Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Hong Kong Heritage Museum

As the weather continues to be hot and steamy in Hong Kong, our favorite destination besides the pool is an air-conditioned museum. We have long meant to get to the Hong Kong Heritage Museum and a recent humid Saturday gave us the motivation we needed to do just that. Hong Kong museums are scattered all around but this was our farthest flung museum to date. The Heritage Museum is located in Sha Tin, a city in Hong Kong’s New Territories, the part of Hong Kong that is connected to mainland China. We drove through the Aberdeen Tunnel (a mountain tunnel), through the cross-harbor tunnel and finally through Lion Rock Tunnel (a mountain tunnel) to arrive at the museum. Once there, we were all awed by the big beautiful museum building, but also by how far we had come and by the fact that we did not once get lost.

Once cool, we quickly zoomed in on the museum’s Ancient Olympics exhibit on loan from the British Museum. Because of the long standing relationship between Britain and Hong Kong, some of the great exhibits we see here are on loan from the British museums. We wandered around learning about the Olympics (for men only) and Hera’s Olympics which involved a running race for women. The link between sport and a religious experience was strongly supported and reminded me of our kids climbing through thick jungle hillsides right outside our little chapel in Stanley. They always return to us hot, dirty and a little awed by how adventurous they really were.

In addition to the loaned exhibits, the museum did have a number of China and even Hong Kong centered galleries. One Hong Kong gallery focused on the long standing jewelry industry here. Another Hong Kong exhibit showcased the art of Lo Koon Chui and his children’s comic book “Children’s Paradise,” which was first published in Hong Kong in 1953. All of his art showed lively, lovely children doing every day things. We saw a painting of little girls skipping with a rubber band jump rope, something my little girls have done here too. It is clear there was a social message regarding moral behavior there but it was lost on us. We just saw the paintings and enjoyed them.

As we were lulled into a very Western museum experience, Tori reminded us that we were in a foreign country. Tori asked if the comic book “Children’s Paradise” was still being published today. The museum staff in the room could not understand her question but kindly called for additional support. Other staff came over and we could still not get to the bottom of it. Again they kindly called head office staff over. We still could not answer the question but not for lack of trying. Eventually, we did find out from a cashier in the gift shop that the publication stopped in 1984. Our answer seemed to reflect the divide between the esoteric and the commercial but by the time we finally got our answer we were too tired to ponder further.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Mid-Autumn Festival: our third time around

School has just started and already it is holiday time here in Hong Kong. We have some time off from school and a public holiday as well to celebrate the mid-autumn festival. This festival, a harvest festival of sorts, falls on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month and thus can come anytime between mid-September and early October. Our previous two mid-autumn festivals have been at the very end of September, so this one on September 14th does seem early and as the weather is still quite hot, not very autumn like at all.

The mid-autumn festival is also known as the moon festival, going back 3,000 years to ancient Chinese moon worship. Nowadays folks typically gather with family and friends at look at the full moon. The Peak, the highest point on Hong Kong Island, is a popular somewhat touristy place to spend the mid-autumn festival. I have always wanted to get us up there to see both the moon and all the people walking around with lanterns lit by candle flame. But after Phil mentioned that the Peak Tram, the tram that most people take up to the Peak, was putting up more crowd patrol, adding more departures to accommodate the crowds, I re-considered.

For the second year in a row, we celebrated the holiday at our local beach, Stanley Main Beach. It is minutes from our apartment and reachable via our free apartment run shuttle bus. We packed up a picnic dinner, gathered some friends and procured a large quantity of the day-glo sticks and necklaces that have more or less replaced actual candles at the beach these days. Our local beach was really packed this year. Last year the holiday was on a a week day. The beach was quiet and mainly filled with our expat friends. I remember Tori remarking “Is this a holiday for Chinese people too?” This year the holiday fell on a Sunday and the beach was packed with local and foreign folks, including “helpers,” Fillipina domestic workers who have every Sunday off. It was hard to find room to put our beach blanket down but the whole holiday had a much more festive air.

In addition to being called the moon festival, this holiday also goes by the name lantern festival. Many families light candles and light candles inside of lanterns to shine at the moon. We of course do not celebrate with any flame. The other name of this holiday is the moon cake festival. Again, we don’t really participate in this part of the holiday either. Moon cakes are a little like Western-style fruitcakes but made of melon seeds, lotus seeds, minced meats and bean paste with a golden yolk from a salted duck egg in the middle. Adam and Royce made moon cakes out of clay at school this year but that was as close as we got to them. Instead of the ancient rites, we seem to be forging our own mid-autumn festival traditions. For yet another year, the kids swam way out in the ocean, well past our comfort zone and then ran around a very crowded beach at night. Some might call it maniac but we are choosing to call it festive and even traditional now as we hit the year three mark.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Jail time: Hong Kong Correctional Services Museum

Hong Kong is quite hot and humid right now. Inside venues are good for us these days, especially those with good air conditioning systems. That is said as a bit of an explanation as to why we recently found ourselves at the Hong Kong Correctional Services Museum. This museum (and prison and staff training institute) are all located in Stanley, the little town near our apartment where we do our most of our shopping and errands. While it does seem a bit incongruous with the expatriate side of Stanley, the prison is there and we now know a little more about it.

Prisons have a long history here, with the first prison opened in 1841 and known as “Victoria Gaol.” When space became cramped, some prisoners were incarcerated in a prison ship permanently docked off one of the outlying islands. In 1876, a restricted diet was introduced as a form of punishment. The penal diet consisted of bread and water for the Europeans prisoners and rice and water for the Asian prisoners. We all found this distinction oddly thoughtful.

In 1937, Stanley Prison was opened. Today it is a maximum security prison for adult males with approximately 1,500 individuals serving time. We did know about the prison but really only through mention of a prisoner visitation program that our minister has started. There are police and military headquarters in Stanley but those and the prison itself do not attract much attention from the foreigners.

The museum, like all Hong Kong museums, is put together nicely with displays in dual languages, lots of technology and zero crowds. This museum had a mock gallows and mock cells that were a bit gruesome but we hustled the kids along and looked at the guards’ uniforms instead. A large part of the museum was dedicated to Vietnamese boat people. As best we could figure out, Hong Kong’s correctional services were in charge of the management of the many refugee camps. The photos of all this people and kids playing and learning in the middle of these huge camps was inspiring. We also liked a display on Bogadek’s Burrowing Lizard, a rare limbless lizard discovered in a prison facility. We could not tell who found the lizard, either staff or prisoners but it was described as an environmental plus.

Throughout the visit, Royce asked why the museum was called the Correctional Services Museum instead of the jail museum. There actually was a display about the relatively recent switch in terminology from Prisons Department to Correctional Services but Royce would have none of that. It did not make sense to her. I thought my description of our day’s “museum visit” was a little suspect as well but no one called me on it. We were all too happy with the air-conditioning to get into the semantics of it all.