The General Returns

In Hong Kong, Museums on February 27, 2011 by triotriotrio

I would never say that the time I spent at the Institute of Museum and Library Service wasn’t rewarding. One of the things that I always missed while I was there was the absence of a wonderful collection and a community of engaged people interested in that collection. For although Museum and Library are in the name, the truth is that a federal grant making agency is neither of those things. The most exciting collection at IMLS is a mountain of green application folders that are filled with aspirations and humble requests.

On Friday I was able to get a little taste of that museum magic back as I participated in a program at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum.  As many of you may know Hong Kong was a British administered territory for over a hundred years. The end of that administration is still fresh on the minds of the people of Hong Kong. One can still find an odd coin in one’s change that bears the head of Queen Elizabeth II. As an outsider I have found that the British influence is unmistakable, but at the heart of it, Hong Kong is a Chinese culture and people are proud to be Chinese.

The culminating events of the Opium Wars led to the treaty that gave Great Britain possession of Hong Kong. And it was these events that led to the exciting tale at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum. After the wounded had been tended and the events of war came to a close the British began to disassemble the fortifications and armaments of the Chinese. It is speculated that most of the remnants were completely destroyed. But there was at least one survivor.

Through unknown circumstances one of the Chinese cannon that was used during the decisive battle of Hong Kong was placed on abroad a British ship and was taken back to Britain as a “war trophy.” And there it sat for over a hundred years. Its history was forgotten as time passed.

In 2010 the Hong Kong Maritime Museum found out about the cannon’s existence. Its significance was unmistakeable. It was decided that it was time to bring the cannon home. It was through a generous donation by Mr. Kenneth K.W. Lo, a local citizen, which made the purchase possible. And the cannon has now found a new home at the museum. No longer silent, it has a powerful story to tell about this time in Hong Kong history.

The barrel shows a off a rich patina that is like a scar that tells the story of it long outdoor exposure. One of the other things that make this piece interesting are the carvings that tell us that this was no ordinary cannon of its day. This cannon was named the “Barbarian Suppressing General Canon.” Of the course the Barbarians are the term used for the British.

Perhaps the most stirring part of this lecture for me was the opportunity to hear Mr. Lo speak about the cannon. As he ceremonially pulled back the veil to the excitement of the crowd he spoke about how proud he was to be able to give this piece back to the people of Hong Kong. He spoke about the terrible consequences of war and the need for people to grow and understand each other. This cannon will become a signature piece in the museum’s gallery when it makes its big move to Pier 8 in 2012.

May the “General” serve as an important reminder of the past and a platform for future dialog on how this city, country and world can learn from its past.


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