Everyday items from 1911 take on rich new meaning

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 September, 2011, 12:00am


Images depicting the downfall of the Qing dynasty 100 years ago would probably have been left to rot in a dark attic had it not been for the keen eye of photographer William Cho Hung-fook.

Now 70, Cho was shown a bundle of 50 black-and-white photographs from China's 1911 revolution by an American friend two decades ago. They were taken by his friend's father, who worked as a news photographer. The son had no idea where the photos were taken. But Cho recognised the setting as Wuhan, capital of Hubei province, where the revolution began.

In 1911, a bomb made by revolutionaries exploded by accident in the town of Wuchang. Local police investigated, leading the revolutionaries - many of them Han people serving under the Qing imperial forces - to stage a coup on October 10.

Their success prompted those in the towns of Hanyang and Hankou to declare independence from the Qing government. And in a matter of weeks, 14 provinces had seceded, sealing the fate of the Qing dynasty and leading to the birth of the republic.

Wuchang, Hanyang and Hankou were merged in 1927 to form Wuhan.

The photos show fierce fighting in the province. One depicts a fire in Hankou that was started by cannonballs. Others feature French and Japanese soldiers in their countries' concessions - the territories occupied by foreign powers in China.

Cho rescued the photos, but he did not stop there. Now retired, he has spent 20 years collecting memorabilia related to the revolution. He said that until this year items were cheap to buy. 'Nobody cared about the revolution in the past. Not until this year, when we celebrate the revolution's 100th anniversary.'

A round, copper plaque about the size of Cho's palm, which he bought for a few hundred Hong Kong dollars, is a good example. It bears the slogan, 'Dispel the Qing, restore the Han', and has the date of the Wuchang Uprising engraved on it.

'The auction catalogue described it as a copper badge. I was surprised when it turned out to be a big, heavy plaque,' he said.

Cho was shocked when an auctioneer in Britain later confirmed the plaque was produced shortly after the uprising - and put its value at HK$400,000.

A bag of antique coins he picked up for a few hundred dollars were cast in 1912, the year the Republic of China was founded. On one side of the coins is the 18-star logo - representing 18 provinces - of a Hubei revolutionary society. On the other side, in Chinese, are the words: 'In commemoration of the country's founding'. Now they sell for HK$1,200 each.

Cho plans to display his collection as part of the Hong Kong Collectors Society's upcoming exhibition at the Central Library. Details of the show have yet to be finalised.