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Stamps: Hobby of Kings Has Something for Everyone



Want to learn more about world history or Hong Kong’s intangible cultural heritage? Are you a sports lover or a foodie? Are you fascinated with art or design? Are you looking for community locally or internationally or to build ties within your own family? If you answered yes to any of these, then consider the “hobby” of stamp collecting. Though sometimes referred to as “the hobby of kings,” stamp collecting actually offers something for everyone regardless of fame or fortune.


It wasn’t until 1840 that England issued the world’s first postage stamps to prepay the cost of sending a letter. Before that, generally, postage fees were paid by the recipient, which meant that sometimes letters were returned to the sender. Interest in stamp collecting started almost immediately. Britannica notes that in 1841 a woman in London advertised she was seeking cancelled stamps to use as a sort of wallpaper to decorate her dressing room. 


Because of its leading role in world commerce, which necessitated the use of letter mail both locally and internationally, Hong Kong has a rich and varied philatelic heritage. Hong Kong issued its own postal stamps in 1862, and they were required for use as of 1864.


Collectors in Hong Kong established the Hong Kong Philatelic Society in 1921, “to promote philatelic activities in Hong Kong.”  The HKPS, with about 200 members, some of whom now reside outside of Hong Kong, seeks “to create a vibrant community of stamp collectors who can connect, share their collections and experiences, and exchange ideas.”  The Hong Kong Study Circle, which started in 1951, has 300-400 members worldwide who focus on the “philatelic and postal history of Hong Kong and the Treaty Ports.”


Ingo Nessel, Vice President of the Hong Kong Study Circle, began collecting stamps when he was a young boy growing up in Canada. The front door of his family’s home had a mail slot through which the mail carrier dropped the letters. Nessel liked the stamps and so would soak them off the envelopes and put them in an album. An older cousin, with his own “massive” collection, encouraged Nessel’s interest. 


Nessell gradually got into the hobby, joining his high school’s stamp club. His parents, who had moved to Canada from Germany, let him have the stamps from letters they had written each other when his father was still in Germany and his mother had already moved to Canada. 


As an adult, because of his family’s German heritage, Nessel, first focused on collecting German stamps, and of course, Canadian stamps. In the 1980s, he began traveling to Hong Kong for work and fell in love with the city. His love for Hong Kong spilled over into his stamp collecting. He realized that he would also like to collect Hong Kong stamps and related materials. 


Stamps: The Stealth Teacher

Nessel, who is also a Fellow of the London Philatelic Society, a past president of the Philatelic Specialists Society of Canada, and an Executive Director and Board Member of Canada’s preeminent philately foundation, the Vincent Graves Greene Philatelic Research Foundation, regularly uses his Hong Kong collection to highlight all that stamp collecting has to offer. “History is illustrated by postal history,” Nessel observes.


At a recent HK Study Circle meeting, as part of his talk entitled Why I Collect Hong Kong, Nessel discussed an 1898 letter that was sent from Hong Kong to Cuba. Using all the postal markings on the envelope (termed “a cover” in philately), he had traced the letter’s complex travel route. He researched and learned that Cuba’s tobacco and sugar industries had many Chinese workers. He also learned about a statue in Cuba that honors the contributions Chinese fighters made in Cuba’s war for independence from Spain. As Nessel notes, with a stamp or a cover, “you are holding history in your hands.” 


Nessel says stamps provide an “instant education.”  By collecting stamps as a youth, he got to know country names, country currencies, and country leaders. “You get to learn without knowing that you are learning. It’s kind of a subterfuge in a good way,” he reflects. 


Malcolm Hammersley current chair of the Hong Kong Philatelic Society, the oldest philatelic society in Hong Kong, concurs. “[When looking through your collection] you can get the kids to look up a place on the [map and do a bit of research]. It teaches them about the world.” 


Hammerlsey began collecting when he was about seven years old. Stamp dealers would advertise in magazines and offer “free” toys like a magnifying glass, The dealers also sent “approvables” (stamps) with the free gift. Because he was getting one thing for free, Hammersley felt he should buy the approvables.  He took a break from the hobby as he got older, but returned to it when he was in the early days of his career. 


Hammersley notes that stamps “can transport you” to another place. One of his most favorite stamps shows Pigeon Island, St. Lucia. He acquired the stamp when he was working there in the early 1970s. 


