kevin sinclair's hong kong

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 December, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 December, 2004, 12:00am

We're having a bout of museum mania. In addition to debate over the four potential institutions in West Kowloon, the shipping industry will soon open its Maritime Museum in the restored Murray Barracks at Stanley. The Housing Authority is pressing on with plans for a Museum of Housing in Mark 1 resettlement blocks in Shek Kip Mei. All well and good.

These will add to our already impressive portfolio of museums which, I dismally believe, are visited by far too few people - when was the last time you went to a museum?

Will this coming plethora of culture result in institutions that will attract crowds? I don't mean crocodiles of school children herded dutifully past dinosaur bones and old tea pots. I mean places where people both young and old stand in silence, awed by the past and intrigued by the intricate patterns that have woven our present.

Both the maritime and housing museums have the capacity to bring the past explosively, exuberantly to life. Will they? The maritime experience of Hong Kong goes back thousands of years.

Fishermen, merchants, pirates and princes sailed our jagged coast. Great tragedies and romances were played out along the rugged shores. Can this immense drama be adequately laid out and displayed on a single floor of the old Barracks building? I have no doubt the shipping industry, advised by professional curators and historians, will do a fine job. But I feel there is simply insufficient space to show the sweep and complexity of the Hong Kong maritime saga.

This worry was intensified last week when I visited the National Maritime Museum in Darling Harbour, Sydney. It's a graphic, fascinating glimpse into a city and its bonds with the sea. We should be doing something on the same scale; we owe our very existence to the oceans, our harbour and the shipping industry.

A couple of days later, I went to the Immigration Museum in Melbourne. Here is gripping human drama. In what used to be a magnificent Victorian customs house, there are emotional displays of how modern Australia was built, of the men and women who disembarked a few metres away on the Yarra River seeking a new life in a harsh land. Many were Chinese. Hi-tech has been harnessed to vivid imagination.

I sat in a mock bureaucratic interview room, playing the role of an immigration official considering the 1959 case of a pretty young Malaysian Chinese student pleading to be allowed to remain in Australia to marry the man she loved. It was the era of the repulsive White Australia policy. The rules were unbending. It is impossible for a human being to visit this magnificent archive of the human spirit without shedding a tear. Hong Kong should have precisely the counterpart of this splendid institution.

A migration museum in Hong Kong would be a wonderful addition not only to our culture but to an understanding of one of the most significant movements of human beings in history.

It would tell the story of the great diaspora of the overseas Chinese. Their collective story is seldom told. The Hong Kong Harbour Master began keeping records on what was known as 'the coolie trade' in 1868. For the next seven decades, until the outbreak of the second world war, more than six million southern Chinese were funnelled through Fragrant Harbour, heading for the sweatshops, mines and plantations of the world. Escaping desperate poverty made worse by the Taiping rebellion, civil war and banditry, young men literally sold their bodies into serfdom. They shipped out, many never to return, to dig for gold in Victoria, California and New Zealand, to hack guano out of islands off Peru, to build railways over the Rockies, to slave in plantations in Jamaica.

They went by the millions to the lands of great promise in Nam Yang, the south seas, swelling existing overseas Chinese communities in Southeast Asia. The business in human beings had a vast economic impact on Hong Kong. It also changed the face of places the overseas Chinese set down their roots, societies between Tahiti and Mauritius, Alberta to Auckland.

Where did they go, these optimistic adventurers? How did they fare? What role do their descendants play in the societies they helped form? How about later waves of migrants from Hong Kong, like the brain drain generation that departed with pre-1997 jitters?

It is a tremendous, heart-rending chapter in history. It is one that should be told in a significant new museum in Hong Kong.