Joanne Leung Po-wah walks briskly along the bank of Shing Mun River, calm and unflustered, making the blazing sunshine and 30-plus-degree heat seem almost bearable.
Having been intrigued by Joanne’s cat photographs on Facebook, the photographer and I have asked her to take us to Shing Mun riverside park to see them in the flesh. As we, three cat-lovers, stroll along the riverbank discussing our experiences, Joanne explains that she moved to Shatin shortly after the Sars epidemic, and started spending her days off exploring Shing Mun park and documenting its feline residents.
Most of the strays have slunk off to escape the heat, and the only one we catch sight of is “Ngau-ngau” (“Beefy”). He only became an alley cat fairly recently after his owner passed away. Despite his name, he’s not a big cat, but this newcomer is a territorial beast and quickly chased away his “indigenous” rivals to become the top Tom in the park. The moment Beefy spots Joanne, he drops his head and scuttles over between her legs, then lies out so she can stroke his back. Catching sight of the photographer and I, though, he retreats and eyes us warily.
Joanne takes out some of Beefy’s favourite cat treats, and tells us how local housewives have spoiled the cats in the park. They will only eat fancy kitten snacks like Temptations or Party Mix, and when the neighbourhood women occasionally bring some freshly cooked chicken, some of the cats even turn their noses up at it.
“So you use food to lure your models?” I ask, trying to guide the topic toward the main purpose of our day’s trip.
“I don’t necessarily shoot every single time,” she replies. “Most of the time I just come here to watch them.” Joanne’s Facebook page is filled with images of the cats at all different times of the day or night, in all manner of weather conditions and a wide range of poses. Each cat has its own name and history, its own personality – just like the characters in the musical Cats. Clearly, she and the cats have been through a lot together, but this slender 40-something doesn’t look at all like the stern, reasoned, impetuous high-level newspaper editor she described herself as.
Joanne explains that taking up photography has been a kind of “shutter therapy” for her, which has helped her recover from the intense target-driven mentality she had developed through her career.
In the news room, every last second matters. Prior to the Sars outbreak, Joanne recalls chatting with a senior colleague and unashamedly stating: “Work is really important, even more important than family.” It’s clear, as she recounts this anecdote, that she regrets that mindset.
During the Sars epidemic, she worked night and day – interviewing during daylight, writing up articles through the night, then starting over again checking the early morning bulletins on radio and TV. When the outbreak subsided, however, the long hours of overtime caught up with her and it had taken a heavy toll on her body – she had to rush to the emergency room due to heart problems several times. Joanne realised she needed to make a change to her life balance, and so took up photography and pottery.
The art slows the pace of life, shifting the mind’s focus away from deadlines and time pressure, and towards meaning and inspiration.
Joanne carries an impressively professional-looking camera, but insists her level of technical knowledge and skills are nothing special, and that she has only studied a little. Her interests lie in capturing the moment.
On a recent trip to Taiwan, she was exploring a forest in Sitou, in the centre of the island. As it was raining heavily, she had not taken her good camera and only took a few snaps with her mobile phone. As soon as the weather improved she dashed back to her hotel room to get her proper equipment. But try as she might, it was impossible to re-capture the feeling of the woods in the rain. Just like when shooting the cats and small birds in the park, Joanne feels she is recording an instant in time – miss it and it is gone forever, but that is no reason to worry.
Through art, she has learned to rediscover herself as well. In the past, Joanne always believed she was a purely rational creature, but with the lens she has found a softer, contented and merciful side to herself. Her photography is her only outlet for this part of her personality. The titles she chooses for her photos are similarly moody, such as “What’s the next step?” and “Reaching out for blessings”, but no matter how I try to talk of how her works make her feel, she gives up very little. All she will say is she has liked animals since she was small, and that she hopes to capture the beauty she sees in them.
Facebook has become her favourite exhibition space. Joanne may be living in today’s turbulent Hong Kong, but she has found a medium and a way to share it that has allowed her to reconnect with the joy of life. Interest and support from family and friends has been a source of even greater joy, inspiring Joanne to push her photography further forward, and giving her the confidence to share more of her images.
Q: What do you like the most about Hong Kong?
Q: What do you dislike the most about Hong Kong?
A: Too greedy for money and power.
Q: What does Hong Kong have to do in order to be sustainable?
A: Stop being so materially greedy.