‘The History Museum perpetuates the myth that Hong Kong has no culture by providing a sterile and clinical retelling of Hong Kong’s rich past.’
History geek boyfriend (shown above) on Hong Kong’s History Museum
This review of Hong Kong’s Museum Of History was a long time coming. You may have seen my review of their special exhibition The Evergreen Classic: Transformation Of The Qipao but I actually managed to check out their main exhibition, The Hong Kong Story, twice in the space of two weeks. Not through scholarly enthusiasm but on a trip with my kindergarten class and again, when my boyfriend and I showed up a month early for aforementioned qipao exhibition – and I’m afraid that I wasn’t too impressed.
The Hong Kong Story contains a lot of what I brand ‘fake history’ – lots of replicas and not many authentic artefacts. It traces Hong Kong from its beginnings as a barely-populated jungle filled with tigers (apparently) through its time as a British colony via displays about traditional Chinese folk culture before reaching modern-day HK. But given it opts for building replicas of trams, boats, fishermen, puppets, a tower of buns, schools, banks and practically everything else you can think of, the true authentic visceral sense of history is forsaken. Most of your information is gleaned from reading the placards beside each replica (or listening to your audio guide!) and looking at blown-up reprinted old photographs, meaning that you’re not really getting that much of a different experience from reading a history textbook, except you’re getting to stretch your legs and battle snap-happy visitors in the process.
In my opinion, the most riveting part of Hong Kong’s history is wartime and the Japanese occupation – parts which are dealt with much more effectively and movingly in the Museum Of Coastal Defence, which at least has some genuine bullet-strewn walls, cannons, caponniers and torpedoes to make for a more well-rounded experience (plus there’s currently the amazing Escape To Wai Chow exhibition – check out the full review here).
Elsewhere, it’s only interesting to those who have absolutely no working knowledge of Hong Kong’s history and given the plastic-ness of most of the exhibits, it doesn’t really reward repeated visits – although obviously I overdid it a bit! It’s certainly not an essential tourist stop nor, speaking from experience, is it much fun for very young visitors.
My photos illustrate the few parts that, not being too bothered by models of Neanderthals making fire in prehistoric HK, I actually did find interesting. And oh dear, déjà vu, it includes some vintage calendar prints of girls wearing qi pao. Moving on…
This is the interior of one of HK’s oldest traditional Chinese medicine shops. A REAL interior, not a fake replica. When it closed its doors for the last time, the LCSD managed to procure its décor and stick it in the history museum. There’s also an audio recording from the shop’s owner (plus English translation!). It’s interesting because it feels real and what with Hong Kong’s record in demolishing sites of historical interest, the sort of thing the government should be doing much more of. You’ll find it in a street filled with less interesting replicas of other early Hong Kong shops.
Social history inevitably has a lot more to offer than a plastic model. The section on Hong Kong’s early schooling system has glass cases filled with old exercise books and report cards. and, if you can decipher the spidery handwriting, being basically quite nosy is always absorbing!
I know it might sound like my bugbear, having gone on about it at other tourist destinations (like the Museum Of Coastal Defence and the Botanical Gardens), but the eating facilities here would be the laughing stock of any Western cultural hotspot. The Museum Of History’s school cafeteria may be cheap, clean and offer an abundance of chicken wings, but it could be so much more. Flogging a mix of instant noodles and junk food (not in one dish… although I wouldn’t put it past them), it mostly serves as a last resort or for people looking for somewhere quiet where they can crab free Wifi for as long as possible. It did, however, have beautiful lamps made to look like birdcages.
Perhaps I’ve been spoilt by having “real history” in practically every back garden in the UK, but I found the Hong Kong Museum Of History’s Hong Kong Story exhibition rather uninspiring. I’d rather pick up a history book from Page One and hop across the way to the Science Museum, which is a LOT more fun. And hopefully you’ll believe me when I say that I’ll review that museum very soon – i.e. sometime before 2012, fingers crossed!
The Hong Kong Story, Hong Kong Museum of History, 100 Chatham Road South, Tsim Sha Tsui East, Kowloon, 2724 9042.
Opening hours: Monday, Wednesday- Saturday, 10am-6pm, Sunday and Public Holiday 10am-7pm, closed Tuesdays. Admission $10 (free on Wednesdays). For further details, visit their website here.