History lessons from a former museum curator

November 21, 2015 08:04
Joseph Ting, who retired as chief curator of the Hong Kong Museum of History in 2007, continues to devote a lot of time to researching the city's past. Photo: HKEJ

Joseph Ting Sun-pao, former chief curator of the Hong Kong Museum of History, remains committed as ever to the cause of preserving the city's heritage and researching various aspects of its history.

Many buildings have been witness to the city's growth and success over the years, he says.

Nonetheless, urban development has taken a toll on several important facilities, with structures torn down despite their huge historical value, Ting noted.

"Tsim Sha Tsui train station area has got nothing left except the clock tower. It's a pity! What is worse is that the old General Post Office, which was once Hong Kong's most beautiful building, has been replaced by World-Wide House."

People crave modernity, but it's only when the old things disappear that locals realize that some things are more important than "development", Ting says.

Overseas Hongkongers who return to the city after a gap of many years often find it difficult to recognize the place, as many old buildings no longer exist, he notes.

The loss of the historical structures evokes feelings of nostalgia as well as sadness, he points out. 

"It is like old students feeling detached if they come and discover that their alma mater is in a new campus."

Talking about the recent calls to cover up the royal insignia on colonial-era mail boxes, Ting said he considers the move to be "disrespectful".

"The suggestion is not at all constructive," he says, adding that people should learn to respect history.

For years, as the curator of a top museum, Ting has explored many aspects of Hong Kong's history. Although he retired in 2007, his life is now busier than ever.

His writes books, speaks at seminars and leads cultural tours, trying to pass on his knowledge and the city's many stories to the younger generation.

A recent seminar that brought him a lot of satisfaction was one that touched upon the development of Kowloon peninsula and the history of Kowloon Hospital.

"While reading Hong Kong government files, I noted that the first hospital in Kowloon peninsula was Kwong Wah Hospital. However, it was a hospital for Chinese patients. Hence, foreigners living in Kowloon had complained that they were forced to travel to Hong Kong Island to see a doctor."

Following the complaints, the government then built the Kowloon Hospital, catering to the needs of the non-Chinese, he notes.

"The site was carefully chosen. Initially the building was intended to be in Chuk Yuen (present-day Wong Tai Sin), but eventually it was set in central Kowloon. As neighborhoods such as Ho Man Tin and Kowloon Tong were developed, so did the demand for services of the hospital."

Ting says that he is constantly learning new things about local history.

"History is not something outdated. History can give answers for today and yield insights for the future. By learning history you will become worldly-wise."

Hong Kong people should also study the history of modern China and gain understanding on both the positive and negative aspects of the country, Ting added.

"China's development has been rapid and the living standards have greatly improved. At the same time, decades of class struggle, especially the events that took place during the Cultural Revolution, have distorted peoples' morals grossly that people now go to any length to maximize their gains."

Problems such as corruption and food adulteration are the result of the distorted morals, he says.

In other comments, Ting said that Hong Kong has been losing its edge since its reunification with China in 1997.

"Hong Kong is comparatively less attractive now. If you study history, you will find that expatriates came to Hong Kong mostly because it was under British colonial rule, with sound legal system and business registration advantages."

"Many companies registered in Hong Kong before heading to the mainland. For instance, HSBC first set up its headquarters in Hong Kong but a lot of its business was in Shanghai, lending money to the Qing dynasty authorities."

Right now, enterprises bypass Hong Kong and conduct business directly in the mainland, Ting says, adding that Hong Kong's status, as the gateway to China, is "fading".

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov. 19.

Translation by Darlie Yiu

[Chinese version中文版]

 (Cantonese only)

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Ting often leads guided cultural tours, passing on his knowledge to others. Picture here shows him at an event in Sha Tin last month. Photo: HKEJ
In April this year, Ting handled a press conference related to Tung Lin Kok Yuen, which is classified as a Grade One historic building. Photo: HKEJ
Ting displays a copy of a book written by him. The picture on the right shows a publication authored by Ting on foreign clans in Hong Kong during pre-war period. Photo: HKEJ

Hong Kong Economic Journal writer