Stamps: Small Works of Art and Graphic Design

Nessel speaks with great admiration about the artistic effort that goes into “creating these little pieces of paper.” Drawing again on his Hong Kong collection (and sharing photos from it for this article), Nessel describes the SAR’s issue of definitive (everyday/regular) stamps from 2002-2006 (shown above), as “really, really graphically beautiful and thematically interesting.”  Each stamp is divided in half with one half showing a Chinese element and the other a Western element. They illustrate “the beautiful concept of cultures living side by side.”  He has similar praise for the SAR’s 2006-2014 issue of bird stamps, noting the colors and “extremely fine design work” as seen in the photo above. The commemorative centenary stamps above are almost like paintings themselves. As Nessel observes, they also try to incorporate elements from both British and Chinese culture.


Stamps also illustrate the evolution of graphic design. Hong Kong’s special commemorative stamps from the 1960s and 1970s, including the 1968 vessel and 1974 tiger above, are easily recognized by their colors and graphics as belonging to those decades. 


Even people who don’t collect stamps appreciate the artistic beauty and graphic design qualities of stamps. The 2024 Hong Kong Affordable Art Fair included works from London-based artist Guy Gee. Gee, who was already an admirer of Japanese graphic design, came upon an 1898 Japanese stamp, which in turn led him to his Terence Project. According to his website, he uses computers to scan and then “digitally revise” stamps. He has worked with stamps from more than 200 nations, islands, and cities, including a collaboration with the renowned philately firm Stanley Gibbons. The two photos above show works of his that were for sale at HK Affordable Art Fair.


Technology Poses Challenges

Despite all that stamp collecting has to offer, there is concern for the future of the “hobby.” The proliferation of email has reduced the need for postage stamps, and maybe not surprisingly, as both Nessel and Hammersley note, there are many young people who have no idea what a stamp is. 


In response to an invitation from a school, Nessel and other members of his local club in Canada presented a PowerPoint about what a stamp is. He suggested that the students mail a postcard to themselves to see how the system worked. The Hong Kong Philatelic Society has also tried to foster students’ interest in stamps.


The Hongkong Post has had many youth outreach efforts. Until Covid forced changes to school operating schedules, for nearly 20 years, the Hongkong Post sponsored the very popular Inter-School Stamp Exhibits Competition.  In 2005, the beloved Peanuts character Snoopy even served as the Post’s Philatelic Ambassador. In 2023, the Hongkong Post and the Education Bureau held a letter writing competition to support the 52nd International Letter-Writing Competition of the Universal Postal Union, the international agency that promotes cooperation among postal authorities.


While it poses challenges, technology, also presents opportunities for outreach since stamps can be shared across the world on various platforms and people can get together virtually. Nessel notes that social media “is a way to get the kids [interested] in stamps,” and through stamps “they get a taste of how interesting history can be.”


To share his love of the beauty of stamps with those who don’t yet collect or who may not know much about stamps at all, during Covid Nessel started an Instagram page @JustBeautifulStamps. He has nearly 2,000 followers. 


There are philately-focused accounts and channels on digital platforms like Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, TikTok, and YouTube. Some stamp clubs now meet only through platforms like Facebook, Nessel adds.


It's About the FriendshipsFor Nessel, it’s not just about the stamps. “It’s about the friendships” he has made. It was actually friends in Toronto who first got him to join the Hong Kong Study Circle meetings in Canada. When he would travel to Hong Kong on business he would be sure to be in touch with Hong Kong-based members of the Hong Kong Study Circle, and they would host a local meeting so that they could get together with him. Nessel is also a member of a smaller philately group in  Toronto called the B62 Group, which is a reference to an older cancel mark that prevented the re-use of Hong Kong stamps during Queen Victoria’ reign. In addition to their quarterly meetings, they annually have a dinner together. Nessel describes collecting as “very collegial,” noting that friends have alerted him when they have spotted a stamp or marking that he may be interested in.


Similarly, friendships are an important part of Hammersley’s journey. When he was first working overseas, it was a friend from work who helped reignite Hammersley’s interest in collecting. Later in 1974 when he came to Hong Kong for work, it was work friends who encouraged him to join the Hong Kong Philatelic Society. He has been attending the monthly HKPS meetings ever since, as long as he is physically in Hong Kong. One of the reasons he values judging is the opportunities it affords to get together with people and to learn.


Clearly, as Nessel says, “[i]f you are interested in history or art or beautiful design, you can get all of that and a lot more just by collecting these artefacts of history.” 


If you are at all curious about stamps, reach out to a club or group or explore philately on a social media platform or through a resource such as a postal authority website or a postal museum. Let stamps transport you to faraway or familiar places, unlock new areas of learning, and foster friendships.


Delve into the rich Hong Kong postal heritage and discover the captivating design of Hong Kong stamps. Additionally, discover the unique and artistic side of letterboxes and mailboxes.


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'Let me live, love, and say it well in good sentences.' – Sylvia Plath

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