Finding Hong Kong History

Today’s blog post is a brief overview of where and how to find Hong Kong history online. I’ll save the list of archives for another day!

First of all, the Old Hong Kong Newspapers web page on the Hong Kong Public Libraries website is an excellent resource for anyone looking for primary source material on Old Hong Kong. You can search within a wide selection of Chinese and English language newspapers, including the China Mail and the Hong Kong Daily Press, by entering key words in the search engine.

Speaking of newspapers, you can also purchase access to the South China Morning Post Historical Archive, with the first issue stretching back to the newspaper’s founding in 1903. Although there is a paywall (which doesn’t come cheap), the search engine is powerful and the newspapers easier to download than on the Public Libraries website.

Now let’s turn to government records. Of course, the Public Records Office, with its excellent Carl T Smith Collection (and recently updated website), should be the very first port of call for any Hong Kong historian. But for those working outside of Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Government Reports Online, a Hong Kong University Library digital initiative, is the next best thing. It provides digital access to four major government publications, namely: the Administrative Report, Hong Kong Hansard, Hong Kong Sessional Papers and Hong Kong Government Gazette. Simply type in a key word, set the date parameters, and off you go.

You can also download council meetings of the Legislative Council from 1858 until 1997 here.

Blogs and websites administered by historians and enthusiasts are another excellent resource. Over at the crowd-sourced and award winning Gwulo website, you can find obscure links to all corners of the internet, anecdotal evidence, memoir, photographs, GPS tagging and more. Its strength lies in the site’s comments section, where relatives and old Hong Kongers regularly post messages and recollections of people, places and events, allowing users to trace the lives of the most marginal figures in the darkest corners of Hong Kong’s history. Similarly, check out Tony Banham’s Hong Kong War Diary for everything on the 1941 defence of Hong Kong and the ensuing occupation. Brian Edgar’s thoughtful blog traces his family’s history and along the way examines race, war and colonialism in Hong Kong through an academic lens. The Hong Kong History Project blog, a relatively recent newcomer to the Hong Kong blogging scene, has all kinds of useful information including a must-read annotated bibliography by historian Vaudine England and a directory of academics working at universities around the world. The project is based at the University of Bristol and aims to encourage new research into Hong Kong’s politics, society, culture and economy.



From Strongroom to Seminar

img_4680Today I attended a fascinating conference titled ‘Strongroom to Seminar’ hosted by the Institute of Historical Research and The National Archives. The aim of the conference was to share strategies and ideas as to how to best engage students in the archival method.

The keynote speaker was Professor Jo Fox of Durham University, whose presentation was so good I thought I’d blog about it here!

Jo spoke about the shifting identity of the archive in the 21st Century and the importance, as well as the challenges, of introducing archives to students as part of a holistic pedagogic method in History Departments across universities. It’s a topic I feel strongly about and one we’ve taken seriously at The Hong Kong Heritage Project, where we’ve rolled out a number of innovative oral history and archive programmes for high school and university students.

Everyday Disappointments

One of the most thought-provoking aspects of Jo’s presentation was to touch on the uncertainty and instability of archival research. We’ve all experienced the gradual dissipation of hope and excitement as documents don’t quite yield the answers we expect – but how can be this be taught as part of a history module?

Jo argues that the process of archival study should shape the questions we ask of our sources, and that as historians we need to constantly re-frame our research questions in the face of everyday disappointments. It’s vital to teach students the value of historical problem solving and the difference between finding documents and finding useful documents. Each research journey is personal, and deeply affecting. Research invokes a spectrum of emotion – from boredom, excitement and frustration – feelings that can’t easily be taught as part of a course module. Jo offers practical solutions to this dilemma by turning to public history. A number of universities have recently offered hands-on modules in which students can critically engage – and indeed literally interrogate – their sources. For example, the 2011 Queen Mary University ‘Blair Government’ course introduced students to key players in the Blair cabinet, including Tony himself!

Digital Solutions?

Finally, Jo addressed another more recent challenge facing historians and the archival method – that of digitization. Digital copies of records are often touted as a cure-all to the dual problems of access and preservation. I know I’ve certainly been grateful for online collections that have saved the cost of a train ticket across the country or flights and accommodation abroad. But besides the problems faced by archives – the huge costs involved in digitisation programmes and the relentless pace of technological change – Jo argues that digitization comes at a cost for the end-user too. The sense of a collection’s materiality is being lost by a new ‘smash-and-grab’ culture in which students enter an archive, launch an eight-hour assault with a digital camera and return home to assess their booty. Something valuable is lost in this process. No longer do we spend days contemplating our sources and intellectually meandering through collections. The archive is now considered as a place to raid rather than to think. Similarly, when collections are accessed online, we not only lose the tactile enjoyment of the record but the sense of a collection’s provenance and accessioning history.  Jo asks whether digitization will prompt a change in the way in which we practice history in the twenty-first century, and I agree that it certainly calls into question the hallowed value placed on digitization in the profession today.