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How to Know Hong Kong and Macau

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

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Behind the Displays

From conception, the Hong Kong Museum of History was to lead a politically fervent life. In 1975, following China (PRC)’s admittance to the United Nations, the China-Japan conflict over the Diaoyu Islands, and the resulting upsurge of politically tinged interest in the mainland, Hong Kong’s colonial government renewed efforts to promote a Hong Kong identity and thus curb newfound Chinese patriotism. The Hong Kong Art and Museum gallery, opened in 1962 and so named in 1969, was therefore divided into separate art and history museums in order to provide space for more intensive focus for each area (Carroll 81). The history museum found temporary residence in a shopping arcade in Tsim Sha Tsui. Then, when news of Hong Kong’s 1997 reversion to China surfaced in the 1980s, the colonial government once again renewed efforts to promote Hong Kong’s local identity and history and opened the Hong Kong History Museum in two British barracks in Kowloon in 1983 (Carroll 82). Finally, in 1994, in the last three years before handover, the outgoing colonial government (probably deciding it should go out with a bang) began hatching plans for a permanent history museum, what would now be the Hong Kong Museum of History. From there, however, as Hong Kong changed hands, the politics of the preservation also shifted in the other direction. 

Though the museum should have opened to the public by 1999, conflict over museum content, exacerbated by a transitional government, pushed back the opening day to 2001 (Carroll 83). Prior to the handover, Hong Kong’s Urban Council, a locally elected body, had headed all of Hong Kong’s public cultural activities, from creating museums to granting permission for use of public spaces such as Victoria Park. After 1997, however, the council became provisional, and all previously elected council members became appointed members, alongside other new members appointed by Beijing (Herschensohn 62, 63). 

Tensions over designing the Museum of History grew as the new Provisional Urban Council debated over how much to focus on a number of topics that ranged from Sun Yatsen to the Opium War. Pro-Beijing members argued for greater focus on the handover and the “one country, two systems” engineer Deng Xiaoping, while local critics reinforced to museum curators that they must include politically sensitive topics like the protests against government actions in Tiananmen and the 1967 leftist-inspired riots in Hong Kong. While such events do exist in the museum, the coverage is cautious and superficial. 

Nowadays, the Hong Kong Museum of History continues to be funded by the Hong Kong SAR, and the museum works even more closely with mainland historians and archaeologists (Vickers 74). The museum must maintain the delicate balance of cultivating Hong Kong’s unique cultural identity without stepping on the mainland government’s toes. From British colonialism to PRC sovereignty, the museum has come into being through the push and pull of politics.

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