Adventures in editing 2

Hong Kong: bringing Taipingshan’s history of plague to life

Barry J Gibb
8 min readSep 24, 2018

This is the second article in a series about the thinking behind how I put certain films together, a sort of behind the scenes of the creative process at work. You can read and watch the first article here.

Contagious Cities

This project was for the Wellcome Trust, a fantastic organisation spanning the worlds of science and the humanities. In Contagious Cities, the aim was to stimulate conversations across the world about how we live today and how that impacts epidemic preparedness — the means by which a country prepares for any potential contagious disease outbreak.

Working with Project Leader, the indefatiguable Danielle Olsen, and the outstanding Abbie Doran, we met to discuss the filmic needs of the project.

While the project itself spans five cities, my task was to visit two of these, New York and Hong Kong, to create a sub five minute film suitable to the needs of the project. The films were to be screened within the Wellcome Trust, online and potentially in museums within each of the host countries.

Strong initial guidance from Danielle was that each of these films should weigh heavily on how past outbreaks of disease have informed the country’s present day approach to epidemic preparedness. Other words and themes that came out as we spoke were ideas of human movement, migration and disease.

As I listened, two other images came to mind, the vitality of water as a means by which humans move around the world and also how we tend to congregate close to water for hydration and feeding. Then the idea of blood came to mind, the medium by which life is carried throughout our being but also the potential carrier of infection, once it’s managed to break through the skin.

Another key piece of information I like to get hold of at this early stage is how they’d like the film to ‘feel’ — to give it an emotional tag. Are we talking pacey and energetic, cool and hip or something else entirely. This question can throw some people off but Danielle paused a moment and came back to me with, ‘poetic’, which I loved.

The idea of poetic filmmaking is one I adore and, within a documentary context is a bit like being let off the reigns — rather than being too literal and thinking, ‘I must get shots of x and y’, the mind opens up to unexpected juxtapositions both when out filming and in the edit.

I’ve written about the actual filming trips to the two locations, which you can see here, so for now, let’s keep it to the actual edit.

The Opening

Times are indicated at the start of each paragraph, when necessary, in minutes:seconds.

The film — essentially a twin to the film I made in New York — starts with a branded text card to outlay to a viewer that the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences is creating an app that will be used by visitors to the city to provide a guided walking tour that takes in key historical landmarks in the city’s medical history.

Mirroring the New York film, we start on the water — the first route by which humans developed the capacity for distant travel, and the means by which to spread disease — with a lonesome, rather old-fashioned boat intended to speak to Hong Kong’s history as a trading hub, which works well with Professor Gabriel Leung’s (GL) remarks.

As the sequence evolves, we broaden out to more, larger, more modern boats and ships, firmly placing us within contemporary Hong Kong whilst also attempting to provide a sense of how much human movement ocurs on the water. Finally, we pull right back to a panorama on Hong Kong Island. It’s not the fabulous, crisp, sundrenched shot I’d imagined but given how poor the weather was, I was delighted to get it!

00:24 This short sequence acts as an establishing shot for the city, highlighting the numerous tower blocks and inhabitants before cutting to a worker moving what appears to be massive amounts of rubbish while GL discusses the dissemination of ‘bugs’ (bacteria). Here, we cut to water, a recurring theme in both films but, in this instance, it’s intended to reinforce how close the street waste is to water; how easily bacteria can move around within the streets.

It also acts as a segway to introducing the next interviewee, Professor Faith Ho (FH). Now that we’re thinking of bacteria, cutting to a shot of an ‘old pathological institute’ feel perfectly natural. This building also happens to be the current Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences, where FH works. So we cut to an establishing shot of the museum in all it’s glory.

This was a surprisingly hard shot to get. The museum is surrounded on all sides by larger, more modern buildings, so finding a good vantage point to try and highlight it’s lovely architecture was challenging. In the end, rather than seek a distant vantage point, I simply sat on the stairs leading down to the museum and carefully raised the camera to try and give the shot a feel of grandeur.

00:49 As FH explains the purpose of the Heritage walk, she mentions how key the themes of health and disease are. At this point we cut to the imagery of what appears to be blood and water (how this shot was obtained is discussed in the previous article) flowing and mixing together — a visual metaphor for disease.

