Neighbourhood Sounds

Stanley: It was tough for the colonial convicts

Images of harsh punishment for prisoners, on display at a museum, stand in stark contrast to the relaxed modern lifestyle in Stanley

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 December, 2012, 2:45pm

The room went silent as the cane came down with a sharp crack on a hard wooden surface. That's what used to happen to prisoners in Hong Kong's jails, said a museum guide to a fascinated group of pupils. He had their full attention.

"This is not the way your mum and dad would hit you," Fan Hin-man said with a chuckle, to about 20 Form Two pupils from S.K.H. Lam Kau Mow Secondary School, Sha Tin.

They were in the punishment and imprisonment room of the Hong Kong Correctional Services Museum in Stanley. Fan delivered another hard smack, hitting a wooden contraption that resembled a medieval torture device.

Around the youngsters, framed pictures of prisoners being punished hung on the walls. Decades-old black and white images showed pirates, bandits and thieves in colonial Hong Kong. Some are shown being paraded in public, their crimes written on blocks of wood around their necks for all to see.

Stocky Qing dynasty convicts - with heads shaved in front and pigtailed in back - are shown rolling a giant block of concrete or rock to flatten roads. Glass cases hold old handcuffs, whips and prison logs detailing when prisoners were to be executed.

You know how it felt to live inside the jail

"This is my favourite part," said 13-year-old Benjamin Lee, leading the way excitedly to the end of a hallway to a life-sized replica of a hangman's gallows. Other boys nodded in agreement, looking at the silhouette of a mannequin in a replica jail cell behind the gallows.

"You know how it felt to live inside the jail," Lee said.

For the next half-hour, his classmates wandered around, peering into cabinets holding guards' uniforms and an astonishing array of items confiscated in prisons and at refugee detention centres: crude knives and machetes fashioned from bits of steel, drug pipes made from soap bottles, pens adapted for tattooing, gambling cards carved from wood and even a musical instrument - fashioned from what looks like a plastic frisbee, bits of wood and nylon strings.

Aside from the occasional curious traveller, the museum's visitors tend to be students.

The museum has become part of the training facilities for Correctional Services Department staff. It contains over 600 artefacts from Hong Kong's criminal and rehabilitative past, stretching back to the early colonial days, when piracy was punishable by death.

It also covers the period when Vietnamese boatpeople fled to Hong Kong in the 1970s and later, as well as current conditions. Today, inmates can earn master's degrees, while capital and corporal punishment has been abolished.

In the Vietnamese refugee section, a life-sized mannequin of a machete-wielding rioter in the boatpeople's detention centre stares from behind a home-made gas mask.

The pupils learned that as the number of refugees - picked up at sea by ships - swelled to unmanageable figures in the 1980s, the government forced them into detention camps. In the 1990s, riots broke out before the camps were closed and the refugees sent back to Vietnam.

As the pupils left the museum, they would have glimpsed Stanley Prison in the distance, where infamous triad bosses and white-collar criminals alike have spent time behind six-metre-thick walls. Riots there in 1973 changed the way the city's prison system is managed.

"Before, the job was just 'open and lock up'. Now it's more about rehabilitation," said Lee Yuk-lun, a retired correctional services officer. "Now we employ teachers," he said, joking about the museum staff.

A film playing on the first floor of the museum chronicles the changes, and the challenges ahead for the prisons because of overcrowding. But Lee, who retired in 2005 after spending 35 years working for the Correctional Services Department, is a living record of the department's changes.

Lee tut-tuts when speaking about the difficulties officers faced working at the Vietnamese detention centres. But he speaks proudly of counselling and teaching vocational skills to illegal immigrants and other prisoners.

The prison, he notes, produces all the city's road signs and Gore-Tex footwear for department staff.

Other prisons produce government furniture, clothes, medical masks and the colourful plastic bins seen on Hong Kong streets.