The Tech Behind @OldHKinColour - Bringing Life to Past Colonial Hong Kong
February 23, 2022
Many a Hong Konger in 2022 has a solid grasp of their neighbourhood and district, where they eat daily, where they hike, run, walk, and socialise with friends. However, the distant account of a city-life in motion during the early days of colonial Hong Kong and the 20th century seems all but a mystery.
With ground-breaking technologies and research, popular Instagram account @OldHKinColour attempts to capture the fascinating street screens of a past Hong Kong once forgotten.
Each of the old photographs posted by OldHKinColour has been researched, restored, and colourised by a collective of young Hong Kong academic researchers, uploading historical accounts of city-life in the 19th and 20th centuries as a hobby.
They are detailed so eloquently, curated to show the beauty of the city, and captured in colour. Behind the exciting Instagram page is an aim to educate and inspire the next generation of historians in Hong Kong.
OldHKinColour was created in November 2019, managed by a Hong Kong-based research team formed by 1980s and ‘90s academic researchers specialising in cultural history, digital humanities, artificial intelligence, and inter-semiotic translation.
With an aim to promote the culture of old Hong Kong with colourised pictures and animations, presented with historical, bilingual descriptions, the group's founder and coordinator, Loka Siu, saw a need to capture the colour and life of a pre-1997-handover Hong Kong.
“Since we could not find any IG pages promoting the culture of old Hong Kong with colourised images/animations and bilingual descriptions, we tried to establish our own for non-commercial, educational purposes,” Siu told The Beat Asia.
In the past two and a half years, OldHKinColour has exploded in fanfare, with Hong Kongers, both local and abroad, enthralled in the
“It seems that Instagrammers from different countries love what we have done so far,” Siu said.
“Perhaps Hong Kong has been a world-renowned cultural hub where East meets West, and the colourised photos that we created attract Instagrammers around the world to learn more about the city and help some of them recall their childhood memories of Hong Kong.”
The process for publishing an enhanced, colourised image on OldHKinColour involves sourcing of photographic artefacts, AI-technology, and colourising based on historical accounts. The team’s process of restoring an old image consists of three major procedures: data gathering, pre-processing, and post-editing.
First, the team sources digital copies of original monochrome photographs, most of the Victoria City from the late 1860s to 1950s. “Our criteria for the selection of images are that they should demonstrate the traditions and customs of Hong Kong, and/or reveal everyday life, and/or reflect the aesthetics of the city,” Siu said.
Images are collected from online archives and academic institutions, such as The University of Hong Kong Libraries, Harvard-Yenching Library, Hong Kong Government Lands Department, and The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries Digital Collections.
The group’s favourite sources include the photographs of Harrison Forman, an American photojournalist who captured everyday street-life on his routine visits to the harbour city, and the late 19th century Scot John Thompson who documented Hong Kong at the turn of the century.
Next, images are processed using machine learning, artificial neural networks, and AI technology to enhance image quality and resolution. Photographs are enhanced to an incredibly life-like quality, with teeth whitened, faces blushed and highlighted, street signs clean, and scars and blemishes visible.
"Our team treat AI-based teaching and learning as an innovative pedagogical approach to the study of history in the 21st century. Traditionally, textual resources, including newspapers and official documents, are fundamental sources for studying history,” the team highlighted.
“With the rapid development of visual technology, including AI-driven image restoration and 3D rendering of historical photos, they can be applied to the teaching of art subjects, one of which is the history of Hong Kong, in order to enhance the effectiveness of public education in traditional culture.”
Finally, the AI-processed-and-enhanced image is colourised manually. The most labour-intensive part of the process relies on subjective judgement and intensive reference to historical accounts of the colours of a 20th century Hong Kong.
Siu said the group refers to “a wide variety of historical sources, such as newspapers, magazines, official documents, memoirs and video recordings,” to decide on an appropriate palette, taking more than an hour to complete an image.
With an intensive process that involves the academic expertise and creativity of a team specialising in history, AI -technology, and semiotics, Loka Siu and OldHKinColour aim to expose Hong Kong city life in the 19th and 20th centuries and educate online followers.
“With reference to our collection of images that mainly captured the urban life of Hong Kong from the 1860s to the 1950s, Victorian architecture in the city was undoubtedly splendid and breath-taking, but many commoners suffered from poor living conditions and struggled for their livelihoods with indomitable spirit, which has become one of the core values shared by generations of Hong Kongers,” Siu said.
“There are many incredible stories behind the historic images, and we have been introducing them via IG stories and quizzes. These approaches will be maintained for cultivating Instagramers’ interest in learning history and preserving cultural heritage.”
Beyond their treasure trove of old photos of colonial Hong Kong contained within the internet’s historical archives, Siu said the group plans to promote the use of the above techniques and develop tools for education in other disciplines. They are equally interested in colourising old black-and-white film reels of the territory and plan to offer complimentary short courses on the history of Hong Kong and on image restoration through IG Live.
“We will continue to design a wide spectrum of activities with these channels to cultivate Instagrammers’ interest in learning history and preserving cultural heritage.”
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