The Hong Kong Museum of History opened in 1998 – the year after the handover – and it shows. This is a museum intended to persuade visitors that Hong Kong has always been Chinese. The Museum strikes an interesting claim to indigeneity by beginning in the beginning (of the world) and devoting one of its two exhibit floors to Hong Kong before the British arrived. That’s quite a lot of floor space considering that Hong Kong didn’t exist until the British grabbed the island, (while it is true that farmers, fisherfolk and traders lived on the Kowloon Peninsula, it was an insignificant place). And yet the exhibits begin with Hong Kong’s geology and natural setting, and a lengthy exploration of the unremarkable Paleolithic and Neolithic prehistory of this place (news flash: Neolithic residents used stone tools). After the Neolithic they walk you though a potted history of the Chinese dynasties.
But most of the of the first floor is dedicated to colorful, full-scale replicas of the life of four groups of villagers who lived on the peninsula before the British grabbed the island. The British don’t arrive until the second floor.
The British land grab is treated with stunning even-handedness. Those who have never toured one may not be aware that the category of most outrageously inventive origin story presented in a museum of national history is a highly competitive one. Only consider the national museum in Ottawa, capital of the former British colony of Canada. The Canadian Museum of Civilization opened in 1989. I visited in the early 90’s and worked my way through Canada Hall. I had passed the explorers, Acadians and voyageurs, and was somewhere in the late eighteenth century when I realized that the British hadn’t conquered Canada. Bemused, I walked back throughout the galleries just to make certain that I hadn’t somehow overlooked a gallery showing Wolfe dying heroically on the Plains of Abraham after conquering half of a continent for the British Empire. But Wolfe was not there; no conquest, no war, no French surrender. When you consider the fact that in 1989 the British conquest of Canada was far too hot a topic for a Canadian national museum to tackle, the Hong Kong museum’s treatment of the British is admirable.
Hong Kong does a fine job with the Opium War and the 1841 British seizure and occupation of the island. There’s even a pretty evenhanded description of why this foreign colony became the great entrepôt of the Chinese Empire (The short answer is political stability; merchants – including Chinese merchants – enjoyed security of life and property courtesy of the British Empire while China had a very rocky century and a half. Political stability and the rule of law built a great city.)
This is all in the text at the museum, at least, if you read between the lines, and assuming that you actually read the text. But, who reads museum texts? Only people who read blog posts like this.
The centerpiece of the Hong Kong museum is a full scale replica of a shop street in old Hong Kong, complete with family quarters over the shop houses. The hordes of schoolchildren who troop through can be forgiven if they come away believing that British Hong Kong was a Chinese city. It is what they are meant to believe. The individual displays are not inaccurate; the overall impression is. After the drama of the Opium Wars, the British are pushed to the side – literally into a few little rooms off the main street, to make room for the story of Chinese Hong Kong. The Brits reappear to surrender to the Japanese whose behavior as an occupying power gets an almost uniformly negative – and therefore thoroughly fair – treatment. But the spotlight is on the Chinese. And the argument is that Hong Kong belongs to the Chinese nation.
The National Museum of Singapore is is intriguingly different because rather than claiming that Siingapore is a Chinese city, this museum makes the claim that Singapore is a nation. If the names of the two museums don’t signal that sufficiently, the exhibits do.
Like Hong Kong, Singapore was a British invention and the curators in Singapore handle this awkward fact much as the curators in Hong Kong do: they accurately portray the 1818 creation of the British colony, but they arrive at the story only after beginning with the big bang theory of creation presented as a dazzling multi-media show in a dramatic round chamber. And impressing us with an archaeological gallery boasting of an improbable level of grander for long-vanished settlements on the peninsula.
But the heart of the museum is dedicated to telling the story of Singapore as a multi-cultural city, a place where Chinese, Brits, Malay and Tamil (Buddhists, Christians, Muslims and Hindus) – Singaporeans all! – work together to build a better Singapore.
The curators have the space to take us to little-known corners of the past, for example, British colonial policy that provided only primary education for Malays, but offered secondary education for Chinese. The British administrators explained that the colony needed only so many clerks and, since educating the the Chinese could supply them, it would be wasteful to educate the Malay. The post-World War II galleries are more problematic, but, then, so is Singapore.
Singpore simply fails to fit into any of our conventional paradigms. Wealthy despite the fact that it has no natural resources, Singapore is clean, law-abiding, safe, and doing better than almost any other country in the world when it comes to providing a good education and good jobs for all of its citizens. Not to mention first-rank galleries and concert halls. The authoritarian downside to Singapore is well known, but a great many Malaysians, Indonesians and other Asians would ignore all that if they could get landed status. Which brings us to Singapore’s ethnic policy.
Not the official ethnic policy, of course. That is as multi-cultural as the National Museum. Unofficially, however, the policy is to insure that Singapore continues to be Chinese. This is difficult in a state that is, after all, a tiny spur on the Malaysian peninsula and a short ferry ride from Indonesia. Immigration policy has long unofficially favored immigration by Straits Chinese, the ethnically Chinese minorities in what are now Malaysia and Indonesia who have lived in the region as distinctive, culturally Chinese communities since long before the birth of Islam. They continue to immigrate to Singapore, but not in sufficient numbers to supply Singapore’s voracious demand of labor.
The government of Singapore seeks out and admits growing numbers of mainland Chinese in what most observers see as a deliberate effort to insure that the Chinese continue to be the majority ethnicity. Discrimination in favor of Chinese (ergo, against Malay and Tamil) is said to be endemic in hiring, and visible in job listings that specify “Mandarin-speaker”.
This is at odds with the narrative of the National Museum, but it is also at odds with Lee Hsien Loong’s goal of building a Singaporean nation. To do that , Lee will have to persuade Singapore’s Malay, Tamil and Chinese not only that they are Singaporeans, but that Singaporean is a real identity. But as long as Singapore’s Tamil and Malay citizens are treated as less than the equals of their Chinese fell0w citizens, there is no reason for any citizen, Tamil, malay or Shinese, to believe in a Singaporean nation.
Building a National Museum is a lot easier than building a nation.