By Godfrey Lai
The Hong Kong Museum of History has announced that its permanent exhibition – “The Hong Kong Story” – will close this month for an extensive revamp. Some fear that the new version may be tainted by political propaganda and present a distorted account of history to future museum-goers.
Putting aside concerns for the future, what kind of Hong Kong story does the current exhibition tell?
The original exhibition can be faulted for not presenting history in a comprehensive and Hong-Kong-oriented way. Instead, it infuses the display with the ideological narrative of “Hong Kong culture equates to Chinese culture.” Here are three problems.
In the first half of the exhibition, the museum posed the idea that “Hong Kong is in the Lingnan region, thereby China,” through the display of certain archaeological artefacts. The main theme of the exhibition was “Hong Kong is part of China.” This was supported by one of the exhibits – Dou, a Chinese vessel unearthed in Hong Kong, which is similar in shape and features to those found downstream on the Yangtze.
Such reasoning extended to antiquities from the Ming and Qing Dynasty and neglected some of Hong Kong’s unique folklore and stories – such as the half-man-half-fish creature “Lo-Tings,” the 13th-century saltmakers’ revolution in Lantau Island and the Battle of Tunmen between the Ming rulers and the Portuguese navy in 1521. The exhibition laid heavy stress on the relationship between Hong Kong and China but did not fully illustrate the uniqueness of Hong Kong or Lingnan culture.
Dr Joseph Ting Sun-pao, former museum director, once said: “We are, after all, Chinese. That’s why ‘The Hong Kong Story’ is told by the Hong Kong Chinese.” From this remark, we realise that “The Hong Kong Story” was not and would not be illustrated from a Hong Kong perspective, but from a Chinese one. Gallery Five on the Opium War proved the point.
In Chinese history, the Opium War was the start of its “Century of Humiliation.” The conflict was caused by the expansion of British imperialism, Britain’s dumping of opium on China and the subsequently bullying of the nation by gunboat diplomacy. In short, Britain was the culprit and Hongkongers were victims.
“The Hong Kong Story” embraced this theme by showing a huge statue of Commissioner Lin Zexu to commend his destruction of British opium at Humen.
There are multiple causes of the Opium War, for example the different perceptions of free trade and property rights between the Chinese and the British. The story that a Tanka woman named Kwan assisted the British navy also indicates that some Hong Kong locals did not find its presence offensive and that not all Hongkongers were victims.
One of the earliest local Chinese entrepreneurs, Lo Ah-guo, provided supplies to the British navy and was later granted a plot of land in Ha Wan (“the Lower Ring,” nowadays Wanchai to Causeway Bay). These Hong Kong stories were hidden in “The Hong Kong Story.”
The exhibit also focused on the past rather than the relatively modern era. Four of the eight galleries featured the history of Hong Kong before British administration, in comparison with only one gallery on post-war history. They began in the Devonian period 400 million years ago, and featured ancient trees and fish fossils that were not unearthed locally.
There was only one gallery depicting the post-war period, the most influential time in the development of the city, and even that one focused more on people’s daily lives and the economy. There was little or no information on historically significant events: the struggles between the Chinese Communists and the Nationalists in Hong Kong, the 1956 riots, drives by different governors for democratisation, the reaction to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and the subsequent mass migration from Hong Kong.
Even the 1967 leftist riots, dubbed a “post-war watershed,” was only briefly mentioned in a 10-second video clip.
“The Hong Kong Story” was a perfect check-in spot for social media and visitors could get a better understanding of the old Hong Kong. However, there was still room for improvement if the aim was to present a comprehensive history.
The museum has held consultations since 2015 when the political atmosphere was less tense than now, about the revamp of “The Hong Kong Story.”
According to its website, research into 10 aspects has been completed, including “Hong Kong People’s lives from the 19th to the middle of the 20th century,” “The districts of Tsuen Wan, Kwai Chung and Tsing Yi,” “History of Hong Kong Football after WWII,” “The Ancient History and Culture of Hong Kong from an Archaeological Perspective,” “Hong Kong Portuguese Soldiers and Civilians in the Second World War” etc.
There seems to be no explicit political propaganda, although no conclusions can be drawn before the exhibition reopens.
To sum up, the original “Hong Kong Story” had its own shortcomings in terms of content and narratives. Even before it opens, the revamped exhibition has raised many doubts in society.
To avoid being spoon-fed government-sanctioned versions of the past, visitors should think critically and analyse the source of the materials, in order to proactively explore genuine Hong Kong history in the long term.
Godfrey Lai is the founder of WeToastHK, a self-organised research community founded in 2016. It aims to promote history to a wider audience with a focus on Hong Kong history and culture.
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