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How to Know Hong Kong and Macau

Roberto Ignacio Diaz, Dominic Cheung, Ana Paulina Lee, Authors

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A Final Film

Throughout the Hong Kong Museum of History, short films on a number of topics form part of each exhibit. Located in Gallery Eight (“Modern Metropolis and Return to China”), one last film, side-by-side with placards and paraphernalia that detail Hong Kong’s return to China, aptly ends the museum tour. In light of the alarm over the handover back in the eighties and nineties and the recent tensions with the mainland, it would only make sense for a pro-China museum to make the handover as natural as possible and to legitimize Hong Kong’s place within Chinese sovereignty. 

Starting with the very design of the theater that houses the film, the museum has made every effort to make the handover seem as natural and peaceful as possible. The exterior of the theater takes the style of a traditional Chinese pavilion, while the interior of the theater has been constructed as a compact reproduction of the handover. Replicas of the podiums from which Prince Charles of Wales and President Jiang Zemin spoke during the handover ceremony stand in front of the movie screen, and blowup newspaper articles covering the handover ceremony plaster the walls. The reconstruction of the handover space, contained within a traditional Chinese architectural structure, suggests that Hong Kong history (or “The Hong Kong Story,” as the museum terms it), including the reversion to China itself, is enveloped within the greater scheme of Chinese history.

The short film itself also reinforces Hong Kong’s position within Chinese sovereignty as an organic one. Because of the film’s location next to the handover displays and because of the design of the interior of the theater, I had originally assumed that the film’s content would be strictly on the handover (the negotiation process, the ceremony, etc.). To my surprise, however, the video actually overviewed Hong Kong’s history––or rather, Hong Kong’s history in China––from as far back as the Nanking Treaty (1842). Despite the heavy British involvement in Hong Kong (because, you know, Hong Kong was a British colony) the video directly acknowledges British presence with only one simple segment titled “City of Victoria” (HKMH). The rest of the short film, in a series of video segments that mark several key chapters in Hong Kong’s past, instead emphasizes Hong Kong’s relationship with China. 

The video opens with the text “6000 years of Chinese culture, 150 years of Hong Kong story” over a Chinese painting backdrop. The first third of the film then focuses heavily on Sun Yatsen, whose “image as the guofu (father of the nation) of China is,” according to scholar Lam Shue Fung, “still widely respected not only in mainland and Taiwan but also ... [in] the colonial and postcolonial Hong Kong administration” (Lam 13). Sun’s wife Madame Song Qingling and Hong Kong’s support of the mainland in the war against the Japanese are also prominent features of the first third of the video. All three of these subjects present common ties that bridge the frigidity and tension in Hong Kong/mainland relations.

While Sun Yatsen, Song Qingling, and Hong Kong’s efforts against Japan emphasize the consistency of Hong Kong’s place in Chinese history, they also make sense as a part of Hong Kong’s standalone history; Sun Yatsen received part of his education in Hong Kong, and the Japanese occupied Hong Kong (Hung 12). Something peculiar, though, is the video’s inclusion of Mao Zedong liberating China. The 1949 footage of the Chairman declaring, “The People’s Republic of China has been established!” fits quite nicely within the scheme of the video, as it follows the narrative of ‘Hong Kong is a revolutionary base against the Japanese, Hong Kong efforts helped the Chinese win against the Japanese, Chinese victory led to the founding of the People’s Republic of China’ (left unstated is the nuanced conflict between every party, Nationalists, Communists, and Japanese, in the war). But really, what does the liberation of China, besides the influx of Kuomintang (KMT) refugees from the mainland seeking to escape Mao’s governance, have to do with a British colony that was no longer part of China? As Jonathan Spence summarizes, Article 3 of the Treaty of Nanking, the pact reached by China and Great Britain at the end of the Opium War of 1839-42, stipulates that Hong Kong was not just a temporary lease to Great Britain at the time, but was “‘to be possessed in perpetuity’ by Victoria and her successors, and ruled as they ‘shall see fit’” (Spence 159). It was not until the early 1980s that the British changed the status of Hong Kong from a perpetual possession to 99 year lease following China’s refusal to extend Britain’s 99 year lease on another set of territories north of Hong Kong, the “New Territories,” upon which Hong Kong was dependent for water supply (Spence 710).

Scholar John Carroll also writes: 

The new PRC government did not seem to directly threaten British commercial interests in China, nor had the Chinese Communists ever cared about recovering Hong Kong. Chairman Mao Zedong, who once referred to Hong Kong as “that wasteland of an island,” reportedly told a British journalist in 1946 that neither he nor the CCP was interested in Hong Kong and that as long as the British did not mistreat Chinese in Hong Kong, he would not let the status of Hong Kong harm Sino-British relations. (A Concise History 135)

Though Liberation did cause an influx of immigration and some turmoil (both of which the video acknowledges very briefly), that it was a political milestone for British-ruled Hong Kong at the time is debatable. To show the liberation of the mainland as a milestone of Hong Kong’s development is to approach Hong Kong’s past with a retrospective lens, one that is hyper-sensitive of Hong Kong’s place as a Special Administrative Region of China today. To show the founding of the People’s Republic of China as a major event in Hong Kong’s history not only casts Hong Kong as a metonym for the People’s Republic of China, but also actively reformulates the island’s past. 

Another section of the final video that brings the Hong Kong Museum of History’s active narration to light is a segment entitled “Blood is Thicker than Water” (血浓于水 ). This is a phrase that refers to the closeness of blood ties between Hong Kong and the mainland, and one that also once served as a mantra for Hong Kong’s support of mainland Chinese in both the Tiananmen pro-democracy demonstrations of 1989 and the east China floods of 1991 (Lam 13). These two events are indeed what the “Blood is Thicker than Water” section, made up of two video segments captioned “The June 4th Incident” and “Hong Kong fundraising for flood victims in mainland China,” focuses on.

