The Forbidden City in Beijing is a treasure trove of Chinese culture and history whose riches seem to hold little relevance for modern Hongkongers, much less young children. But art consultant and educator Chiu Kwong-chiu has other ideas. What's needed, he says, is a lively, interactive way of presenting the material.
'Yes, it is far away,' he says, 'but it touches on many issues in everyday life, such as the relationship between man's work and nature, between freedom and limitation, and between the individual and the collective.
'So, in that sense, it's not that far away from us at all,' he says.
Besides, Chiu adds, children already have an inkling of palace life through costume dramas on television, which depict court intrigue and touch on notions of authoritarian rule.
A specialist in art and design trained at the Sorbonne university in Paris, Chiu has spent the best part of a decade in Beijing, gathering material on world's largest palace complex.
He gained access to normally restricted areas as the only non-mainlander on the editorial board of the Forbidden City, known officially as the Palace Museum, and became the prime mover behind a series of projects that use the imperial palace as a theme to promote appreciation of Chinese art and culture. They include the 'We All Live in the Forbidden City' project, which is directed at young students. At its core is a set of nine picture books. Each covers a different aspect of the complex such as the emperor's life, its architecture, memorabilia, anecdotes and vocabulary. These form the basis for an outreach programme being rolled out in schools across the city.
Produced with support from the Palace Museum and the Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation, the books use local references to attract young students' attention and lead them into exploring ideas behind artefacts featured in museum exhibitions.
For example, two books feature the exploits of the popular cartoon piglet created by Brian Tse and Alice Mak called McDull, who finds his way into the imperial compound with his animal friends.
In The Happy Bowl, the little pig is incorporated into an image of an antique bowl in the museum, sprawled across a sprig of peach blossoms. Concise captions explain the design and colour scheme of the bowl, as well as its use of metaphors, and how peach blossoms symbolise prosperity. This presentation contrasts markedly with that of usually staid textbooks. Students immediately took to the books when the foundation gave away 1,000 sets to schools in 2010.
'I wanted to highlight our Hong Kong factor [by introducing McDull]. Palace officials did not find it irreverent. In fact, they love it, and a mainland edition using simplified characters is coming,' Chiu says.
He has presented the material in a book format so that 'the joy of turning pages' would not be lost to a generation that has grown up with tablet computers and electronic media. But Chiu and his collaborators at Design and Cultural Studies Workshop, a group he founded in 2002 to study and promote Chinese culture, were keen for local youngsters to learn about their heritage in a livelier way.
'Our main concern was how to connect the palace theme with the present, and how to engage the young students and to sustain their interest during sessions,' says Ma Kin-chung, the group's head of education. 'So we took the interactive approach. Now, instead of just giving away books, we send our mentors to the schools and engage directly with teachers and students through workshops.'
Titled 'The Best Palace', the educational programme brings students together with four 60-minute workshops.
Each of them explores a major theme: the connection between nature and Chinese architecture; the special qualities that make a good emperor; the Forbidden City as both a royal court and royal living quarters; and how the Chinese express their good wishes through symbols in nature.
'These themes would sound weighty to young students, so we repackage and present them as 'The Palace as a Big Forest', 'How Are You, Mr Emperor?', 'The Largest Family', and 'The Good Wishes in your Hands','Ma says.
'Workshop leaders, who the team recruits and trains, elaborate on those themes through interactive skits, games and storytelling.'
The group is initially targeting pupils in Primary Four and Five, he adds, because those in lower grades may be too young to absorb the material. Pupils in Primary Six might be too busy with placement exams for secondary school.
'Our worries about children's short attention span were put to rest. The youngsters displayed focus and interest in the presentation, responding well to questions,' Ma says. 'We avoided seeking model answers, to fire their imagination and stimulate logical thinking. Offering little rewards, such as a ruler, also do the trick.
'Through the palace-themed workshops, we hope children will appreciate traditional culture and the environment. The latter will be the theme for our next project on the imperial gardens and Chinese landscaping.'
Since its launch last year in March, the outreach programme has conducted 1,800 workshops, bringing together more than 8,000 students from 80 schools.
Sylvia Lam Siu-wai, a senior teacher at Shanghai Alumni Primary School in Quarry Bay, says she and her colleagues were surprised by the students' enthusiastic response.
'As it turns out, many of our Primary Four know about the Palace Museum, and some have actually been there. But the sessions fill them with interesting details, such as the palace's bow-shape contour when viewed from the side, which is something beyond even our teachers' knowledge. So, the session was lively and engaging.'
Workshop leaders were professional and dynamic, guiding students through interactive play such as dialogue, acting and voting. They also raised thought-provoking issues such as what makes a good or bad emperor, says Lam, the school's curriculum chief for Chinese subjects.
'That got them thinking. They came up with all kinds of answers,' he says. 'One said a good emperor must be good to his parents; another said he must give to the poor; a third said he must be tidy.
'The children then held a vote to select the best candidate from their class. Those who cast a vote had to explain why they chose a candidate. So, they were pushed to think and reflect on [choices]. I think this is an important exercise for them to realise their role in selecting a leader, including the chief executive.'
Such sessions benefit teachers as well as students, Lam adds.
'It is a new way of teaching traditional culture, which can be fun. The programme is timely, as national education will feature in the curriculum [in 2015]. It presents it in an interesting way,' she says.
This summer, the Forbidden City outreach programme will extend outside schools with exhibitions and talks at five public libraries across the city.
A scale model of the palace will be set up with interactive elements for children aged four to seven to experience its grandeur. Other sessions will be held for eight- to 12-year-olds at the Central Library in Causeway Bay.
'Imperial palace is a brand,' Chiu says. 'But our ultimate goal is to generate interest among the public, especially among youngsters, in Chinese culture and what we can understand from it.'
CITY ON THE GO
Education outreach sessions for We All Live in the Forbidden City
July 21 - Aberdeen Public Library, 2.30-4pm
July 22 and August 11 - Central Library, Causeway Bay, 11am-12.30pm
July 28 - Tung Chung Public Library, 11am-12.30pm
July 29 - Tuen Mun Public Library, 11am-12.30pm
August 4 and 11 - Asia Society, Hong Kong Centre, Admiralty (in Putonghua, ages 4-12)
August 4 and 18 - Central Library (ages 8-12), 11am-12.30pm
August 5 - Po On Road Public Library, Kowloon, 2.30-4pm
Note: Except as noted, sessions are in Cantonese for ages 4-7. Quota applies. Registration: 29212660 (Central Library), 21039512 (Asia Society)