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My life: Peter Cunich

Having been warned against coming to Hong Kong, the history professor talks to Jason Wordie about his two decades here and his desire to tell HKU's story

 

PAST MASTERS For a farm boy from Orange, in country New South Wales, Australia, a university career wasn't the obvious choice. Our family - I am one of five children - had been growing apples and cherries since the 1890s. But there was a downturn in the orchard industry in the 1970s and we sold our farm, which meant I had to find something else to do. Some very good history teachers at school inspired me. I was awarded a teacher's scholarship in 1979 to attend the University of New England, in northern New South Wales, which was mainly an agricultural university, where, once again, a succession of brilliant history teachers encouraged me to take my studies further. One of those introduced me to the English Reformation (16th century). I took his course then completed a dissertation on royal patronage in the Tudor Court, before going on to Sydney University for a master's degree on the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

THE GREAT HALL OF CAMBRIDGE While I was doing my master's, I was headhunted by Sir Geoffrey Elton. Elton was the doyen of Tudor historians - regius professor of (modern) history at Cambridge University (in Britain) - with a big stable of postgraduate students. So next thing I knew, I was invited to go to Cambridge. Elton was attracted by a good topic and knew that it was not possible for me to do it from Sydney. I was at Magdalene College, Cambridge, from 1987 to 1993. It was a marvellous experience; the last of the all-male colleges, very traditional, with candlelit dinners in the Great Hall, rugby, rowing - the stereotypical old-style Oxbridge college. In my time, Ronald Hyam was there working on his British Empire (series of books), and Eamon Duffy was completing The Stripping of the Altars, a book which completely changed general perceptions of the Reformation. The 500th anniversary of the college was in 1928, but they'd forgotten to do a collegiate history then, so, in typical Magdalene style, they finally caught up in the mid-1990s. I wrote the chapters on the medieval period, and the Tudor re-foundation. And that got me interested in the history of higher education.

HKU + ME Coming to Hong Kong was an unusual move. My Cambridge friends all advised against it, as I'd be leaving a fellowship at a prestigious Cambridge college for what was then a fairly mediocre colonial university. Also it coincided with my father's illness in Australia. I'd visited Hong Kong in transit on a number of occasions and liked the place. So this represented a good geographical compromise between my research, which was all UK-based, and my family in Australia. I started at the University of Hong Kong in 1993, and from the moment I arrived I knew it was the place for me. The university was on the cusp of turning into something new; I was part of transformations that were themselves part of a broader international period of change - it was exciting to be part of that. HKU also preserved a real emphasis on good teaching.

THE POWER OF SUN There has always been some debate about whether 1887 or 1911 should be celebrated as the university's foundation date. The medical faculty traces its foundation to the Hong Kong College of Medicine, in 1887, but I take the "official" founding of the university as being in 1911. This is a more accurate date, even though 1887 is attractive to broader university policy due to Dr Sun Yat-sen's connections to the College of Medicine. Having Sun as some kind of university figurehead is dangerous, in my view, as he remains a deeply ambivalent figure in modern Chinese history and politics. Using him could be a double-edged sword, but certain sections of the university clearly want to include him - for a whole variety of reasons - as part of the broader institutional story. I have always been very definite, though, that Sun was not a graduate of the university - he was a licentiate of the earlier college. And that fact has caused discomfort in some quarters.

A POSSIBLE DREAM Interest in the University of Hong Kong Centenary History Project started when I met the late Professor C. Mary Turnbull at a dinner at Cambridge; at Magdalene, as it happened. So the project really began where I had started my academic career. Mary had been professor of history at HKU and was then on a post-retirement project at Cambridge. I had just been appointed to HKU and it was the first chance I really had to find out more about the history of the university. This project started with An Impossible Dream, which I co-edited with Chan Lau Kit-ching, in 2002. We saw that book on HKU history as a curtain-raiser for the centenary; research took about 10 years, and the actual writing of volume one took more than two years. Professor Tony Sweeting was my co-author to start with; he died in 2008, which meant the project got complicated. It just expanded and gradually we realised that two volumes would eventually be necessary to tell the whole story.

LOOKING OUT FOR LOTTIE With a double cohort of students and a move to the Centennial Campus, it's been very busy. It will be a few more years before volume two is finished - and I certainly hope this will be done before my retirement. It has meant putting other projects on hold; one concerns my wife's family. They were Church of England missionaries here in the 1920s and her great-aunt Lottie (Dr Charlotte Bacon, nee Bailey) was a medical missionary in Guilin. The women's hospital she founded there celebrated its own centenary in 2011 - the same year as HKU. I'm also working on a book covering her life and work.

 

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