Public fear rewriting of “The Hong Kong Story”

October 19, 2020 09:16
Photo: Hong Kong Museum of History

For the last week thousands have been crowding into the Hong Kong Museum of History to see “The Hong Kong Story”, a popular exhibition that has attracted 10 million people since it opened in 2001.

Today, the exhibition – and the museum bookshop -- closed for a two-year renovation. Many fear that the new exhibition will be a rewriting of the city’s history.

“Everyone knows what the government wants to do,” said Alice Lee, visiting with her two young daughters. “They will eliminate many aspects of colonial rule. One of my daughters asked me if the British really ruled Hong Kong?”

Choi Mei-li, an office worker, said that she expected an overhaul. “As a citizen, I hope that the history of the British colonial period will be retained. But, given the current political environment, that will be very difficult.” So she photographed many of the items, so that she can see them in future even if they are not exhibited.

On its website, the museum said: “The Exhibition will be temporarily closed from 19 October 2020 for an extensive revamp. The Museum will remain open. Apart from continuing a variety of our public programmes, we have specially curated the ‘History Through the Lens: Photographs of Early Hong Kong’ exhibition at the Lobby, showing you the development of the north coast of Hong Kong Island from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century; and the ‘Recreating a Classic: The Best Features of the Hong Kong Story’ at the Exhibition Gallery on 1/F from mid-December this year to show you the highlights of ‘The Hong Kong Story’ exhibition featuring Hong Kong’s folk culture and historical development from the pre-historic period to the return to the motherland in 1997.”

The bookshop has also closed. Staff were busy selling all the stock at reduced prices.

Museum staff said that the renovation was overdue and would enable them to introduce new high-technology features, like interactive exhibits, which the public had long been asking for. With modern technology, many items can be shown virtually, instead of as large replicas.

Hong Kong Story occupied an area of 7,000 square metres in eight galleries on two floors. It had over 4,000 exhibits, 750 graphic panels and dioramas and multi-media programmes, starting from the Devonian period 400 million years ago up to 1997.

One gallery has portraits of 21 British governors. Fearing they will not be displayed again, many visitors took photos of them on their mobiles.

“I expect the new exhibition will play down the British contribution and emphasise the links to China,” said Edward Lee, a retired teacher. “The 1967 riots may be removed and perhaps also the march of one million in 1989 to support the Beijing students. Someone like me can find out about this history but what about our children? Will they have to go abroad to learn the history of Hong Kong?”

The new exhibition is likely to include events after 1997, including the SARS epidemic of 2003 and Occupy movement of 2014.

The Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office and the Liaison Office have repeatedly called for the reform of the city’s education system. They consider it “unpatriotic” in terms of examination questions, Chinese history and certain teachers. They blame it in part for the giant protests last year, saying that students were misguided in their opinions.

In June, the Liaison Office said that the education had a clear nature of sovereignty. “In nurturing qualified nationals who understand what is right or wrong in a nation, there is only the responsibility of ‘one, country’ without any division of the two systems.”

But the gap between the history taught in the mainland and that taught outside is very wide. Mainland students learn little about the Great Famine of 1958-62, the Cultural Revolution and the fierce political campaigns against landlords, rich peasants and intellectuals. These resulted in the death of tens of millions of people.

Teachers in the mainland stress the achievements of the post-1949 period, especially since the open-door and reform policies. World War Two is also a controversial period: who deserves the credit for fighting and defeating the Japanese? Was entering the Korean War in 1950 an enormous strategic mistake?

With their family background, education and work experiences abroad and access to global information, many Hong Kong people cannot accept the mainland version of history. Some even consider the rewriting of school history a reason to emigrate, in order to protect their children from it.

The brain-washing will be a long and tortuous process.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.