The surprisingly politically cautious segment on June 4, 1989 was what triggered my realization of just how consciously the Museum of History had woven a pro-mainland history. The central government’s violence on June 4, 1989 exacerbated anxieties over Hong Kong’s impending reversion to China in 1997. Carroll writes that the unpopularity of the Sino-British negotiations and the Joint Declaration that mediated the return of Hong Kong to China had led to “twenty thousand people [leaving] every year from 1980 to 1986,” “thirty thousand in 1987,” and after the Tiananmen crackdown, “forty thousand in 1989” (A Concise History 184). Tiananmen was in fact one of the major obstacles to a smooth handover by nature of the Hong Kong people’s fears of impending rule by a violently repressive government. Therefore, it is crucial for a museum that has tried to naturalize the mainland-Hong Kong connection to also smooth over the fears generated by June 4th, 1989. 

Indeed, museum’s final film seems to present the Tiananmen Massacre with innocuous tones. While the images in the June 4th segment do show Hong Kongers in protest against the central government’s actions in Tiananmen, most of the images are of the June Fourth rallies’ candlelit crowds in Victoria Park. There are few, if any, overtly critical images of the central government––no images of military tanks or bloody bodies or bereaving families; just of crowds and crowds of Hong Kong people raising their candles in somber solidarity. The fact that the museum has termed June 4, 1989 “the June 4th incident,” as opposed to a number of other common names for the event also suggests political acquiescence with the mainland. Sidestepping “Tiananmen Massacre” is obvious, but the museum does not even refer to the event as the “Tiananmen Crackdown,” another term for the government killings on the fringes of the square. It is as if by carefully piecing together the phrase “June 4th Incident” (emphasis mine), the museum has settled on the most politically cautious of wordings. 

Additionally, the background music for the video’s rendition of Tiananmen also reflects the irony of Hong Kong’s contemporary history. The song is Taiwanese singer/songwriter Hou Dejian’s “Descendants of the Dragon” (龙的传人), a popular number about the Chinese people’s shared ancestry in the mythical dragon. The song is strangely both the anthem for Hong Kong’s June Fourth rallies and a patriotic tune for the Chinese government (Lam 20). While “Descendants of the Dragon,” as a June Fourth anthem, makes sense as appropriate background music for a video sequence of the June Fourth vigils, the museum has noticeably picked a mild song choice. They have veered away from, for example, another common June Fourth anthem that cries in the chorus, “Love freedom! For freedom!” Hou’s song in comparison is much more politically neutral; it reflects the sentiment of solidarity with mainland compatriots without being too demanding of the Chinese government. Hou’s song moreover takes up the museum’s narrative of continuity. The song speaks of the Chinese as “descendants of the dragon” and exalts “black eyes, black hair, and yellow skin” as the common inheritance of the Chinese. It is as if the video intimates, here in Hong Kong we are also “descendants of the dragon;” we too have the “black eyes, black hair, and yellow skin” of which Hou so passionately sings. 

Following “The June 4th Incident,” the “Blood is Thicker than Water” section immediately transitions to “Hong Kong fundraising for flood victims in mainland China.” This section plays the dual role of once again reinforcing the amicability of Hong Kong-mainland relations and of smoothing over any tensions generated by the preceding Tiananmen segment. A New York Times article reflects the sentiment of many Hong Kongers at the time. The article reports:

The last time there was a fund-raising campaign in Hong Kong that could even be compared to the current frenzy occurred very much without Beijing's consent.

It was in the spring of 1989, in support of China's democracy movement. Many of the same people who solicited contributions for students calling for the ouster of Prime Minister Li Peng are now raising even greater sums to help bail out his government.

"It's practically the same thing to me," said John Sham, a film producer who helped plan a celebrity concert in support of the democracy movement and is now involved in the planning of a seven-hour concert to raise money for the flood victims."When I raised money for the movement, I was doing it for the benefit of my own country people. Now they are in agony." (Zuckerman)

It is this bond between Hong Kongers and their “own country people” that the video capitalizes on. It seems as if the video is trying to say that outrage against the central government over Tiananmen has not changed the Hong Kong people’s connection to the mainland. 

Finally, after covering the past hundred or so years of history, the video at last arrives at the handover. While the song “Tomorrow Will Be Better” (明天会更好) plays in the background, a video segment titled “Preparation” covers the passing of Hong Kong’s Basic Law and the establishment of its provisional legislative council and chief-executive position. A segment of footage entitled “A Better Hong Kong” follows while the song continues to play. With “Tomorrow Will Be Better” in the background, scenes of Hong Kong’s Ocean Park theme park, Repulse Bay, Big Buddha, the convention center, Victoria Harbor lights, children playing ball, and elderly people exercising in the park come into view. 

The video then transitions into footage of the handover ceremony. The camera cuts to a close-up of Jiang Zemin at the podium (the same one replicated in the theater) declaring, “The Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong is officially founded. This is a significant event for the people of China and a victory in maintaining world peace and justice” (HKHM). Afterwards, post-handover-ceremony fireworks blooming over Victoria Harbor and some last renditions of “Tomorrow Will Be Better” bring the video to close. 

The video legitimizes the handover of Hong Kong with segments such as “Fifty Years Unchanged” (images of horse racing and the stock exchange) and the vacation-ad like footage of Hong Kong’s glamorous modernization (the Convention Center, Victoria Harbor, Ocean Park), its cultural relics (Big Buddha), and its colorful local life (Hong Kongers playing in the park). The message, as the background music suggests, is that tomorrow under Chinese sovereignty, Hong Kong will be even better.

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