Today’s news, tomorrow’s history.
Recently, we took part in an important Hong Kong history. But, will the enthusiastic find truth in history? Website oldhkphoto.com founder Jacky Yu believes: “Social movements such as rallies and protests are necessary but an influence on cultural ideologies can exert a lasting impact. Totalitarian powers destroy history. The best way to safeguard history is to study history. Historical events teach us how to negotiate the past and the present and learn how to live today and face the future.”
Currently a secondary school teacher, Yu was once a teenage drifter with low self-esteem who wasted his adolescence at video game arcades. But then his obsession with the strategy games Three Kingdoms and Nobunaga’s Ambition ignited his passion for Chinese history.
The Warring States Period is his favourite age in ancient Chinese history. “That period was plagued by major battles which nevertheless gave birth to a handful of military leaders such as Wu Qi and Zhao Kuo as well as philosophers including Confucius, Mencius, Scorpion, Zhuangzi and Laozi.” That was a period that let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend. None of the succeeding dynasties could replicate that. “China’s ideological unity has been preserved since the Qin Dynasty until this day.” He believes that history admonishes people against repeating the mistakes in history.
Leaving behind his teenage rebellion, Yu studied hard and subsequently gained admission to the Department of Chinese Language and Literature at the Hong Kong Shue Yan College (currently Hong Kong Shue Yan University) and later Peking University for a master’s degree. After graduation, he became a research assistance tasked with proofreading documents. The tedious daily routine prompted him to sign up with the education sector. He found himself teaching Chinese history.
“The curriculum covered everything from the Qing Dynasty to the June Fourth Incident. It was no more than a modern history fact sheet with dates, events, locations and names. Students would find it difficult to grasp the details.” Then, he started to use images as teaching aid. “Images have been a dominant communication form on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. Images are snapshots of events. They tell stories. Using images to illustrate the stories can help arouse students’ interest.”
In the beginning, he was just combing the Internet for images for teaching purposes. “Then I realised that there were two to three thousands images in my collection. Instead of keeping them on the computer, I wanted to share them.” He started by building oldhkphoto.com. Then came his Facebook page. The year was 2012.
“The response was unexpectedly encouraging. Similar Facebook pages started to emerge. I wanted to make mine special so I started to call for contributions. I also purchased images to beef up my collection.” Some sever years on, his Facebook page boasts a fan base of more than 180,000.
At the invitation of publishers, Yu penned a series of books about the Hong Kong history. These have included Coastline of Hong Kong Island ( 港島海岸綫 ), Coastline of the Kowloon Peninsula ( 九龍海岸綫 ), Post-war Hong Kong ( 戰後香港寫照 ) and From Mid-levels to Central ( 上半山．下中環 ).
“The majority of my first batch of images were photographic records of coastal Hong Kong from the end of the 19th to the dawn of the 20th century. Instead of uploading them onto the Internet one by one, I thought I would use them to rebuild the coastline of Hong Kong Island for a peek into the historical development of coastal Hong Kong.” He says that researching the history of land reclamation in Hong Kong was almost like studying the entire stretch of the city’s past.
Yu’s research does not rely solely on Google and Wikipedia. He searched newspaper archives and read them by the dozens and hundreds of them at a time often only for a glimpse of a story. Still, he has passion for it. “I consider it a pastime and a personal interest. I could do it whenever I have a bit of time or during a holiday leisurely and meticulously.”
At the dawn of 2018, he reached a conclusion from the various documents he came across. He wanted to take another step forward. “Gradually, I realised that Chinese history and that of Hong Kong are inseparable. The many issues in Hong Kong in recent years also led me to seek solutions by examining Hong Kong’s history.”
This time, he wants to use images not only to revisit Hong Kong’s past, but also to document Hong Kong’s history and tell the stories of the city. He penned the book Once Upon a Street: Stories of Ever-changing Streets in Hong Kong ( 壹街一個故事 ) in a move to arouse public interest the way he does for his classes. His target audience, however, is you, me, and everybody. “Milan Kundera once wrote: ‘totalitarian power destroys history’. The best way to safeguard history and help Hong Kong people to be heard is to study history.”
He believes that historical events teach people how to negotiate the past and the present, and how to live today and face the future. “Social movements such as rallies and protests are necessary but an influence on cultural ideologies can exert a lasting impact.”
Hong Kong became under British rule in 1841. The city only has a brief history of fewer than two decades. Not a lot of people have learnt about it, let alone learning from it. But, where do we begin? Yu has released a number of articles about the 1967 riots in Hong Kong: “A patriotic ideology was expressed through violence. Will history repeat itself and lead Hong Kong astray? Back then, the UK government was hard-handed. Leftist rebels were suppressed but there were signs of leniency. Does that piece of history provide some clues to how today’s political criminals are being handled?”
He points out that some of those suppressed leftists have become today’s political leaders. “Were their actions justified then? Does that particular event in history jeopardise the present?” More importantly, some people believe that the incident should be redressed and that some people are twisting the truth.”
Another purpose of studying history is to safeguard the truth. The June Fourth Incident in a classroom context, for instance, constitutes merely a paragraph or two which even states that the it was a riot clean-up and not a repression.” He often quotes this example: “Hong Kong people know about the 1967 Cultural Revolution but students of this generation are unaware of the 1967 leftist riots in Hong Kong. Even the government has claimed that the 50 year-old event was not distant enough to be included in the school curriculum.”
During the Queen’s Pier fiascos in 2009, people took action not only to protect history but also to preserve it. Yu feels that such miscellaneous political changes have led Hong Kong people to care more about Hong Kong and its history. “Hong Kong is a miracle in its own right. When the British government claimed Hong Kong, the city was considered of no value. But, it took Hong Kong only three to four decades to become a metropolitan. This bright spot is already sufficient to attract foreigners to look at Hong Kong’s history.”
Yu believes in story telling to help arouse the public interest in history
“Hong Kong became such a crucial refuge as the various so-called civil unrests erupted on the mainland. Why did mainland Chinese back then opt for a future in Hong Kong rather than stay put on the mainland? They wanted to leave the totalitarian regime for Hong Kong’s rule of law,” says Yu. The further he examines the reality, the more he feels about mass community participation. ”Hong Kong people’s awareness of the local history remains low. Telling stories can help impact some general knowledge before we could delve more deeply into the current issues.”
History can only become meaningful when the general public has the basic awareness of the historical events. “When people come together for a common interest, policy execution, building social solidarity and social mobilisation can be more effective and positive.” In the long run, the study of history can transcend disciplines and involve people from all walks of life to achieve greater impact.
As an educator, Yu concedes, he may not be able to engage himself in the forefront in many such social movements. “The best I could do is to adhere to my role to facilitate thinking by using words and culture. I aim to accomplish this.”
translator ．Charles Mak
editor ． Grace Chan
photographer ． Fung
videographer & editor ．Trevor Tse
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