Stories of Hong Kong’s colourful past told from local perspective in new history book
History buffs seek out the stories of ordinary people leading ordinary lives, in a city at the centre of some of 20th century’s most important events
History is not just the story of the state, of political landmarks and momentous events that shape the course of a country’s future – it is the story of ordinary people too.
And while the writing of Hong Kong’s history is seen as a serious and sensitive business, something highlighted by the arguments surrounding the interpretation of the 1997 handover, two historians, Haidee Or Hoi-yee and Godfrey Lai Sin-hang, want to change all that.
The pair are among a group of 20-somethings who want to tell the little-known tales that make up the city’s colourful past on their We Toast HK website and Facebook page.
Repackaged for a large audience with pop lyrics and teenage slang, the 15-strong group want to keep the city’s history alive in a simple way.
The Facebook page has attracted about 8,000 followers and an offer from a publisher to launch a book for them at this year’s book fair.
“If you do not write about [the city’s history], then someone will do it for you,” Lai said.
The book, Often 7: The Lively History of Hong Kong, was compiled by Lai and his friends by combing through old newspapers for interesting events in the past that would not necessarily be included in a more academic history book.
Among the tales recounted in the book is one involving a local Chinese restaurant in Kowloon City that allegedly cheated its customers out of mooncakes that were ordered before the Mid-Autumn Festival in 1958.
Or said copyright issues meant they could only use material already in the public domain, or facts gleaned from other history buffs.
It was a connection with one such fan that brought Or her most memorable experience when putting the book together.
Pauline Taylor, the widow of a British Army officer who served in Hong Kong in the 1950s, was trying to find out more about her husband’s time in the city. The group contacted her and, in exchange for an old photograph of a British Army swimming pool in Admiralty, passed on some information on the part Hong Kong played in the cold war.
“Every day we are involved in making history,” Or said. “The husband of Pauline Taylor would not expect a picture he took in Hong Kong to be perceived as a historical resource.
“What we are doing now could be some sort of contribution in 30 or 50 years.”
While keen to record the city’s history, Lai and Or were keen to point out their aim was not to court controversy, rather to get a true unbiased local perspective on events of the past.
Lai, a Chinese University history graduate, pointed to other popular Facebook pages on Hong Kong history controlled by groups with Chinese influence behind them. He pointed to a page called Shi Files, which has about 80,000 followers, and is affiliated with former chief executive Leung Chun-ying.
Leung is now vice-chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the top national political advisory body.
The pair acknowledged that anyone writing history did so from a particular viewpoint, and urged Hongkongers to think critically about the subject, adding that teachers, parents and the media should be the gatekeepers of history.
In April, there was a row over the rewording of history textbooks in schools surrounding the interpretation of the events of 1997.
“They should let students develop their own thinking skills through looking at different resources or articles written from different perspectives,” Lai said.