Tigerphy said...

Hi Emilio,

I met Mr. Chan for the first time yesterday and I was inspired by his passion in photography. Both he and his staff were extremely helpful and I was amazed that the lenses were in such a good condition. I can see they really love photography.

Thanks for your story of Mr. Chan. It is very interesting and it reminds me of his kindness &

Anonymous said...

Hi Emilio,

I have dealt with David for many years, had several lunches with him and always purchased my pro gear from him. Davids knowledge of equipment and service is outstanding and I would highly recommend his store. David is a fit man and swims daily and eats healthily. Lots of green tea!

David has given my family and I gifts at Chinese New Year and offered me the free loan of tripods when I didnt take one with me to HK. When travel arrangements required my daughter to remain in Hong Kong after I left David offered his assistance if she needed anything whilst alone.

These days I deal with Henry as well, one of his staff members and he also is excellent in his manner and service.

I have been shopping at his store for over 20 years and appreciate your article which taught me some new information I wasn't aware of.

David can advise you which lenses and equipment to get when you are buying top shelf Leica Hasselblad or other gear and his knowledge is amazing.

I can easily understand why you are so impressed with David. He is a successfull personable businessman who I am happy to have dealt with for so many years.

Neil J

Darcy said...

Hey there. I really enjoyed reading this post, but I was wondering - you say you can email enquiries, but what is the email address?


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