The Hong Kong Museum of History is not your average museum. You won’t find rooms full of religious artifacts or ancient pottery shards. Instead, Hong Kong’s colorful past is brought to life with realistic models that you can look at from all sides and even walk through. The Hong Kong Story, the museum’s permanent exhibition, begins with prehistoric times and the city’s natural environment and concludes with the 1997 reunification with China.
The first exhibit of note illustrates folk culture in Hong Kong. Visitors can peer inside life-size replicas of a junk boat and the home of an ethnic Hakka family to experience how people in Hong Kong used to live. An opera stage has been which you can walk around to see performers mid-scene up front and getting into costume around back. I’d love to play dress up with the gorgeous clothes and shoes! Festival celebrations are in full swing nearby and you can imagine the dragon dance reaching a fevered pitch as believers make offerings to giant Taoist effigies.
Visitors are then shepherded to the museum’s top floor where the city’s complex relationship with Great Britain is explored. Opium was a major cash crop for the British in the 19th century, over which they fought two wars with China. China was forced after the First Opium War to cede Hong Kong Island to the British in 1842; the Kowloon peninsula was annexed after the Second Opium War in 1860.
As a British colony and a free port of call, Hong Kong prospered. The museum’s showpiece is a three-story European-style building on the banks of mock fishing port that brings the colonial city to life. You can walk through a 19th century tailor’s shop, bank, post office, pawnshop and two-level tea house, all decorated with the tools of the trade. The upper levels of the structure explain the British and Chinese education systems and display common household effects. I’ve read a great deal on European and Chinese history and it seemed as though the books were coming alive before my eyes! The experience could be improved only with the inclusion of costumed performers.
The next exhibit is a sobering look at the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during WWII. This period lasted for over three and a half years, during which time food was scarce and residents were forced to wait in long queues for water.
The British regained control of Hong Kong in 1945 and, by the 1960s, it had become a modern metropolis. The boom era is recreated for visitors with a movie theater, soda shop, comic book stand and grocery store. Between the old tunes playing on the jukebox and the laughing teenagers on a field trip, I felt like I was on the set of Happy Days!
Economic prosperity was achieved in part by the creation of textile and clothing factories which employed over 560,000 people. These factories moved to the mainland in the ’80s and ’90s to take advantage of cheaper labor, but by then Hong Kong’s financial success was well established.
The Hong Kong story ends – for now! – with the city’s return to China and detailed exhibits on the negotiations and final hand off. You will leave feeling like you lived 150 years of history in two hours!