The Hong Kong Museum of History is the heart and soul of the city’s longstanding narrative. It introduces the visitor to the story of Hong Kong in a linear fashion; beginning with the Prehistoric/Neolithic period to the modern-day city scape. The narrative flourishes and collides the past and the present. Now more than ever, it is imperative to preserve the Hong Kong story; as censorship threatens to erase all that does not fit in with the growing Nationalistic propaganda.
Here is a guide to the Hong Kong Museum of History.
The museum itself is designed to display special exhibitions on the first floor whereas permanent exhibits are on the second floor – but this page will centre itself on permanent displays. For a longer guide through the museum, I recommend the book A History of Hong Kong by Frank Welsh.
The permanent displays start off with Hong Kong in the Neolithic period. First you cross under some faux geological rocks that represent the beginning of Hong Kong as a volcanic hotspot. This is a particularly important entry point as it emphasizes the creation of Hong Kong’s landscape as we know it today. Then, to the right as you enter the next room, there are figures of Neolithic men on a beach as a stepping point to the Hong Kong story – one is crafting a boat; the other is attempting to make fire. To the left – encased in glass – is a skeleton of a Neolithic man. Further along, there are tools of the Neolithic period – such as a knife and stone grinders.
The story of Prehistoric Hong Kong is surmised to have begun 38,000 BC, while the Neolithic Period, as presented in the exhibition, is thought to have started 7,000 years ago. There are rock-carvings located across Hong Kong that tell the story of the first settlers. The Bronze and Iron Age are particularly pivotal in Hong Kong, as seen by the advancement of mechanisms supplied and applied by those living during this period. This is the beginning of the Hong Kong story.
Next, the exhibition takes the visitor from the Bronze and Iron Ages across to the eighteenth-and-nineteenth-centuries.
A large portion of the museum is its exhibit on the Opium Wars. This part of the museum focuses on Hong Kong’s history as a fishing village and its position on the global trade market during the eighteenth-century by demonstrating figures creating fabrics and silks. In addition, faux pressed fish are hung about the area – showcasing Hong Kong’s marketplace tradition (which continues to this day with wet-markets). In the centre of the exhibit is a reconstruction of a traditional fishing and trading boat. Visitors of the museum can stand on the boat and admire the details of it.
This maritime history ties to the Opium Wars of the mid-nineteenth-century. The First Opium War was fought from 1839-1842; between the Qing Dynasty with the British Empire. The Second Opium War was between 1856-1860, which introduced France into the fold. What was the purpose of the Opium Wars? It was said to have been a fight over trading rights, the openness of trade, and diplomatic status. In truth, it was about the practice of smoking opium which – although used medicinally – became an addictive substance for many. This led to Commissioner Lin, in 1839, desiring a halt of the Opium trade. The British pushed back since they saw the Opium trade as lucrative. After much conflict it ended with a treaty between China, Britain, and France. More on the Opium Wars can also be found in Frank Welsh’s A History of Hong Kong.
As the visitor’s cross over the boats, they enter the part of the museum that celebrates longstanding traditions in Hong Kong. Firstly, the visitor will comes across a makeshift temple – complete with fake food and many lanterns hanging from the ceiling. In the corner stands a figure surrounded by oranges, with rectangle red paper with traditional characters plastered around them – knowingly for wealth and luck. This particular tradition is often designated as an offering toward one’s ancestors or a God of the households or temples choosing. Nearby is a rectangular table full of apples, oranges, chicken, and other assortments of (fake) food. Plastered across the wall in the other direction is an old photo (approximately late nineteenth-to-early-twentieth-century) of workers gathering crops from a field. This represents Hong Kong’s history with rice fields – and how abundant they were in areas such as Tai Wan. From there, you come across two tall figures – a dragon and lion (performers clearly shown beneath the costumes) engaging in the stance of traditional dance. Historians speculate that lion dancing began in the late Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD). At Chinese New Year, the lion is often found to dances in public places – such as shops – to chase away demons; whilst shopkeepers make offerings to the lions in the name of food or Lai See (red packets with money inside of them). Beside the lion and the dragon stand two figures – both young women – with one balancing on a tall stick attached to what appears to be a pottery raven. Then one comes across the tallest portion of the exhibit – a tall tower of (plastic) flour buns to mark the Cheung Chau Bun Festival. Formally started in the eighteenth-century, it began as a method to discourage plague and pirates; by erecting a high tower made up of buns in the hope of driving away evil spirits through the God Pak Tai. This is known as “Bun-snatching” – the higher the bun, the better the fortune one will have. After this, you come across three fearsome men wearing traditional armour and headdress.
