The Aitch-Kay on a Rainy Day

The last time I was in Hong Kong, it was steadily-dripping kind of rainy day, and being a staunch and stubborn Oregonian (actually mostly just forgetful, in this climate), I of course did not have an umbrella. Not wanting to waste a day, though, I decided to trek off to the museums and see what kind of culture HK could offer me.

As I mentioned in the previous post, just across Victoria Harbour from HK Island is TST (Tsim Sha Tsui), home of Chungking Mansions . The Hong Kong Cultural Center, Space Museum, Museum of Art, Science Museum and the Museum of History all live right around the TST train stop as well.  Since most of them open around noon or 1pm, I spent a leisurely morning reading A.S. Byatt’s Possession in a coffee shop sipping a hazelnut latte and indulging in a brie-and-roasted-tomato panini (I’m living where now? This is not China…) before heading off to indulge in some culture.

I started (where else?) at the Space Museum. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, though I was hoping to learn a bit about the Chinese space program and a little bit of Chinese astronomy. And I did, a little– remarkably enough, the information on the China space program was pretty much the only up-to-date information in the museum.  Oh, other than the shows, kind of– the Planetarium is actually quite nice, built like our OMNIMAX for the folks from home, or pretty much exactly the same as the new Morrison Planetarium at the California Academy of Science. It’s a bit smaller than a real OMNIMAX, but they do run IMAX shows there; the Planetarium show that is currently running is Cosmic Collisions– yeah, I hear you OMSI folk giggling/groaning. Trust me, I had the same reaction. Actually that was one of the first shows I ever ran as a Planetarium Presenter, so I almost bought a ticket out of nostalgia, but then I returned to my senses.  They don’t do live star shows, which is just as well because their sound is run through headphones in the individual seats, where you can choose to listen to the show in Cantonese, English, Mandarin or Japanese. That was kind of cool, actually, and definitely a good move in a place like Hong Kong.

The rest of the museum was actually hilarious. As I wandered through the Hall of Space Science and perused the mix of Chinese and Western histories, I began to notice a prevalent use of the phrase “is credited with”– as in, Hans Lippershey is credited with the invention of the telescope. This didn’t seem at all odd to me (true, Hans Lippershey is indeed credited with inventing the telescope) until I realized that this tag was attached to almost every Western invention or discovery, but never attached to any made by Chinese scientists (especially when a tool was invented in both China and in the West). Unsurprising, really, but once I did notice I kept track through the rest of the museum and was rather entertained.

The Hall of Space Science is not only home to exhibits on the history of astronomy– which was, to tell the truth, most of the reason I went; I really wanted to learn something about the history of Chinese astronomy– but also delves into spaceflight. And it’s actually quite well laid-out, starting with the sextant and jade circumpolar-star-finder (I don’t know what it’s called in English, but it was cool) and moving all the way through early experiments in flight to the invention of gunpowder and rockets, to solid vs. liquid fuel, to the Sputnik/Vostok/Mercury/Gemini/Apollo era, and finally to an interactive exhibit on the Space Station, complete with a scale model of the Space Shuttle and mock-up of the cockpit and console.

This sounds all good, and it was fun poking around and looking at all the exhibits, but again I started to notice some oddities in the way the information was presented. Passing the Space Shuttle scale model, I did a double take when I realized that the wing boasted the label “Columbia.”  I looked around to see if it said something about the Columbia being the first spaceworthy shuttle, or anything about the 2003 Disaster, but no dice. Obviously the exhibit has not been updated in a while.

But it gets better. I passed on through to the Space Station area, which is on a series of platforms and tunnels above the other exhibits. Walking around, though, I was scratching my head thinking, I know what the inside of the Space Station looks like, and this is not it… Turns out, their “Space Station” is not, in fact, the ISS– it’s Skylab. Which fell out of the sky in 1979. (Actually I think it’s sort of a mishmash of Skylab and Mir, though the model definitely looks like Skylab.) Oh, China.

The Hall of Astronomy was on the small side, and also has not recently been updated (Pluto still included as one of the planets on an otherwise pretty cool model of the Solar System that sits as a centerpiece in the Hall) but it was a fun romp, for sure. It’s mostly hands on, definitely geared for young astronomers and explorers with interactive stations dealing with various wavelengths on the electromagnetic spectrum– there was a cool infrared station where a small black block with copper bits poking here and there sat under (essentially) a pair of infrared goggles, and by touching another piece of copper to various nodes you would see different patterns light up under the scope that were invisible to the naked eye.

The Space Museum vanquished, I decided on a whim to pay a visit to the Museum of Art just across the way.

Boy, am I glad I did. The permanent exhibits in the Museum of Art are dedicated solely to Chinese art pieces, with (it seems) visiting exhibits of art from other places in the world. They have collections of ethereally lovely and subtle Chinese scroll paintings, jewel-toned and glittering pieces of glasswork and pottery, and some kind of mind-bogglingly detailed woodwork pieces, especially the open wood carving. And it’s all laid out more or less chronologically, so you can get a sense of the evolution of the art forms through the dynastic timeline, from the ancient Qin all the way to the most modern Qing and into the PRC.

Then I wandered into the current featured exhibit: The Ultimate South China Travel Guide– Canton II (The Last Episode). Evidently this exhibit is a continuation of one that occurred last year, and it is absolutely genius. It’s a (pretty bitingly) satirical look at the relations between China and the West just after the Opium Wars, through a series of journals, oil paintings, watercolours,  newspaper articles and prints done by Europeans–mostly British–coming into Hong Kong, Macao, and Guangzhou (Canton) for trade and leisure in the late 1800’s.

The exhibit also has an element of whimsy, as the captions and information panels are all written as if the reader was actually going to be taking a trip to Canton in the 1800’s. So, if you walk up to a print of Mr Forbes’ House on the Praya Grande in Macao, for example, the plaque that goes along with it reads:

For the employees, employees’ dependents and guests of the trading companies, a house as prominent as this one may be your best shot when it comes to lodging. Located at the south end of the Praya Grande, this mansion has been variously inhabited by James Matheson, Lord Napier, and Captain Bennett Forbes…

Alternatively, if it is hotels that you fancy, we recommend the Royal Hotel on the Praya Grande for a great sea view, or the Oriental Hotel at the head of the steamer wharf in the Inner Harbour for convenience.

Etc. My favorite bit was actually a huge installation that took up an entire wall, called “Phrase Book.” It’s a helpful guide “if you don’t know a single word of Chinese or Cantonese” to the CPE, or Chinese Pidgin English. It’s a linguistic headache-inducing chart of English phrases with the CPE, phonetic Chinese (which is a marvel) and Chinese translation. For example:

English: Do you speak English?

CPE: You savvy Englishee?

Pronunciation of CPE: (written phonetically in characters)

Chinese: (translation in Chinese)

Needless to say, I was terribly amused.

And again, I’ve gone on quite a bit longer than I meant to. Here’s another rest for you; when I come back, more stories about Why China is Weird.

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Posted on November 15, 2010, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. HOLY CRAP this just made my day! I’m seething with envy, you are now officially tasked with giving me detailed stories about every museum you can possibly visit in China!

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