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Photographer Virginia Mak in front of her Tai Nan Street series, part of her exhibition called "The Far Country" at Drabinsky Gallery in Toronto.JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

I would not want to play the memory card game with photographer Virginia Mak. She would win all the chips.

Now living in Toronto, Mak spent the first part of her life in Hong Kong, and appears to have forgotten nothing about her early years - especially the beautiful parts. Her new series of treated and specially processed photographs, The Far Country, revisits her elementary school, the neighbourhood where her family home once stood, the trees she played under, and even her first alphabet copy books.

Of course, much has changed since Mak's childhood, and memory, no matter how clear, how resonant, is never perfect. Mak addresses this disconnect between her remembered childhood and the reality of Hong Kong today by layering her photographs with fogged tints, patches of milky semi-transparency, disorienting multiple exposures and irruptive bits of text.

All this processing and reprocessing gives Mak's work a deliciously phantasmal quality, and the ethereal colours she pulls - spills of cold wine red, velvety greens, tree mushroom off-whites, and under-ripe lemon - are the colours you see when you've rubbed your eyes too hard, or when you step from a darkened room into the blanching noonday sun.

Childhood is a loaded subject, for artists and everybody else - but if it's a difficult topic for Mak, she's not telling. Chipper and more than happy to describe her elaborate darkroom techniques, Mak leaves the Proustian melancholy on the studio floor.

Is your childhood home in the photographs?

My school is, but the actual home, no. The church, which is near where my home was, is here. I frequented the church a lot, because I went to a Catholic school. But the building that looks like a house, while it's not my old home, it reminds me of my home. I tried to take pictures of the apartment building I grew up in, in Kowloon, but now it's split in two and is totally different. I also tried to get into my old school, but I wasn't allowed to go in. Perhaps that was just a practical policy on their part, because they didn't know who I was. I understood why they wouldn't let me in.

Tell me about your production process.

Some of the photos have multiple exposures, and also there is layering of paper on top of the enlarger. The paper is the same kind I used to write on, in copy books, when I was learning to write English - making letters over and over.

What do you mean by "layering paper" on the photographs?

Okay, in the darkroom, when you use the enlarger, it's a projection onto photographic paper. I layer the white rice paper on top of the photo paper, so that when the projection comes through, there is a layer between the projected image and the photo paper. And sometimes I will write on the rice paper, and those marks show up on the photo paper, come through in the opposite colour. It's almost like shrouding the image.

But I took all the photographs in focus, I didn't use soft focus or other in-camera treatments. I did all the reworking in the dark room, it's all postproduction. There are at least four or sometimes six levels of production in each final image. I've lost count! Ha! The playing around in the darkroom, that's the fun part.

Also, although I don't like "camera talk," I use a box-style camera, the old fashioned twin lens type. It's better when you're photographing people because you're more anonymous, you're not pointing something at somebody.

These works play with clarity and obfuscation, the visible and the concealed. Are you attempting to make concrete the way your own memory works?

Well, you know how you have flashbacks? They don't come in chronological order or logical order, they just come in different times. And when I take the pictures, sometimes something else comes to mind, and that happens in the darkroom too. But I also wanted to infuse them with a bit of my imagination, like trying to tell a story, not even about myself either, but maybe about imaginary characters. Memory and truth are not the same.

I guess this work is, of course, personal. But it's nothing sad. To me it is very hopeful. My childhood was fairly balanced, and my parents cared about me. Of course, I rebelled against being in a colonial society at the time, but looking back now, it wasn't so bad. I'm really trying to make sense of who I am now by going back.

Hong Kong must seem like a very different place now.

Oh, yes! The first time I went back, many years ago, it seemed just like when I left. But later, especially after 1997, after the British left, there were a lot more bilingual signs, and a lot more people speaking in Mandarin instead of English. And it's way more crowded than I remember! But certain things are the same - the school, the tree in front of the school, the places we went for snacks - although they look much smaller than I remember! I don't trust the word "home," it's too limiting - but is there a "home" to be found in these photographs?

I thought about that too. I thought at one point that I longed for "home," but I guess "home" is someplace still imaginary. I don't know what home is either. I long to belong somewhere, but not one particular place. I want a whole lot of "homes." There's a freedom to not belonging to a specific place.

Virginia Mak's The Far Country runs at the Drabinsky Gallery until Oct. 30.

This interview was condensed and edited.

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