SO YOU THINK Hong Kong's having problems now with an economy in the doldrums and Sars threatening your life? Well, thank your lucky stars you were not around in 1894, when bubonic plague ravaged the territory, killing thousands. Or during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), when an economic slump forced the island's traders to dump thousands of pieces of now-priceless pottery into Penny's Bay. Hong Kong's history reveals that its people's resilience and talents have allowed it to repeatedly bounce back after war, pestilence and depression had taken it close to the brink of collapse. A ground-breaking exhibition of historical artefacts at Central Library is a timely reminder of a rich heritage that made Hong Kong the place it is today. Among its 60 specially chosen exhibits including ancient manuscripts, prehistoric pottery, Stone Age tools and early 20th-century objets d'art, the exhibition, entitled A Tribute To Heritage: Discovering Hong Kong's Culture And Tradition, reveals more of the Fragrant Harbour's past than has been shown before. 'I think people are becoming more interested in their culture and so this exhibition is very well timed,' says Joseph Ting Sun-pao, chief curator at the Hong Kong Museum of History, which collated the exhibition's pieces with the library and the government's Antiquities and Monuments Office. 'Since 1997, and also since the current problems facing Hong Kong emerged, people have been taking the time to look back into their heritage,' he says. 'They may be looking for guidance or are simply using the time that has been presented to them to take stock of the rich culture they are part of. Whatever it is, this exhibition comes at just the right time.' The exhibition, which opened last Sunday and runs until June 16, displays for the first time some of the thousands of ancient artefacts unearthed by Hong Kong's archaeologists over the past few decades or kept in vaults for centuries. Among them are beautiful wood-block-printed volumes of medicinal instruction that were lent to the exhibition by a Sai Kung donor whose family has owned them for more than 100 years. There are also examples of pottery - backbone of the area's economy for more than 500 years - from the oldest-known settlement in Hong Kong, in the Tuen Mun area. They all show that far from being a 'barren rock', as the British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston insultingly described Hong Kong at the time of its invasion in 1841, it was then as it is now, a teeming, internationally important entrepot. 'The common fallacy is to think that Hong Kong was just a fishing village in the past, but it wasn't - it was the gateway for China into Southeast Asia and also for the rest of the world into China,' says Louis Ng Chi-wa, executive secretary of the Antiquities and Monuments Office. 'It has been for hundreds of years a vital part of the regional economy. And I think that's something that people have lost sight of and which we hope we can remind people of in this exhibition.' Among the many fascinating items on display is a collection of about a dozen fused china plates that were found among a pile of 10,000 other pieces of the ceramics that were apparently dumped in Penny's Bay. Little is known about the existence of this mound, excavated in advance of the development of the Disneyworld site. They could have been cargoes dumped to suppress the price of exports or simply broken shards tused as ship ballast. Whatever the reason, Ting and Ng say the very existence of the chinaware is proof enough of Hong Kong's historical importance as a trading port, even then. 'This was pottery that had been produced in the north of China, at the top quality kilns, and that had been made for export,' says Ting. 'This was high-value cargo and it was being carried through Hong Kong. These pieces have been found in places as far away as Australia and Thailand. And they all came though the port of Hong Kong.' The exhibition itself is a historical milestone, explains its chief curator, the library's chief librarian, Alima Tuet San-fan. 'This is the first time that the library, the Antiquities Office and the museum have come together to present an exhibition of their artefacts,' she says. 'We all have the same objectives: to preserve our heritage and culture. It was no easy feat, choosing just the 60 or so items for display. The Antiquities Office alone is custodian of at least 800,000 pieces of ancient and historic artefacts. For this exhibition, we wanted to give as broad a view of our culture as possible, and so the pieces range from those found at the earliest settlements to 20th-century items.' 'We opened the Hong Kong History Museum in 2001 and already we've had 900,000 visitors,' says Ting. 'There are also more people using our heritage trails than before. And people are now demonstrating on the streets to preserve ancient buildings. That never used to happen.' This groundswell of interest in Hong Kong's past is easy to explain, says Tuen. 'By looking at the past we can understand better how to deal with the present,' she says. 'It is uplifting to know that our ancestors also struggled with many difficulties and that they pulled through to go on and be stronger.' A Tribute To Heritage: Discovering Hong Kong's Culture And Tradition, 10am-10pm daily. Hong Kong Central Library, 66 Causeway Rd, Causeway Bay, tel: 2921 0284. Ends June 14.