Fading local history preserved in century-old school

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After passing through the green corridor with trees lining on both sides greeting incoming visitors in Tung Tau Wan Road, Stanley, you will find a junction hiding amongst the green. Surprising to many, the branch road is the entrance of a local school, St. Stephen’s College, which occupies over 15 hectares of space in the southern part of Hong Kong Island.

Part of the School House of St. Stephen’s College was used as an Internment Camp’s hospital during WWII, and is now a declared monument.

Founded in 1903, the school is not only one of the largest secondary school in Hong Kong, but also one of the oldest. Not only did it experience the war, the school played a significant role in the history of World War II in Hong Kong the Japanese Army marched into the campus right after the British surrendered and conducted a massacre killing over a hundred school staff and wounded soldiers. The campus was then requisitioned as part of the Stanley Internment Camp, housing non-Chinese soldiers and civilians.

Yet, this chapter in history, along with the history of WWII in Hong Kong, is slowly fading from people’s memory. Recently, the scope of discussion the history of WWII in the city has shifted towards the events happened in mainland China.

In fact, mainland China and Hong Kong experienced WWII quite differently even though both was invaded by the Japanese.

Despite the historical differences, the government decided to declare September 3, 2015 as a public holiday to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Japanese surrender in mainland China, which was speculated to be a move to promote patriotism in Hong Kong by some.

Even though hundreds have shown up for the Remembrance Day Ceremony at the Cenotaph in Central this year to mainly commemorate the fallen souls in WWII, the event felt largely like an event for expats, with little Chinese presence except for the Chinese flag hanging on the monument and the Chinese national anthem being sang. Most of the audience were non-Chinese, and even the Union Jack was seen flying on the roadside.

Union Jack was being flown at the Remembrance Day Ceremony.

A Hong Kong-born Canadian at the Ceremony, who preferred to stay anonymous, was not pleased with the absence of Chinese government there. “The PLA [People’s Liberation Army] should’ve sent representative to this ceremony,” he said. “These people fought and sacrificed their lives for Hong Kong.”

Inevitably, local history has less emphasis in the society, including the current curriculum in schools.

“Students are usually very exam-oriented,” Cortia Kwan, a history teacher at St. Stephen’s College, said. “Therefore, they are not very interested in learning local history in most cases.”

But students of the St. Stephen’s College are given a chance to learn local history outside the classroom.

Most of the school buildings in the campus have stayed intact until today, with one of them being listed as a declared monument. Having all these historical buildings in hand, the school has set up a heritage trail in 2008 to preserve and promote the local and the school’s history. Students are recruited as docents to guide visitors around the campus and introduce them the stories behind. Kwan is now one of the teachers in charge of managing the trail.

Adrian Wong is introducing local WWII history to visitors of the heritage trail.

“You can feel the difference,” said Adrian Wong, a Form 5 student who has been a docent for 5 years. “You can definitely learn [history] from book, the internet or documentaries on TV, but ultimately you would still feel detached. You would feel much more affiliated while telling the history right at where it happened.”

Another student docent, Gigi Lam, has not only taught the visitors what she knows. “It is completely different from studying. When you are leading a tour [at the trail], you would learn something new from the visitors [too],” she said. “It is a process of acquiring knowledge, which is not by merely reciting, but also through interactions.”

The gallery of the heritage trail houses various exhibits donated by ex-internees’ families, such as this Japanese flag previously owned by a Japanese soldier.

The school is also a place of reunion for veterans and internees who were detained here during the war. Over the past years, they have donated various exhibits, such as stuff used in the internment camp, to the school’s heritage gallery.

“We are proud to say that we have what the government’s museums don’t have,” said Kwan. “One reason why people are willing to donate exhibits to us is because our trail is opened to the public free of charge so many people can be reached.” She explained that some of the visitors are, indeed, less privileged and thus free entrance would give them the chance to learn the history.

The schools’ heritage trail is open to members of the public who wish to have a glimpse of the local WWII history, and docent service is available free of charge upon reservation.

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