Beauty, value of ethnic cultures

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 April, 2013, 9:38am

In the 1980s, when Lee Mei-yin first saw an embroidered apron made by the Miao ethnic minority on the mainland, she was so mesmerised that she began collecting minorities' costumes. She was living in Canada then, not expecting she would return to Hong Kong years later. Neither had she expected to become an educator in traditional Chinese culture.

The average student in Hong Kong doesn't know there are 55 ethnic minorities on the mainland; few are probably aware of the tremendous artistic and historical value in the artefacts not commonly seen in public.

Since her return with her husband, Lee has made it her mission to educate the public about the history and value of the ancient costumes. Her collection of costumes and baby carriers - most of which belong to such ethnic tribes in southwest China as the Miaos, the Dongs, the Shuis and the Zhuangs, and date to the late 19th and early 20th century - will be featured at an exhibition at the University of Hong Kong Museum and Art Gallery later this year. As the ethnic groups have no written script, the patterns on these costumes served as an important indication of personal status.

Public interest in Chinese culture, especially among students, is weak in Hong Kong, but increasingly Lee has been asked to speak on her brand of knowledge at schools and public venues such as the Hong Kong Museum of History.

She keeps busy with her research, reading writing and attending conferences such as the one on Dunhuang artefacts held in March at HKU. "Chinese culture is very rich, but there is a big gap in knowledge about it between experts and the public."

She is also among a tiny group of local people with knowledge about the historic and artistic value of the Mogao Grottoes near Dunhuang - the caves constructed and painted by devout Buddhist monks from the fourth to the 14th century that dot the Silk Road. They were declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1987.

The students at a girls' school where I gave a talk were intrigued when I told them that people in ancient times used tree twigs to clean their teeth
Lee Mei-yin

The art form found on the famed murals inside the caves combines the cultures of ancient China, India, Persia, Greece and Rome, says Lee, who was also a teacher on Buddhist art and ethnic minorities at the HKU School of Professional and Continuing Education. She says she chose to remain an independent researcher instead of pursuing a PhD in the areas to give herself more free rein. As vice-chairman of Friends of Dunhuang Hong Kong, she has made many trips to Dunhuang, where she sometimes acts as a tour guide.

"I once went to Dunhuang three times in a month, and so far I have been there 25 times," says Lee.

She enjoys recounting interesting discoveries about the different customs and trends in different eras. "The students at a girls' school where I gave a talk were intrigued when I told them that people in ancient times used tree twigs to clean their teeth," she says, smiling.

"You also find women figures wearing bold make-up and unconventional hairstyles centuries ago. Even the fashionable item of leggings today can be found on figures portrayed in the [Dunhuang] paintings."

The Tang dynasty (618-907), Lee notes, was a particularly open period, very friendly to visitors from abroad.

Friends of Dunhuang Hong Kong are raising funds in support of the Dunhuang Academy's digitalisation project to create permanent records of the murals, and to provide annual scholarships to graduate students worldwide doing Dunhuang-related research and not just archaeology.

About six or eight scholarship offers are made a year, but so far no Hong Kong students have applied.

"Maybe that's because local students are not yet aware of the place," Lee says. "Last year all winners came from the mainland."