HONG KONG TRADITIONS: A History Museum, High Tea, and Modern Lights

If you’ve been following my series, Tracing China’s Past, the following is a look at the final day of my first South China research trip for my novel. Tortillas from The Chungking Café will be loosely based on the history of my Mexican-Chinese grandmother.

I learned “The Hong Kong Story” at the Hong Kong Museum of History. The elaborate, enormous exhibits included an actual fishing junk.

April 14, 2008 – Hong Kong

Yesterday, on my last full day in China, my translator Zhu Zhu and I learned “The Hong Kong Story” at the Hong Kong Museum of History. Our jaws really did drop in reaction to the elaborate, enormous exhibits, which included: an actual fishing junk, a recreation of a Punti ancestral hall, a bridal sedan chair, an entire Hong Kong store that was in business from the late 19th to late 20th century, and a recreation of a traditional Cantonese teahouse of the sort that would have been popular when my great-grandfather Ma Bing Sum was a young man preparing to leave China for America.

Here are a few things I learned:

Before a traditional wedding, dowry items and family gifts went back and forth between the in-laws’ households in numerous boxes, baskets, and containers. On the wedding day, a bride was carried to the groom’s home in a sedan chair enclosed with red cloth, so she wouldn’t encounter “dangers” along the way, such as a pregnant woman who might make her infertile, or a widow who might bring bad luck. A band would precede the procession, and a good-life woman or matchmaker would walk behind scattering grain to distract demons from following. Shortly before World War II, my Uncle Tommy fell in love with the Chinese tutor who taught his younger brothers and sisters. He married her in a traditional ceremony much like that in the museum.

On the wedding day, a bride was carried to the groom’s home in a sedan chair enclosed with red cloth, so she wouldn’t encounter “dangers” along the way.

The Punti ancestral hall looked like the one in my great-grandfather’s village in Gong Hao. The ancestral hall is the most important place in a village. That must be why, when I took birthday photos of my distant cousin Old Mr. Ma, he insisted on posing in front of the Ma hall.

The beautiful lantern lighting ceremony still takes place in many villages early in the new year. Families with newborn sons each light a large paper lantern to symbolize a new life. The boys’ names are then added to a formal list of male ancestors, much like the ancestral book Old Mr. Ma had shown me in his village, which included the names of my great-great grandfather, great-grandfather, and great uncles.

Early in the new year, families with newborn sons each light a large paper lantern to symbolize a new life.

If the British hadn’t addicted millions of Chinese to illegally imported opium, and the Chinese hadn’t tried to stop them, the British wouldn’t have gone to war with China and then taken over Hong Kong in 1842, and Canton (Guangzhou) wouldn’t have been thrown wide open to European trade. So, you might say the wider world of international trade and transportation that enticed my great-grandfather to seek his fortune in America was an opportunity created by a drug war.

In traditional Cantonese teahouses, poor people ate and drank more cheaply on the first floor, while the rich dined on the second or third floor. Zhu Zhu and I were amused to learn that it used to be common for elderly men to carry caged birds with them to the teahouses.

Zhu Zhu and I were amused to learn that it used to be common for elderly men to carry caged birds with them to the teahouses.

We saw photos of the Japanese Occupation and heard recordings of people who’d been held captive in Stanley Prison camp, where one of my aunts was imprisoned during the war. One woman said that sometimes nearly 50 people were held in a one-room flat. One man recalled how sleepy they felt all the time because they were starving. He said his skin used to itch constantly, and after months of scratching he and many others were covered with open sores.

We saw photos of the Japanese Occupation.

During the occupation, the Japanese tried to “repatriate” hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong Chinese back to mainland China, reducing the population of Hong Kong from more than 1.5 million to about 600 thousand. The idea was to avoid feeding them all. Many “repatriated” Chinese starved to death while trudging north on foot. By war’s end in 1945, most who had stayed behind were starving or malnourished as well, including my aunts and uncles.

By war’s end in 1945, most who had stayed behind were starving or malnourished as well.

Although Zhu Zhu and I have never known such deprivation, after four hours at the museum we were ready to eat. I elected to finish our trip with the posh ritual of high tea at the historic Peninsula Hotel. After queueing up for half an hour, we indulged in the Peninsula’s “Classic Afternoon Tea for Two.” We drank fine tea served in – what else? – fine China. And we nibbled a divine selection of raisin scones and clotted cream, sandwiches and savories, petits fours and truffles – including green tea tiramisu – all displayed on an antique silver service. Zhu Zhu held up a polished silver knife to admire her reflection, sending us into a lowbrow fit of giggles. I consumed enough sugar and caffeine to develop a headache. We walked off the nausea and the shakes by hoofing it back up Nathan Road to Mong Kok – about four miles.

I elected to finish our trip with the posh ritual of high tea at the historic Peninsula Hotel.

In the evening, I took a bus to Victoria Harbour for the nightly light show among Hong Kong’s skyscrapers. A pale fog lent an eerie mystery to the diffused light, a modern but moody end to my journey into the past.

I took a bus to Victoria Harbour for the nightly light show among Hong Kong’s skyscrapers.

This trip has fueled my imagination for my historical novel, connected me to my ancestors, and given me a new friend. I’ve invited Zhu Zhu to visit me in America when she can. I’m eager to return home. I’ve been unable to receive email from Dale since I arrived. I don’t know why. I feel disconnected from my life and long to return to a sense of belonging. Though I suppose it won’t pay to get too comfortable: in three weeks I leave again… for Route 66.

2 thoughts on “HONG KONG TRADITIONS: A History Museum, High Tea, and Modern Lights

  1. Beth Partin

    Sounds like a very cool day. I would love to visit that museum someday.

    I liked the fact that you walked 4 miles. I’ve been rediscovering the joys of walking, although not that far.

    Reply
  2. Cara Lopez Lee Post author

    It really was one of the best museums I’ve visited, Beth, by any country’s standards. Doing historical research for a book has allowed me to discover amazing experiences in places I might normally skip. As for the walking, four miles was a bit much after spending four hours in a museum. But I normally walk between three and eight miles when I go for a hike in the mountains.

    Reply

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