'Compiling new socialist Local Records is a component part of building material and spiritual civilisation and a systematic project of building socialist culture. It is a significant undertaking that will serve as a link between past and future, contribute to the present society and benefit the later generations' - Jiang Zemin ON JANUARY 26, 1841, the British raised their flag on Possession Point, Hong Kong Island, starting a long occupation in which Hong Kong became one of the greatest port cities in the world. While there were many gains, there were also many sacrifices, one of them being local Chinese history and culture. Hong Kong people may have become citizens of a colony run by the most powerful nation at the time, but they were to lose touch with their roots. For centuries, many local governments across China recorded their jurisdiction's history, culture and events in large volumes called gazetteers. All aspects of society were detailed, including history, politics, economy, geography, people, culture, animal species, climate, traditions and even folk stories. The last to include Hong Kong was completed in 1819, when Hong Kong was still part of Xin An County during the Qing dynasty. With British rule, the gazetteer disappeared. Today, a group of Hong Kong historians, anxious to restore the gazetteer to everyday local life, is calling on the SAR government to back the project. But it's not going to be easy, with funding and possible government interference as two obstacles to a plan that could take five to 10 years to complete, and cost $100 million. The driving force behind the project is Dr Lau Chi-pang, assistant professor of history at Lingnan University. Last week, Lau hosted a seminar at the university, at which two mainland government officials, a mainland historian and Hong Kong historians enthusiastically discussed the idea. 'Through the gazetteer, people can find their identity and roots,' Lau says. 'Hong Kong people generally don't know the past. Many young people are unaware of the 1967 riots. And in future people may not know there was a June 4. Identity knowledge is not from birth, they learn it through the cultural records.' Secretary for Home Affairs, Patrick Ho Chi-ping, who attended the opening of the seminar, said he supported the project, but wouldn't say whether the government would fund it. 'It can tell us how Hong Kong developed over the past 180 years, such as when the small houses and public housing blocks appeared, when we had trams, mini-buses and the MTR. Gazetteers tell us everything about our life. There are gazetteers all over China. As part of China, Hong Kong should have one.' Liu Shu-yong, research associate of the Institute of Modern History of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, supports the project. 'In the past, Hong Kong had faced a lot of difficulties, such as in the 1930s, and in early 1950s,' he says. 'By reading the gazetteer, people know that what they're facing now is nothing too serious. They can learn from how people tackled problems in the past to solve problems now and in future.' Edward Lee Kai-tak, chief executive officer of the Hong Kong Institute for Promotion of Chinese Culture, says a local gazetteer will also help mainland officials understand Hong Kong people better. Mainland academics lost interest in studying Hong Kong after the handover. The gazetteer will, according to some academics, revive that interest. The gazetteer is known as di fang zhi or fang zhi in Putonghua. 'You can call it local history, but its contents are much richer than a history,' says Professor Qiu Xin-li, research associate of the State Council's Directing Group of Local Gazetteer in China. 'History is about the past, but zhi has the past and the present. It is a comprehensive and systematic record of a place, its history, society and current situation.' Started in the Qin dynasty (221-206BC), today there are more than 100,000 such publications. In 1941, the Communist Party ordered officials to collect and study gazetteers as a way of understanding situations in various regions. In 1958, when Mao Zedong held a meeting in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, he distributed excerpts from local gazetteers for officials to read. Mao promoted the use of gazetteers to increase local party leaders' knowledge. He ordered the updating of gazetteers throughout the country, and their creation in areas where they didn't exist. The work was halted during the Cultural Revolution, but in 1978, Deng Xiaoping emphasised the need to understand the nation's situations in promoting communism, paving the way for the compilation of up-to-date gazetteers. Today, all 31 provinces and most cities and counties compile gazetteers, except for Taiwan, Macau and Hong Kong. Calls for a Hong Kong gazetteer began after the handover. Last year, the Cultural Development Commission recommended that the SAR government compile a local gazetteer. 'We must understand our history before we can introduce our cultural heritage to others,' the commission said. Despite Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa expressing his support, nothing was done. The present push for the gazetteer was born out of a conversation between Lau and Liu last year. Lau, through Liu, met some Beijing's State Council officials who showed keen support and agreed to share their experience. At last week's seminar, some were worried the SAR government would interfere with content - a problem, Qin Qiming, director of the State Council's Directing Group of Local Gazetteer in China, admitted happened on the mainland. Qin said they couldn't order the Hong Kong government to compile a gazetteer because of the one country, two systems policy, even though he thinks Hong Kong should have one. Several academics at the seminar were worried about government interference with content. 'If Hong Kong has a gazetteer, it can't just talk about the good and not the bad,' says Yee Yim-kwong, history professor at Hong Kong Shue Yan College. To avoid interference, some suggested writing the history up to 1997 to avoid criticism of Tung Chee-hwa, while others said a chapter could be added after Tung retired. But Lau isn't worried about interference, saying the gazetteers would simply stick to the facts. Getting enough local experts to work on the project would be another hurdle. But Lau says the problem can be solved if it's done by a university, which can assign its history department staff to the project and commission hundreds more experts. Local historian Chan Kai-wing, chief editor of Ling Kee Publishing Co, who attended the seminar, says he would be willing to devote time to the project. Lee says, despite the support, producing the gazetteer would be difficult. 'I'm not optimistic. It's a big project.' Edward Chen Kwan-yiu, president of Lingnan University, supports the idea. Chen says the university will line up local historians and write a feasibility recommendation for the government. 'We want to make a start,' Lau says. 'If we don't talk about it, no one will discuss it.'