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Hong Kong schools

Two young alumni of famous Hong Kong school use virtual reality to show its rich history

Computer-generated replica of city’s first public secondary-level institution enables users to roam old buildings

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 March, 2018, 5:04pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 March, 2018, 11:19pm

Young local history buffs are showcasing one of Hong Kong’s most illustrious schools through a virtual tour after going all the way to Britain to dig up historical documents and images.

Their research on prestigious Queen’s College also shed light on the colonial authorities’ vision before the first and second world wars of using education in the city to forge long-term ties with China.

Established in 1862, the school was the British government’s first public secondary-level institution in Hong Kong. Its notable graduates include Sun Yat-sen, founding father of modern China; influential tycoon Robert Hotung; former pan-democratic lawmaker Ronny Tong Ka-wah; Hong Kong Monetary Authority chief executive Norman Chan Tak-lam; and former justice minister Wong Yan-lung.

Originally known as Central School, it was first built on Gough Street in Central. In 1889, the campus was relocated a few blocks away to Hollywood Road and Aberdeen Street; there, it was renamed Victoria College until it was completely destroyed during the second world war.

Fascinated since high school by the history of his alma mater, John Kwok Ho-yeung, a young history graduate of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, teamed up with former classmate Joseph Yu, studying at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, to bring the old buildings back to life. They did so using the latest virtual reality technology, also known as VR.

After putting on a headset, a viewer can virtually “walk around” the three-storey campus built in the Victorian style. They can also sit in a classroom where Macau casino tycoon Stanley Ho and the late businessman Henry Fok Ying-tung spent their boyhoods. Each rendered structure offers an accurate replica of the buildings before wartime.

“The Hollywood Road campus was very expensive,” Kwok said. “It took HK$250,000 (US$31,800) to build, which was documented as the second-most expensive building at the time.”

To include the finest details in their simulation, the duo pored through school magazines from 1899 to 2012. They also reviewed hundreds of plans, maps and aerial photos as well as government and school reports from the city’s Lands Department and the Hong Kong Museum of History.

However, a significant number of documents was either destroyed during the second world war or not kept locally. The pair’s search led them to the National Archives of Britain and Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, where they managed to find an original colour version of the building plans as well as class and staff photos predating the wars.

“If we had not been able to see the measurements, it would have been hard to remap the campus.” Kwok said. “The only places on campus we don’t have a concrete idea about are the janitor’s room and washroom, as we could only find text about them and no images.”

Building information modelling firm owner Cheung Chong-lap deployed a team of four designers for the project at no cost, and said online tours were in the pipeline for the near future.

The research also provided a glimpse into the British colonial government’s vision of Hong Kong helping it shape China.

The headmaster’s report to the Legislative Council in 1885 reads: “This new College will become the principal place ... for many of the future leading men of the vast neighbouring Empire of China, and this will prove a powerful, legitimate and honourable method of extending British influence throughout this quarter of the globe.”

Then British governor George Bowen made a similar observation in official documents that sending the school’s graduates to England “was at once the most power, the most legitimate and the most honourable method of spreading British influence throughout the Eastern world”. Bowen wrote of hoping to introduce jurisprudence, medical science and the latest engineering innovations to the mainland.

This vision, Kwok said, explained why it was the first public school to take in both Chinese and Western pupils.

“They would require pupils to study Chinese classics, while teaching Western history, geography and science. They sought to learn perspectives from both sides.

“Strangely the government did not press pupils to know about Britain,” he added. “Once, in the school magazine, students mentioned the college had been named after the queen but lacked a portrait of the royal family on campus. They proposed building a flagpole to raise the Union flag.”