Preserving Hong Kong’s cultural heritage must start with documenting it
- The capsizing of Jumbo Floating Restaurant and the upended fate of a timber factory with post-war roots have renewed discussion about cultural heritage
- If we are to know what cultural assets we have and determine what is worth saving, documentation and digitalisation is a necessary step
The documentation and digitalisation of cultural resources is thus a necessary first step. Across the globe, there are many state-initiated efforts to build cultural databases: catalogues of valuable information and historically significant material, such as old newspapers, periodicals, photographs, poetry, art, literature and scripts. This is particularly pertinent to intangible cultural heritage.
With these repositories, various forms of cultural heritage will ideally be protected on multiple levels: in regional and provincial cultural data centres, as well as a national cultural network. This could drive research and innovation for various stakeholders, such as universities, technology start-ups and cultural content providers. This project will certainly involve cross-sectoral collaboration and is no easy task. China expects to take a decade or so to build its big data system.
Incidentally, China and France were ranked ninth and 11th among countries with cultural influence by CEOWORLD magazine in 2021. Also, China has the second highest number of Unesco World Heritage Sites, while France has the fourth most sites.
There are ongoing discussions on how digital databases can help cultural preservation. The European Commission, for instance, notes that digitising cultural materials could enable collaboration between cultural institutions and idea-sharing across the euro zone economy.
The ease of web accessibility can help in the process of identifying, storing and promoting information on cultural assets and subsequently, new items worthy of protection. Online databases could bring cultural information to everyday people, further research and educational efforts, and ensure effective stewardship for future generations.
Besides government-managed databases, there are also non-governmental archives such as the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Chinese Opera Information Centre, which is devoted to the preservation of archival materials such as song scripts, newspaper clippings and audiovisual records of traditional Chinese musical theatre, including Cantonese opera and Peking opera. This goes to show there is ample room for organisations to work together to create a comprehensive databank documenting Hong Kong’s cultural resources.
In recalibrating Hong Kong’s strategies for cultural preservation, we should step up our efforts in documenting our cultural heritage and knowledge, and develop more sophisticated and user-friendly digital inventories available to the public.
And what happens after the cultural materials are documented? We must first recognise what local treasures we have to better determine how to work with them. After all, cultural heritage must be kept alive and relevant to the community. It is time for the Cultural, Sports and Tourism Bureau to pay serious attention to cultural preservation, not as an abstract exercise but as an instrumental one.
Helen So is the lead for arts and culture at Our Hong Kong Foundation, where Yolanda Lam is an assistant researcher