I recently joined a tour led by the co-curator of “Images Through Time”, a temporary exhibition of photos that showcased Hong Kong‘s past, many dating back to the very early days of British rule in the mid-19th century. I have always been interested in photos of old Hong Kong, yet many in this exhibition were unique and were themselves only recently acquired from the Moonchu Foundation in the U.K. Having spent my childhood years here – it was fascinating given that I could relate to many of the present day locations depicted. For a visitor to the city, the parallels may be less significant, but the photo history nonetheless gave some interesting context to much of present day Hong Kong, and is a great way to explore the ex-colony’s often forgotten past. Thanks to the city’s openness, photography studios were extremely popular from an early day, and allowed for an almost continued documentation of political, social, and physical changes that have taken place over the centuries. In fact, despite Hong Kong’s relatively short history (its population having grown from only 7,500 in the mid-19th Century to some seven million today) – the stories depicted are a telling tale of the hard work and aspirations of its early migrants, and of course the British influence that has molded this ‘Special Administrative Region’ to what it is today.
Photographic works of old Hong Kong are frequently on display in the city, and representing a range of photographers. Earlier in the year, the Maritime Museum showcased an excellent collection by John Thomson – a Scotsman who ultimately settled in Hong Kong in 1868 and made significant contributions to documenting the region’s history. Some of his, as well as other’s works are also on display among the permanent exhibits at the Museum of History. The museum moved to its present day location some ten years ago. Now located next to the Science Museum in Tsim Sha Tsui East, this was my first visit to the ‘new’ site – and my initial reaction was that it’s a LOT bigger. I rushed through in 3 hours, but could have easily spent much longer.
By and large the museum is focused on Hong Kong… briefly starting with its Geographical (even Palaeolithic) history, and moving on to its history within a greater China (Zhou, Qin, Han… Ming, Qing etc…) – and then of course its more recent history including the British arrival at Possession Point, subsequent opium war & lease of New Territories. There is a section covering the Japanese occupation; another covering the handover and the recent decades since. There are huge sections looking into Hong Kong’s financial role, separate sections covering the main ‘ethnicities’ traditionally settled here (the so-called Punti, Hakka, Hoklo etc…), and lots of material covering local culture (past & present), education, festivals, even transportation. Overall, the exhibits are engaging and very well put together. There are not too many artifacts to look at however, so whilst the purpose of this museum is not to stare in awe at some expensive ancient vase, or look at historical relic after relic such as at the Shanghai Museum – the entire museum is tastefully curated with many accurate depictions of real life scenes. Exhibits are all annotated in good English, alongside Chinese descriptions, and various photographs of old Hong Kong are displayed throughout the museum.
For anyone who is in the city and looking for more than the standard day of sightseeing, or those who wish to discover more about the city’s heritage, a good half day at the Museum of History comes highly recommended by me. For those interested in old Hong Kong, do check in to see what photo exhibitions might be on during your stay, or perhaps to enjoy a private tour with one of the city’s historians or co-curators.