History complex: Hong Kong needs to rekindle its curiosity and regard for the past

Danny Chan says citizens must reclaim the right to reflect on their past, and be willing to accept the different interpretations that exist

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 October, 2015, 10:30am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 October, 2015, 10:30am

History must be subject to regular scrutiny; everyone needs a past to make the present meaningful and substantial. The issue is whether such scrutiny answers the needs of the community.

Shying away from the pain and suffering of the past does the community no good at all. Through reflection, we can heal the scars of past trauma

The past may appear fixed and stable, yet it is always inconclusive, or new interpretations would fail to rejuvenate our imagination. Here in Hong Kong, historical reflection has long parted ways with the community, especially following the scrapping of history as a mandatory subject in the school curriculum. Now, when our society's attention turns to its past, it is often in a top-down approach. And the debates that follow usually end up in a pro- or anti-China deadlock.

It may be easy to blame that on the increased political tensions; another problem, though, is citizens' apparent lack of a historical blueprint.

So, after the police force rewrote its official history of the 1967 riots, that part of Hong Kong history has been reduced to pro- or anti-China antagonism, or an annotation of an eternal conspiracy theory. It is true there must be good reasons for any excavation of the past; surely the police would not have rewritten part of its history just to make it shorter for readers, as was claimed. At such a sensitive time in Hong Kong, the pursuit of political correctness no doubt appears to be politically incorrect.

READ MORE: Hong Kong police should rethink clumsy whitewashing of 1967 riots

Each of Hong Kong's historical moments will be buried until it is dug up again. Top of the agenda for those seeking to rebuild a vibrant and sensible Hong Kong should be how to rescue our history from the dead end of the current political split.

Everything today is couched in extremes. From the police revisions to a proposed war-time air raid soundtrack for a National Day fireworks display, attempts are made to historicise Hong Kong on a piecemeal basis. It is, I think, this piecemeal manner that leads to clumsy and embarrassing outcomes.

What the community needs most is a systematic overview of the past. This will not and should never be a "once and for all" picture, but would be subject to change and scrutiny. This should serve as a platform where contradicting facts and figures about the past can be presented.

After all, shying away from the pain and suffering of the past does the community no good at all. Through reflection, we can heal the scars of past trauma.

This may all sound idealistic amid the current political sensitivities. However, it should be remembered that oversimplifying our predecessors' experiences into pro- or anti-China events will do more harm than good in resuscitating a history that truly belongs to this community.

Danny W. K. Chan teaches communication and language at Hong Kong Community College, Polytechnic University