Then & now: for old times' sake | South China Morning Post
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Then & now: for old times' sake

When uncertainty takes hold, the local publishing industry is on hand to feed the increasing appetite for nostalgia, writes Jason Wordie

 

Nostalgia has become a Hong Kong publishing industry staple in recent years. Increased interest in the city's past has been driven in part by significant challenges to the SAR's identity presented by several years of overly rapid, poorly thought-through integration with the mainland.

When people's sense of a separate identity feels threatened, there is a natural tendency to push back. But when active resistance to change is pointless (whatever eventually becomes of Hong Kong is now transparently beyond its people's ability to meaningfully influence), various forms of proxy opposition emerge.

And so it is with Hongkongers' interest in the "good old days", as significant tracts of the city rapidly change in ways they are unable to control. When locals, especially in areas such as Tsim Sha Tsui and Causeway Bay, increasingly feel like strangers in their own town, some harkening back to past certainties is inevitable - however idealised these reminiscences may be.

One former constant in Hong Kong society was how its people continually looked forward - often blindly so - with little concern for the past. Except for academics and scholars (not always the same species, by the way) and a few enthusiastic cranks, the average person displayed little interest in the past. That has changed. Nevertheless, local histories that hark back to an earlier Hong Kong do tell a story of their own.

Before the second world war, Hong Kong government official Geoffrey Robley Sayer - whose son Guy later became chairman of HSBC - wrote Hong Kong: 1862-1919, a short history that explored aspects of local life that had changed since his arrival, in 1910.

"Old Hong Kong" picture books have similarly been publishing staples for decades. Produced in the mid-1920s with the emergent round-the-world tourist souvenir market in mind, Picturesque Hong Kong, by local author Denis Hazell, is one early example. John Stericker, who was interned in Stanley Camp during the second world war, produced Hong Kong in Picture and Story, which depicts the colony in the 50s - a time of rapid change.

Self-conscious packaging of "last jewel in the crown of the British Empire" imagery began in the early 80s, after the handover negotiations ensured Hong Kong's colonial days were - finally and measurably - numbered.

This shrewd business model enables old photographs to be artfully repackaged every five years or so to sell to fresh waves of expatriates eager to know what the place looked like in former times. Prose and historical accuracy barely matter; the contrast between a Victorian city obliterated and transformed into today's metropolis is ultimately what sells.

As any objective observer can discern, Hong Kong's future evolution is now firmly in the hands of others; the old Joint Declaration-era promise of "Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong" has been exposed as an empty mantra, and the city limps along on its own increasingly shaky momentum.

But, as L.P. Hartley famously wrote in The Go-Between (a title that epitomises Hong Kong's historical position between the mainland and the wider world): "The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there."

And so it is here - especially in the imagined past created by the heritage and nostalgia industries.

 

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