Shipping history adrift at sea finds anchor in living museum

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 November, 2004, 12:00am

Interactive features will create a portrait of Hong Kong's maritime past

The gracious old Murray Building on Stanley Beach is to house Hong Kong's first major museum of the seas.

Opening in May, the 485-square-metre Hong Kong Maritime Museum aims to give people an exciting and educational glimpse of the vessels that have plied Chinese coastal waters over the past 2,000 years.

The museum would have interactive features, said Hong Kong Maritime Museum chairman Anthony Hardy.

At the same time, the ground-floor galleries will retain the feel of the structure as it was when built as British military accommodation in the 1840s.

Among the 200 exhibits will be a 1.4-metre model pottery vessel about 2,000 years old.

'It's unique,' Mr Hardy said.

Visitors to the museum will see 38 ship models made on the mainland, in Macau, Japan, Australia, England and Hong Kong. Some are loaned or donated by Hong Kong ship owners. 'We even have a Chinese princess figurehead which we bought at auction,' Mr Hardy said. 'It's a rare find.'

Discussion of a meaningful history of Hong Kong's long links with the seas and shipping has been going on for years.

This was given impetus about a year ago when the Housing Department took out advertisements asking people to submit proposals for the Murray Building.

The shipping industry responded instantly. A committee was formed to make a bid for the space and last September a six-year contract was signed at a nominal rent. Since then, progress has been swift.

Catalina Chor, formerly of the T.T. Tsui museum, was recruited as executive manager. Janet Fong was hired from the University of Hong Kong's University Museum and Gallery as assistant curator.

The space in which curators and designers had to work is the ground floor of the building, which is divided into two galleries with an escalator running through an atrium.

He said a recreation of Blake's Pier, which a century ago stood in the harbour close to the Star Ferry, would also be built at Stanley.

The exhibits will begin with the craft of the Han dynasty, then show the evolution of vessels and the history of exploration for the following 2,000 years.

One exhibit will be a model of the giant junk of Ming dynasty explorer Admiral Zheng He, reported to have been about 45 metres long and with five to nine huge masts, which the eunuch adventurer sailed as far as Africa.

There will also be a 3-metre model of the junk Keying which in the 1860s sailed from Hong Kong and created a sensation in London.

Looking over the exhibitions will be Chinese deities whose duties were to protect and assist ships and seamen. One dramatic exhibit will be a 16-metre Chinese scroll showing the Chinese army and navy defeating a pirate fleet off the coast in 1815.

'We're trying to avoid being stodgy,' Mr Hardy explains. 'We want to show it like it was, fascinating and colourful, and to grip people and educate them.'

The other gallery starts with the age of steam. It shows how Hong Kong was born because of its great harbour, how shipping created Hong Kong as a world city.

It also deals with the plague of piracy, and goes from small coal-burners to mighty container ships and majestic liners.

There will be photographs of the port of Hong Kong last century. The gritty reality of life and work will be captured by special effects, sounds and interactive games.

'It will be a living museum,' Mr Hardy, a partner in Wallem Shipping, said. He said the shipping industry, Hong Kong's harbour and the China coastal trade were fundamental parts of the success of world trade.

'A museum like this should have been done long ago,' he said - 14 years after Macau's Maritime Museum opened its doors.