As a result of the second Opium War, Hong Kong came under colonial rule by the British. With that came bureaucratic, economic, travel, and infrastructure changes. One primary endeavour was the creation of the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank (HSBC) in 1865. As you turn from the part of the museum that incorporates long-standing traditions, you enter the next exhibit that is then dedicated to the history of this bank including the original sign and bank exchange counter, where visitors can see old currency that was in use during Hong Kong’s time as part of the British Empire. It was particularly interesting to see the faces of previous kings embedded on the banknotes.
From here visitors travel onward and come across one of the city’s first Trams (colloquially known as “Ding Dings”). Trams hold a rich history as part of the city’s landscape, and are still in use on Hong Kong Island today. The visitor may notice the exterior, but also can climb aboard and interact with the interior – admiring the wooden seats, the overhanging lights, and the wheel. The tram itself is one of the earliest means of travel in the city, first established in 1904 as part of British input into the city’s infrastructure. They are some of the cheapest and most environmentally-friendly ways to travel around the city to this date. Since then, antique trams have been used in the modern city – both to be rented for events, and also for tourist trails. In many ways, it can be argued that Hong Kong’s trams represent a part of Hong Kong’s history that is in threat of being erased.
As mentioned at the beginning, the first floor of the museum held temporary exhibits. This one in particular is titled: “Recreating a Classic: The Best Features of The Hong Kong Story”. In it, museum goers get to experience the evolution of the city and its surrounding islands – from fashion to pottery, onward to primary city transport of the nineteenth-and-twentieth-centuries such as the Ferry and Rickshaw. According to the Hong Kong History Museum website, the exhibit is intended to take “[…] audiences on a journey through 400 million years of historical space-time to gain an in-depth understanding of Hong Kong's history and culture.” From this, visitors are enthralled by the unearthing of Han Dynasty (AD 25-220) pottery house to an original stationary Rickshaw, propelled toward 1960s Fashion Magazines, all the way down to memorabilia from the 1997 Sino-British Handover. It gives a wide-ranging presence to Hong Kong, aiming to entice visitors and provide new understandings as to the depth of Hong Kong’s narrative: from birth of man to our present.
The final exhibition holds the essence of the Hong Kong Story. The importance of it is that it presents Hong Kong in all its autonomy. Unfortunately, this is under threat. It is not to say that the Hong Kong Museum of History is likely to alter its exhibits any time soon, but if rumours are to be believed, change is coming. Hong Kong has faced the introduction of the New Security Law and its establishment as a police state. The crackdown by the Communist Party of China has already affected rule of law, human rights freedoms, and Hong Kong’s identity as an international city. This is why it is important to keep Hong Kong’s story alive. This is why I chose to write about the Hong Kong Museum of History.
The overall impact of the museum is that it transports the visitor back in time to a variety of “Hong Kong’s” that many fail to remember or even consider. As it guides the visitor on a journey from past to present, people can experience the story of Hong Kong at its fullest. From its Neolithic era to Hong Kong’s position as a trading post in the world, and then finally arrives at Hong Kong’s dynamic traditions! This museum holds within it the golden fragments of what makes Hong Kong so unique against the global backdrop. Most notably, despite the in-depth history it portrays, it is incredibly accessible to visitors who may be fresh to it.
In terms of visiting, both “Recreating a Classic: The Best Features of The Hong Kong Story” and “Free History Through the Lens: Photographs of Early Hong Kong” are free exhibitions. The more permanent exhibitions – as mentioned in this article – are $10 HKD for a Museum Family pass and $5 HKD for Concessionary Pass. If you are ever in Hong Kong, I highly recommend visiting this hub of history.
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Emrys R. Keim is an MA Graduate of History (and Medieval History) from the University of Winchester. Her focus is on Queenship Studies and Gender History. Born and brought up in Hong Kong, Emrys had an international upbringing and education. Her passion for her home is palpable in the sharing of the Hong Kong Museum of History. In her spare time, Emrys indulges in historiographical study and runs the online blog “The Historian Circle” with three other postgraduate historians.