Fight is on for city's own 'stolen relic'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 March, 2009, 12:00am

Bronze animal heads stolen in the 19th century from the Old Summer Palace in Beijing are causing a furore and raising the issue of what constitutes national property and heritage. Britain and Greece have an ongoing tussle about the Elgin Marbles, which the Greek government wants back from the British Museum.

Not to be outdone, Hong Kong has its own story of the Tyndareus Stone, which stood on The Peak for 70 years, before being secretly taken in 1993 to England, where it now stands in the National Army Museum in, Chelsea, London.

But now there is a push to bring the stone back.

'Hong Kong does have a piece of its own heritage that was taken by a former colonial power and I think we should apply to the appropriate authorities and have it back,' said local military historian and tour guide Martin Heyes, who is campaigning for the return of the stone.

Another local historian, Dan Waters, says he and others at the Royal Asiatic Society are also upset that it was taken.

Ron Taylor, chairman of the Hong Kong Volunteers Association, acknowledges that the original stone is likely now to stay in Britain, but he would like to see a replica stone put in its place on The Peak. 'It's a bit like the Elgin Marbles,' he said.

In 1917, a group of British soldiers from the Middlesex Regiment's 25th Battalion were aboard the SS Tyndareus, normally a cargo ship of Alfred Holt & Co (Blue Funnel Line).

It was travelling from South Africa to Singapore and Hong Kong when on February 6, 1917, it struck a German mine off Cape Agulhas, South Africa. No one died, but to mark that incident a boulder with the name of the regiment inscribed on it was placed on The Peak in the early 1920s.

It remained there for more than 70 years. Around 1980, the Antiquities and Monuments Office added a plaque, including an erroneous mention of 'loss of life'. The stone was surrounded by smaller stones and stood on the corner of Lugard and Hatton roads.

Then, in October 1993. it disappeared. It was taken, on the orders of the British armed forces in Hong Kong, probably by the Royal Engineers (Gurkha) regiment in a clandestine operation using cranes.

Martin Booth - the late British author who wrote the best-selling memoir Gweilo about his childhood in Hong Kong - wrote to the South China Morning Post in 1994 after realising the stone was missing, expressing his outrage and pointing to the Middlesex Regiment's courage in Hong Kong in the second world war and during the 1918 Happy Valley racecourse fire.

Christopher Hammerbeck, former deputy commander of British Forces in Hong Kong and chairman of the British Chamber of Commerce Hong Kong, was one of the officers who gave instructions for the stone's repatriation. 'It was felt it and other military items ... might be deemed politically sensitive after the change of sovereignty. Also, the Middlesex Regiment asked for it to be repatriated. It was their stone, it had never cost public funds, and relates to an incident that didn't even happen here.'

Mr Taylor has been in talks with the Leisure and Cultural Services Department about creating a replica.

Dr Waters has researched the stone, as did researchers at the National Army Museum, who replaced the incorrect plaque. 'Yes, I and others I've spoken to see it as naughty that it was simply taken, but chances of getting it back are like whistling in the wind,' Dr Waters said.

'Then again, it is far better looked after in the museum then it ever was here', and without the museum's research it would still refer to a phantom death toll, Dr Waters said.

The Office of the Commissioner for Heritage would not comment on whether the stone was part of the city's heritage, but confirmed it was removed in late 1993 with the agreement of the Security Branch.



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