Thursday, May 19, 2005

Local History in Singapore and Hong Kong

Stefan and I just returned from a very interesting trip to Singapore, where we are considering setting up some audio-guided walking tours. We've always realized that Singapore and Hong Kong have come to terms with its own history in very different ways, but it really sank home during this trip.

On Tuesday, there was an article in the Straits Times discussing how a major London auction house was bringing a valuable collection of personal papers of Singapore's founder, Sir Stamford Raffles, to market in Singapore. The auction house also noted that it had no intention of selling them in the UK, but wanted to sell it exclusively to a Singaporean bidder. That there is a local market for the papers of a colonial figure is in itself very telling about the more relaxed attitudes to the colonial period in Singapore compared to Hong Kong. The article also revealed that there are self-styled 'Raffles' historians specifically dedicated to studying the life and works of the country's colonial founder. Any visit to the local history museum demonstrates that there were problems with the colonial period in Singapore, but it is also quick to point out the marvelous success story of the strategically-located port city.

Some might say that Singapore has simply had much greater time for reflection on its past, and to co-opt historic figures in the national founding story. But I do not think it that simple - R.N. Captain Edward Belcher may be immortalized now in the upmarket Pok Fu Lam residential development of the same (and unfortunate name), but I doubt he or Plenipotentiary Elliot will ever be mentioned in a primary school history book of Hong Kong.

Indeed, I found Singapore very different from the story that greeted us today on our return about Ma Lik at the DAB promoting the patriotic indoctrination of Hong Kong people to a national identity. We were able to read how Education Secretary Arthur Li signed off on a plan to send a few hundred students to China every year to better understand the connection between China and Hong Kong, and the patriotism owing to the motherland. It is clear that there will be no city-specific attempts to sift through Hong Kong's history and forge from it a sense of civic-identity, a Hong Kong-specific history of which locals should be proud. As Hong Kong is now a part of China, it is felt that locals must be brought slowly into the sphere of national identity that is felt by the rest of the country.

I suppose that Hong Kong not being able to elucidate and re-imagine its own history is part and parcel of it not having become an independent country, as Singapore has. But still, it seems more obvious now than ever, that Hong Kong needs to recognize that it prospers not only as a part of China, but also because it is still different from China and has much to offer its new motherland. As such, the government here seems to be missing a great opportunity to inculcate a local identity alongside a new national one - and the best way to do that is by honestly, frankly and candidly re-assessing its own history. Impatient Hong Kong would be well served, as irritating a task as it may seem, to re-evaluate its own past with a warts-and-all perspective as it plunges headfirst into its new relationship with China. It has had a chip on its shoulder about the colonial experience - but expressing its dissatisfaction with the shortcomings of that era, and also truthfully acknowledging its positive contributions, is a necessary process. Having perspective on why it exists, how it persists, and the historic reasons for its past success and current raison d'etre in China will be an invaluable guide for it going forward. I'm sure Sir Stamford would have agreed.

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