Walter Chan reviews a new work comparing the central museums of Hong Kong, Macau, and Singapore.

Emily Stokes-Rees, Imagining Asia: Cultural Citizenship and Nation Building in the National Museums of Singapore, Hong Kong and Macau (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), pp.268.

On October 18, 2020, hundreds of Hongkongers flocked to the History Museum for the last visit to its permanent exhibition, “The Hong Kong Story”, before it was demolished for revamping. Some tried to hold on to the memory by taking photographs of all the exhibits and text panels, concerned that the standing images and narratives might be either altered or swapped out entirely after the refurbishment. The interesting question this raised was whether “The Hong Kong Story” represented a narrative of the history of Hong Kong that was worthy of such urgent memorialisation.

From a museological perspective, Stokes-Rees’s Imagining Asia (2019) provides the critical angles necessary to appraise “The Hong Kong Story”, especially in comparison with the similar “stories” curated by the central museums of Macau and Singapore. Even though Stokes-Rees incorrectly defines the three cities as nation-states (or in the case of Hong Kong and Macau, “quasi-city-states”), the fact is that these permanent exhibitions, as Stokes-Rees argues, are a significant means by which the relevant authorities have sought to build a shared sense of cultural citizenship – a way, that is, of constructing a unifying identity premised on the narrative of a common culture and history.

The introduction lays its theoretical groundwork – that museums are spaces where nationalism and identity construction are at work. Stokes-Rees traces national building projects back to 19th century Europe where museums took part in displaying collective achievements and common heritage to reinforce what Benedict Anderson influentially called an “imagined community.” Such national projects are still at work, though in more subtle ways, in post-colonial Asian cities, where authorities continue to deal with the legacy of colonialism (British/Portuguese) and the effect this has had on contemporary Hongkonger, Singaporean, and Macanese local identities.

Then the book moves to a contextual overview of the three museums, including the history of the cities in colonial and post-colonial periods and the founding of the museums themselves. The main arguments of the book, however, are presented in the subsequent chapters, titled “Legacies,” “Performances,” and “Transformation.”

“Legacies” concerns the narratives of colonialism that persist in the museums. Stokes-Rees propounds that in the case of Macau, colonial history is romanticised – nostalgic memories of colonialism, however, are kept at a certain temporal and cultural distance from the contemporary sense of Macau. Meanwhile, the National Museum of Singapore romanticises its colonial history, allowing it to be interpreted as the foundation of its success today. As for Hong Kong, Stokes-Rees writes that the past is selective and managed in a way that “minimally includes the colonial order from which the new society is emerging.”

In “Performances,” Stokes-Rees analyses the museum settings including its gallery layout, display of exhibits, and architecture. Visitors experience these factors as visual and spatial “performances” through which they begin to understand the history of the three cities. In the cases of Macau and Singapore, the very buildings of the museums are in line with the invitation to romanticise history – after all, these are buildings reclaimed and repurposed from a colonial past. Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s construction of a “decolonised,” neutral building amplifies the distance between its colonial past and its present. In addition to this, it is interesting, says Stokes-Rees, that the interior layout of the museums of Hong Kong and Macau offer a restricted, heavily directed path to its patrons – something that is not mirrored by the interior of the National Museum of Singapore.

The final chapter, “Transformation,” addresses the utilisation of local heritage, understood through Bourdieu’s notion of “cultural capital.” Stokes-Rees argues that Singapore “rediscovers” its cultural diversity by including exhibits on Southeast Asian cultures other than Chinese (constituting the majority of the population), and in this way constructs a narrative of itself as a contemporary multicultural and globally cosmopolitan nation. As for the Chinese Special Administrative Regions, the author proposes that their representations of cultural heritage are aligned more for the tourist gaze than anything else. Of course, such an approach is not only intended to attract overseas visitors but to reinforce a collective identity by promoting local heritage through Chinese traditions.

In sum, Stokes-Rees’s museological analyses are outstanding in terms of their regional focus, especially concerning “nationalism” and postcolonial experience. Such a work is rare among existing writings which are composed mainly of policy reviews or concise commentaries without systematic discussions of museological devices. Her accounts of conversations with curators also enriches her elaboration on the “authorised heritage discourses” presented in the three museums addressed in the book, and this makes her work an insightful reference for research on history and culture (particularly their representation in public domains).

Imagining Asia is, therefore, recommended reading on the representation of culture and history, as well as identity construction in Hong Kong, Macau, and Singapore. With special regard to Hong Kong, the book not only serves as a conscientious review of the now demolished “Hong Kong Story,” but also as an historical account of that against which the new “Story” will inevitably be contrasted.

Walter Chan read English literature in Hong Kong and Archaeology in London. He is an enthusiast of history, ethnography, architecture, and museums.

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