Around the time of the latest December 1941 wartime anniversaries, a troop of amateur military history enthusiasts known as Watershed Hong Kong suddenly appeared in town. Clad in summer uniforms similar to those worn by the pre-war Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps, the unit formed up in ranks in public places, barked orders at each other, sat about in photogenic, battle-weary attitudes, and then – as unexpectedly as they had appeared – dematerialised, like wandering ghosts from a past era, back whence they came.
Watch: the living monuments commemorating 75 years since the Battle of Hong Kong
Unsurprisingly, this picturesque group attracted significant media attention, both for themselves and the local historical events they sought to commemorate. While the overall public response was positive – if somewhat quizzical – at least one Chinese Communist mouthpiece roundly attacked specific members, and their alleged broader agendas, as yet another subversive variant of the Hong Kong independence movement. This, too, was unsurprising.
Groups such as Watershed Hong Kong have sprung up in recent years as local identity issues have become ever more politicised and subject to external scrutiny and challenge. Selective utilisation of past events, people and circumstances to explain or justify a present-day perspective is hardly unprecedented, in Hong Kong or anywhere else. This “living memorialisation” of a time, just over 75 years ago, when groups of ordinary people valiantly (and ultimately, unsuccessfully) defended their home territory from hostile outsiders against overwhelming odds offers a powerful (if profoundly flawed) contemporary resonance to many observers.
Inspiration for Hong Kong’s “living memorial” exercise came from overseas; last year, to commemorate the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, silent volunteers suddenly appeared in first-world-war battledress all over Britain. The idea was to represent the spirits of those who lost their lives in that devastating conflict, and thus form a living memorial to the fallen. The concept attracted widespread interest and significant pre-publicity; consequently, the general public knew what they were expected to be contemplating on seeing these uniformed figures.
Memorialisation of past events only functions effectively when the audience – in this case, average Hongkongers who encounter and interpret the “living memorial” on the street – have some reasonable awareness of those events they are meant to acknowledge. Without that factual underpinning, a “memorial” is just a statue, inscription or – in the case of Watershed Hong Kong participants – a bunch of ethnically incongruous people ambling about in period costume.
Random enthusiasts garbed up in Pacific-war-era replica uniforms is nothing new; some years ago, I encountered a group of 30-something Hong Kong Chinese males, merrily sauntering through Causeway Bay on a bright autumn Sunday afternoon in detail-perfect pre-war Royal Scots uniforms; they were having an absolute blast. When politely questioned about exactly what they were doing, and why, all said it was great fun to dress up and play at being foreign soldiers for the day. Apparently, they got together to enjoy this curious pastime quite often, and had a wide variety of period uniforms to choose from.
None of this should be surprising. Cosplay has become popular in Hong Kong in recent years, and for obvious reasons. Given the pressures to succeed academically from kindergarten onwards, many individuals are only able to play at dressing up when they have finally graduated, started work and have some time and money to call their own. As any observer can readily note, Hong Kong society has plenty of teenagers in their 30s who relish the opportunity to – at last – fully indulge their childhood selves.