History is a subject many people scrutinize with frown on their faces, one that triggers discussions and evoke memories, both good and bad. It also is a terrific means to raise a optimism and bring purpose, particularly in a world where tragedy is what sells on the news.
One Saturday morning James took me to the neighborhoods in Hong Kong Island’s western districts to visit what has become his campus since 2013, and to retrace another chapter in Hong Kong’s history, including one that really tested the island like never before.
Under the grey winter sky, an early 20th century red brick Edwardian-style building stood out in the dense neighborhood at the western part of the island’s Mid-Levels – a terraced upscale residential area perched along Hong Kong Island’s rugged hills. ‘Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences’ the signboard read, hanging above the arched entrance.
Inside, displays of laboratory tools and equipment reminded me of chemistry classes in high school, but instead of witnessing teenagers’ mischief, the ones at the museum saw a much gloomy time when a plague spread in the former British colony, claiming thousands of lives.
Following civil unrest in mainland China during the late 19th century, a massive influx of refugees flocked to the then British-controlled island of Hong Kong, forcing them to live in dense tenements with little to none sanitation system at all, a hotbed for any plague outbreaks. And that was exactly what happened in 1894.
Earlier that year, a bubonic plague broke out in Canton, the Chinese province bordering the British tiny outpost. Months later it reached Hong Kong and infected many residents of Tai Ping Shan, the ground zero of the outbreak where poor Chinese workers lived. Over the period of 1894 – 1901 the plague subsided and reemerged in annual basis, with February to July as the worst months.
British government officials did whatever they could to curb the plague from spreading even further. The entire Tai Ping Shan settlement was eventually torn down and replaced by a new residential compound equipped with proper drainage and ventilation. House to house searches were carried out to detect any infected resident as a preemptive measure, a task proved to be very difficult since families hid anyone having the disease in their houses from officials’ sight.
A section in the museum described how in one house the dead body of a family member was dressed up and seated around the dining table in such way that when government officials entered the house all they saw was a family having dinner together without signs of anyone sick in the house.
In the years that followed better sanitation and medical research led to the eventual disappearance of the disease from the island in the early 20th century, partly thanks to the newly founded Pathological Institute occupying a red brick building in Hong Kong Island’s west – today’s Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences.
A short walk from the museum, another building formerly used for medical purposes stood on a quiet intersection. The Old Mental Hospital’s grey facade was the only remaining part of the hospital for the rest of the building was rebuilt into a community center following decades of abandonment. The granite exterior and red brick veranda, built in 1892, are now fully restored and provide a unique colonial touch to the otherwise modern neighborhood.
Less than a kilometer from the community center the University of Hong Kong complex sprawled over green hills of the western end of Hong Kong’s Mid-Levels. At the southeastern side within the compound, the Eliot Hall stood graciously with two spiral staircases exuding British colonial ambiance among modern structures across the campus. Dating back to 1911, the university, also known as HKU, is the oldest in Hong Kong, its reputable programs considered among the best in Asia.
Less known to most people was the University Museum and Art Gallery, occupying a small building at the northeastern corner of the complex, facing Bonham Road. Housing a broad selection of some of the best cultural heritage from China including ceramics, sculptures, minority peoples’ traditional outfits and other artifacts, the museum owed its vast collection to a number of art collectors who wished to showcase the wealth of Chinese antiquities to younger generations.
Outside the museum, dozens of small to medium-sized statues adorned the garden, a dog-like creature with fierce look and long canine teeth which was also the mascot of the museum. Information on the character is scarce, its history is barely known to most people. So are many chapters in history, some as palpable as an open book, some shrouded in clouds of mystery, others lost forever.
Preserving old buildings not only does add charm to their surroundings, but also provides the people with a platform to learn from past mistakes, reconnect with their roots, and prevent history from slipping into oblivion. It truly is in everyone’s best interest to conserve them, for the greater good of the society is what can be achieved by doing so.