00:53 The wisps of blood now cut to wisps of smoke originating from sticks of incense; the idea being to, whenever possible, continue the feeling of movement and disease.

The incense also acts as the first shot to introduce us to the temple in which the third and final interviewee is located, Dr Joseph Ting (JT). As JT discusses how densely packed this part of Hong Kong was, we are shown a sea of peoples’ faces. Only later in the interview do we learn that these people are all dead, working alongside JT’s discussion of Chinese beliefs and the dead.

We only had one hour to set up the light, interview and shoot within the temple and I was pleased with the end result. The interview backdrop to JT looked fantastic, while the shot I obtained at 01:15 was a wonderful moment of serendipity as the camera continued to run whilst I tidied up!

01:22 We cut to a piece of highly relevant art, commissioned by the museum itself, as it so beautifully reinforces JT’s discussion about poor living conditions. This leads to an archive image of the founders of the new hospital JT discusses before we return to modern Hong Kong and a shot of a street sign highlighting the name of hospital before cutting to JT himself in a state of reverance as he walks within the same room shown in the archive photo with all the founders.

I wanted us to feel how significant and special this hospital was. The shot of JT within this room — a very rare opportunity — was captured before we actually did another interview here. In the end, the interview we caught in the temple was perfect but the shot of JT here, taking it all in, felt right.

01:38 Now that all the interviewees are introduced, I wanted to get outside as much as possible, to highlight the medical heritage trail itself. Here, we cut to FH, not as an interviewee but as a guide looking at a sign, highlighting a significant part of Hong Kong’s history involving bubonic plague, outside Blake Garden.

01:50 As GL mentions how this trail helps remind people of their medical past while placing it within a modern context, we cut to two shots attempting to do just that. One in which we see a man in a mask spraying an area with some form of chemical while, a little farther back in the shot, we see a woman cleaning . We then cut to a man entering the Pound Lane Public Toilet, a heavily used place today with a rich history and key stopping point on the trail. Together, these shots highlight a city aspiring to cleanliness, to remain free from disease.

01:55 As FH starts to touch on the difficulties that can emerge when two cultures live in close proximity without a strong line of communication, I wanted to highlight how different Chinese medicine must have felt to the British inhabitants of the time by showing two beautiful objects from the museum.

Each of these objects, the man and the ear, is deliberately chosen because they are recognisably human while potentially feeling a little ‘alien’ and unknowable to a person unfamialiar with the culture. The intention was to deliberately create a sense of ‘uncanny valley’, that feeling of knowing something but it also feeling just a bit ‘off’.

Having seen these beautiful objects, we now cut to an archive image of the British inhabitants from the time of the plague. This shot, with these pristine men looking so terribly smart and British is intended to highlight how different these two cultures were, helping to reinforce FH’s statements.

02:11 Which leads nicely to a short montage of art and archive imagery showing just how hard it must have been for everyone — building a sense of emotional outrage, a sense that this could not last.

02:52 As GL discusses SARS, a modern disease, we see a montage of modern Hong Kong, intended to capture a flavour of real lives amidst real spaces (as opposed to an idealistic version of Hong Kong).

Our ‘rubbish man’ appears again, we see graffiti that echoes a sense of heightened observation, incense echoing the dead…

At the mention of the creation of a new Centre for Health Protection, we cut back to our visual metaphor for disease.

03:37 As FH discusses the trail, she touches on the trail helping people to feel how we got from the past to the present. During our walking of the trail, we encountered this man making picture frames in a way that felt like it hadn’t changed for generations. Kindly, he allowed me to film him and I used this sequence because his work felt like the embodiment of the passage of time — some things change, like how we approach disease — but other aspects of life remain exactly the same.

04:29 Following on from a sequence intended to highlight the close proximity of lives and population density as GL discusses how much has been learnt from previous outbreaks of disease, I wanted to end with an upbeat, positive image. This shot of FH and a student walking towards the start of the trail felt like a great place to end. It has a sense of wonder as they walk towards the trail, while literally bridging the past, present and future of the city in the guises of Faith and her student.

If you’ve got any comments or thoughts, feel free to reach out. I love what I do and never tire of talking about filmmaking.



Barry J Gibb

Award-winning documentary filmmaker, author of The Rough Guide to the Brain. Founder, Digitalis Films,