Professor David M. Pomfret, University of Hong Kong
In the 2001 Hong Kong movie ‘My Life as McDull,’ an animated pig named Mrs Mak dupes her son into thinking he is on a much-anticipated trip to the Maldives. Mrs Mak cannot actually afford such a trip so instead she buys tickets for the leading tourist attraction in Hong Kong: the Peak Tram. Her son, McDull, is a willing participant in his mother’s delusion. He is desperate to escape. Everyday life for him involves choking on clouds of dust created as state agents (the ‘Urban Renewal Authority’) dismantle buildings and destroy their associated memories in the name of ‘progress.’ On hearing of his mother’s plan McDull scrambles to locate his passport. He savours every detail of the journey on the funicular tram. And in a striking, abstract sequence, as the tram nears the upper terminal, McDull’s imagination runs riot, transforms the surrounding landscape into a tropical paradise.
For all of its absurdist leanings, this scene – replete with its colonial referents of tourism and tropicality – is deeply unsettling. McDull yearns for escape, but the freedom he so eagerly pursues turns out to be an adult deception in which he is complicit. The movement of the forlorn child character in a landscape defined by destruction and duplicity compounds the scene’s haunting, melancholy effect. But for students taking my course Making History: Engaging with the Powerful Past at The University of Hong Kong, the scene was also a starting point for deeper reflections and discussions of what lies beneath the shiny surfaces of this “must see” tourist attraction today. Prompted by the film, we dug deeper, and headed out into the field to examine the production of the site and its signage for the purpose of tourists’ consumption.
When the curtain finally fell on British imperialism in Hong Kong in 1997, the Peak was the premier symbol of the city. It remains the most visited site in what the government branded “Asia’s World City.” Crucial to this success was a careful process of sanitization, because for much of its history the Peak had served as an emblem of racial exclusion and British imperial power. It had been the site of a battle to create a racially segregated neighbourhood in law, excluding Chinese residents, during the first decade of the twentieth century. The colonial government justified these controversial measures on the grounds of protecting vulnerable European children. It doubled down on this ‘logic’ of defending childhood during the Great War, when restrictions on travel prevented more European children and their families from departing the colony. When the Peak emerged to win global recognition as a tourist destination during the interwar era it did so as an exemplar of racial segregation.
This is why after the end of British colonial rule in 1997 the Peak represented what some scholars have termed ‘difficult heritage.’ Since the handover cultural heritage managers have sought to strike a balance between mining the Peak’s history for its heritage value and avoiding inadvertently engaging the public with troubling reminders of the colonial past. Stakeholders manicured the site for public consumption and leisurely play. Far from exploring the origins and development of the site from a critical viewpoint, the Peak as post-colonial ‘product’ encourages tourists to try on colonial-era fantasies of elite privilege for size. Meanwhile, the innocence and ahistorical inclusiveness of childhood in ‘fairyland’ is another prominent theme. Site managers deploy the idea of childhood to facilitate a highly selective process of remembering and putting the past on display. This history underpins my recent article, ‘Battle for the Peak’, in Cultural and Social History.
What struck me and my students as we delved deeper into the production of the site for public consumption was the extent to which cultural authorities redeployed the colonial-era strategies upon which the Peak as a racially exclusive space had been built for post-colonial ends. This intrigued the students, many of whom were from Hong Kong, as the region has recently been described by some commentators as undergoing a process of ‘re-colonisation.’ In such a context, connections between history, collective identity and social protest have been strengthening. The ongoing re-evaluation of the colonial and post-colonial eras is drawing attention to the management of heritage, as one of the tools used by powerful groups to protect privilege from one phase of undemocratic overlordship in Hong Kong’s history to the next. In this context, by studying the ‘Battle for the Peak’ students realized that thinking historically can help them to gain control of narratives of their city, and look beyond the shallow sanitizing of ‘difficult heritage.’ Moreover, they grasped how such an approach may allow citizens to unpack the conflict-ridden history of their city and explore its potential value as a resource in the present day. Casting a closer and more critical eye upon how elites manage heritage has the potential to shed light upon the competing claims of private interests and public good, the state and its allies complicity in violence, and the problems of social inequality and lack of accountability in the present day.
About the author: David M. Pomfret is Head of the School of Humanities and Professor of History at The University of Hong Kong. His recent work includes Youth and Empire: Trans-colonial Childhoods in British and French Asia (Stanford University Press, 2016), winner of the 2017 Grace Abbott Book Prize, and Youth in the Age of Empire (as sole editor), forthcoming with Bloomsbury in 2020