Archaeologist Richard Lee: Hong Kong is a ‘city in a heritage identity crisis’

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The history buff, who’s organising ‘heritage walks’ with theDesk, digs deep into Kennedy Town’s role in Hong Kong’s complicated identity

‘Heritage’. A word that evokes a sense of community, history and culture while simultaneously evading positive definition since its parameters, which are constantly shifting as history makes its slow lurches forward, remain so elusive and fuzzy. With Hong Kong being such a fast and forward-looking city, we might not always have time to stop and ask what having a ‘Hong Kong heritage’ means or even looks like. Particularly for us here at theDesk: we wonder what place Sai Ying Pun, Sai Wan and Kennedy Town have in the larger heritage of a unique post-colonial city like Hong Kong – and, more importantly, what that tells us about why the city is the way it is today.

So we speak with British archaeologist Richard Lee, who’s joining forces with theDesk to organise a series of Saturday morning ‘heritage walks’ in Sai Ying Pun, Sai Wan and Kennedy Town, starting on May 27. Lee has multiple degrees in history and a PhD in his field. He’s spent the past eight years living in Hong Kong – primarily Kennedy Town, of late – and he’s been devoting himself to an exploration of these exact questions of what heritage means as he’s been making sense of his new home. Lee specialises in studying ‘material culture’ since he’s particularly ‘interested in why and how people use the objects and materials that they use’. While this can entail small mysterious trinkets from yesteryear like vintage cutlery, clocks or candy bars, it more interestingly pertains to the structural fabric with which the city itself and its everyday life are built.

To illustrate, Lee points to a 50-year-old-or-so tenement building surrounded by bamboo scaffolding across the road as we sit in a Kennedy Town coffee shop. “The question that comes to mind,” reflects Lee, “is ‘why preserve it?’ That packet of land must cost a bundle and that’s a very low density use of it. There must be some social process that allows it to still stand.” He further ponders: “And why bamboo?” As Lee sees it, heritage is learning about and valuing both the integrity of the authentic, physical material that remains from the past, as well as the entrenched social processes that allow it to endure.

“The point of recognising sites of heritage is to repurpose the past, whose original function or meaning has already lapsed into chronological oblivion, into something newly productive, novel and insightful.”

As theDesk has written about here, Kennedy Town played a huge militarily strategic and industrial role for old Hong Kong. Lee dubs Hong Kong as an ‘entrée port’ into China and, in a more nuanced manner, describes the city as being ‘not of that country but something beyond’ He adds: “It’s a very fluid mixture. It’s where competing ideologies fight.”

While these cultural ‘fights’ between the local ‘East’ and the colonial ‘West’ are oft-spoken of today, Kennedy Town in particular is able to paint a unique portrait of the centuries-old conflict, specifically due to the area’s medical history and its role in the proliferation of plagues at the turn of the 19th century. In fact, the bacteria that causes plague, Yersinia pestis, was first scientifically identified and named after a doctor called Alexandre Yersin, who was assigned in 1894 to the Tung Wah Plague Hospital that once sat at the edge of Kennedy Town.

As plague swept the city that year, thousands fled to escape while infected local residents and soldiers alike were rounded up in Kennedy Town for treatment – or frankly, for dead. When the Plague Hospital overflowed with patients and was unable to take in any more, the adjacent Glass Works facility on Victoria Road was converted into a ‘temporary plague hospital’ as was the district’s police station, immediately establishing the area’s hushed function for accommodating the morbid and dying.

SEE ALSO: From ‘The End’ to a new beginning: SYP and K-Town through the years

When worse came to worst, the British military docked the Hygeia, a medical ship intended to alleviate the burden of the ad hoc medical facilities onshore, in the Kennedy Town harbour. However, plague-infected local residents refused to board it, as they didn’t want to be treated by expatriate doctors with Western medicine – they wanted to stay in one of the few Tung Wah facilities where Chinese doctors practiced traditional Chinese medicine.

While this may seem like just an interesting historical anecdote, the small story and the different values at play therein are an insightful microcosm of what Lee describes as ‘a city in an identity crisis’. The astonishing ‘resilience’, Lee describes, that native Cantonese language, sciences, practices and beliefs possess coupled with the unyielding ‘faith’, he furthers, that has allowed its community to carry them on and endure in the face of hundreds of years of entrenched, dominant British colonial oppression have resulted in new hybrid practices, social rituals and fragmented senses of identity.  

Today, a walk into any local neighbourhood pharmacy will present to you deer antlers, cow penises and curled bark peeled from native trees piled on glass plates amid colourful boxes of Panadol and value-packs of laundry powder and shampoo – a peculiar assortment that seems to be at complete odds with itself, if you really stop and think about it. And as for the first major Western dispensary in Hong Kong? Established in 1841, the same year as the birth of the colony, it was named Hong Kong Dispensary on Des Voeux Road and was managed by one AS Watson, after which the now well-known eponymous pharmaceutical chain is named and has evolved into. Today, Watsons is scattered among every local neighbourhood. Amid all these incongruous yet seamless historical puzzle pieces, we can’t truly complete the whole picture of how we ended up here unless we delve into the heritage – medicinal, colonial, linguistic – of the city’s distinctive history, of which Kennedy Town has a unique role.

The point of recognising and walking through points and sites of heritage, says Lee, is to repurpose the past, whose original function or meaning has already lapsed into chronological oblivion, into something newly productive, novel and insightful. “We struggle to reinvent and find new meaning,” he says. “If you can understand why people did something or how they did it, then you’ll rediscover things that have been lost or marginalised, and it will somehow better us.”

While immensely valuable, as Lee points out: any heritage is inherently useless unless we look at it. But once we’re able to direct an inquisitive gaze towards a collective past, we can cull the ‘grains of truth scattered across times and places’, as he puts it. By walking mindfully amongst the new and old, the ‘living and the dead’, we can finally attempt to answer the question ‘how do we end up where we end up?’ – and more importantly, ‘where are we going?’

by Grace Fung

Saturday Heritage Walk with theDesk: Kennedy Town and Chinese medicine
Saturday May 27, 10am-12midday – theDesk, 511 Queen’s Rd W, Sai Wan

Are you interested in finding out about the history of Kennedy Town? Do you enjoy a good stroll on a Saturday morning while learning about heritage? Have you ever wanted to know about Chinese medicine and its place in old Hong Kong? Well, head over to theDesk on Saturday May 27 for a two-hour K-Town ‘workshop and walk’.

Richard Lee is hosting the walk along with theDesk team and he’s a fountain of knowledge when it comes to K-Town’s colourful past. But he’s not alone as a Chinese medicine expert joins him for the event, hosting a 20-minute talk at theDesk at the beginning and a 20-minute workshop back at our co-working and events space at the end. There’s obviously a Chinese medicine ‘flavour’ to the entire experience.

It’s totally free to join and we’re providing refreshments at theDesk. Do bring a hat and suncream for the walk but also expect plenty of shade along the route in K-Town. Bring some water too, however you can fill your bottles up at theDesk. The event begins at 10am and ends at 12midday, however get to theDesk at least 10 minutes early as the opening Chinese medicine talk begins at 10am sharp.

All you need to do now is register. RSVP using the form below or at and we’ll see you on the day! May this be the first ‘Saturday Heritage Walk with theDesk’ of many…

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