60s-era Hong Kong captured in priest’s rare paintings

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These paintings immortalise a Hong Kong many can only dream about.

Images courtesy of Jasmine Lee.

There are two stunning paintings that depict Hong Kong in the 50s and 60s, produced in 1961 with oil on canvas by a German priest by the name of Reinhold Romanus Zeller. His paintings memorialise images that underscore the city’s cultural transformations from past eras to the present day. 

Reinhold Romanus Zeller was born in Saar, worked in China through World War II and passed away in Hong Kong 44 years ago. From portraits to landscapes, many of his paintings depict life in China and Hong Kong; the latter being a place where private seller Barbara Harding believes held a special place in the priest’s heart.

Barbara Harding, the granddaughter of Leo Landau (founder of the now-closed Jimmy’s Kitchen), estimates that the painting on the right is of Ladder Street in Sheung Wan and urges viewers to observe the centre of the illustration. A young boy converses with a man slightly turned towards him, representing a father-son relationship. 

She remarks on their outfits, which are less commonly spotted in today’s Central neighbourhoods: “That singlet was very much a sort of thing people wore in the 60s.”

In the same painting, the viewer can also see a man on the right who looks like he is smoking a cigarette (“Not a nice man,” Harding surmises), and behind him, a shop owner arranging flowers at the storefront. 

Harding takes a moment to appreciate Father Zeller’s art style. From the small street stalls to the laundry hanging on bamboo poles, Zeller captures details which, though subtle, are poignant signifiers of the atmosphere and setting of 20th century Hong Kong. 

“It’s impressionist—lots of people have made paintings of Hong Kong, but he sort of hints at it.”

Barbara Harding, auctioneer

We see a boat travelling between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon—this is the Yaumati Ferry, which served as a major transportation route across the harbour until the Cross-Harbour, Eastern and Western Harbour Tunnels were constructed in the 70s to 90s. 

“It’s a very intelligent painting,” Harding says. 

While most other foreign painters would make scribbles to substitute for Chinese characters, she argues, Zeller foregrounds Chinese calligraphy in different styles on several building signs. This is not only “extraordinary” for a Catholic Father to highlight in his art but is also indicative of Zeller’s deep interest in Chinese culture. According to Harding, this was especially when he returned to Hong Kong from Germany and passed away not long after.

You can see more of Father Zeller’s recently auctioned work via Beech Auctions on Facebook.