Three years ago, Kurt Tong was given an old wooden trunk after the death of a friend’s neighbour. The outside was sealed by a taoist seal, and inside the trunk were a number of hand written letters, old photographs, numerous books from the 1920s, all belonging to a man called Franklin Lung.
After months of research by meticulously combing through all the clues, he found out that Franklin was born into a poor family in Hong Kong just after the fall of Imperial China in 1912. Through determination, Franklin managed to attend the best university in Shanghai and he became a member of high society, who had trading links with several of the colonial occupiers. He also fell in love and got engaged to Dongyu, the daughter of a high ranking Kuomintang general.
In 1948, tragedy struck. Dongyu was on board the SS Kiangya, packed with refugees escaping the communist army when it was sunk by an old Japanese sea mine near the mouth of the Huangpu River. Franklin was heartbroken but decided to go ahead with the wedding, marrying her in an elaborate ghost marriage ceremony, where a living person is eternally tied to a deceased person in the spirit world. Soon after the wedding, Franklin fled to Hong Kong. He briefly emigrated to the USA via the 105 annual quota after the repealed of the Chinese Exclusion Act. After several failed businesses in San Francisco, he was left penniless. At some point, he returned to Hong Kong, still stricken from grief, he committed suicide by jumping into the Victoria Harbour during Typhoon Wanda in 1962 and presumed drowned.
Despite Franklin’s story happening in the first half the 20th century, there are very current themes running through it; Social mobility, migration and tragedy, and people risking it all for better opportunities. This body of work also examines the superstitious practices around fortune telling, conjuring and many of the less common taoists practices, and people seeking closure and escape through supernatural means.
Portrait © Kurt Tong