Among the unexpected joys of historical research are the occasional glimpses archival documents offer into the minds of long-ago personalities. These are most candidly revealed in marginalia – notes jotted down in the margins, or pinned to the relevant sheet on an extra piece of paper. Books with scribbles and margin marks may be a bibliophile’s nightmare, but they reveal the private thoughts of previous owners. For biographers working with limited material, these scrawlings can provide invaluable insights. Aged official files, bundled together with “India tags”, lengths of cord with metal crosspieces at either end, which could be threaded through a punched hole to keep related pieces of paper together, are another likely source. Covering pages illustrate the viewpoints of different officials as a file made its way up and down corridors, via various in and out trays. Interdepartmental warfare, venomous personality clashes, small-pond rivalries and long-simmering bureaucratic spats inevitably leave their flyspecks behind for later eyes to reconstruct. Past events, long-dead actors and forgotten tensions are brought vividly back to life in this way. The role of oral history in Hong Kong’s urban legends History, after all, doesn’t happen in a vacuum; human beings, with their manifold strengths and failings, are integral to the process. A person is the sum of more than just their professional role. Family and educational background, age and life experience all contributed to who he or she was, and surviving marginalia can give some hint of why people acted as they did. Weeding by archivists over time reduces the availability of marginalia; storage is a perennial issue, and there is only so much documentation any repository can accommodate. Modern bureaucracies use a variety of other methods. In place of date-serial compiled files of letters, and their series of answers and covering documents, seemingly endless email chains stretch on – a nightmare to untangle, as anyone who has attempted to follow long “reply all” threads with multiple addressees can attest. I recently spent several pleasurable weeks sorting and ordering the intergenerational letters, family papers, photographs and assorted documents of a sadly deceased local Portuguese friend in the New Territories. Her family came to Hong Kong from Macau in 1842 to help establish the new colonial government, and has lived here ever since. Generations of dedicated public service and broad-ranging commitment to Hong Kong were magnificently apparent and demonstrated time and again. Through war and peace, political and economic turmoil, personal good times and sadness, that overarching, deep-rooted belonging to place, and unstinting purpose towards its wider betterment, never faltered. Whether it was outwitting the Japanese to help keep Allied prisoners of war supplied with food and medicines, discovering hitherto unknown plant species native to Hong Kong , pioneering nature conservation work, or resolutely taking on (and sometimes defeating) bureaucratic idiocy – on issues as diverse as shotgun licences for rural gardeners and the fate of the Kowloon-Canton Railway Station at Tsim Sha Tsui – that commitment was laid out before me, in document after document. Typed notes, further annotated by hand and attached with now-rusty pins, newspaper clippings and other ephemera brought this now stilled voice back to life. Sitting at a 200-year-old table that itself had witnessed so much of that family’s journey, surrounded by piles of files, and drinking my afternoon tea from pale yellow English cups – a wedding gift in 1940 that had not only survived the war years, but several decades of near-daily use ever since – I could almost hear my dead friend’s voice once again over my shoulder, saying “Funny, eh!” in her distinctive, old-fashioned Hong Kong accent and giving a quiet chuckle, as I turned the yellowing pages.