In 1924, thirteen years after the end of the Qing Dynasty, the expulsion from the Forbidden City of Puyi, China’s last emperor, raised questions about the purpose of the imperial palace. With no one in residence, some wanted to destroy the royal palace, but others saw it as a potent symbol of Chinese civilisation. And so the Palace Museum was born.
Wang Xudong, the director of the Beijing Palace Museum, reminded audience members of this original vision at a talk this week in Hong Kong’s West Kowloon area. The event was organised as a celebration of the opening of the Hong Kong Palace Museum on July 2, which will display one of the largest collections on loan from the Beijing Palace Museum in its history.
The Hong Kong venue began construction in April 2019 inside the 90-acre site in the West Kowloon Cultural District. While it showcases ancient Chinese objects its museum neighbour is the recently launched M+ (it houses decidedly more modern contemporary Chinese art). Both are in prime locations by the city’s harbourside.
The new Palace Museum’s five-storey design, which has been likened to a ding, or ancient Chinese cauldron, will house nine galleries and a total of 914 items from its parent museum in Beijing, each “demonstrating China’s time-honoured and illustrious cultural traditions”, according to Louis Ng, the new venue’s director. The exhibit “Clay to Treasure”, for example, features a Song Dynasty porcelain headrest in the shape of a reclining boy, one of the 166 “category 1” items on display that are classified as national treasures. Other notable pieces include 12 chrysanthemum-shaped dishes commissioned by the Yongzheng Emperor of the Qing Dynasty and produced at the imperial kilns in Jingdezhen.
After opening early next month the Hong Kong iteration will become the third of the ‘Palace’ museums. Aside from the Beijing original, a second Palace Museum opened in Taipei after Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan with many of the imperial treasures in 1949. It holds a permanent collection of nearly 700,000 artefacts, spanning 8,000 years of Chinese history – the best-known item for most visitors being the Jadeite Cabbage sculpture.
Hong Kong’s museum will open just 24 hours after a key anniversary in the city on July 1 – a date that marks 25 years from the Hong Kong handover and the symbolic halfway point in the 50-year transition period agreed under the framework of ‘one country, two systems’.
The idea of a Palace Museum in the city got a mixed reception when the HK$3.5 billion ($445.89 million) plan was first announced in 2016. Despite being a key part of the West Kowloon Cultural District, the project was approved without public consultation. Its political significance also started to become more apparent when Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, turned up for a signing ceremony for the venue in Hong Kong in June 2017.
In a press release issued this month Bernard Charnwut Chan, the museum’s chairman, described the new facility as the “perfect gift to Hong Kong people”. It will be interesting to see if there is an enthusiastic response from visitors. Certainly the locals will hope for economic benefits when tourists eventually return to the city (unlikely until Hong Kong reopens its border to mainland China and drops its quarantining process for international arrivals).
Hong Kong’s Palace Museum wants to differentiate itself from its counterparts in Beijing and Taipei by creating what its director Louis Ng described to Arts of Asia Magazine as a “connected museum”. This new approach tries to create links between history and life today, with further connections to technology through digital content and “immersive storytelling”.
At Monday’s press event it was repeatedly emphasised that Hong Kong’s Palace Museum isn’t just going to serve as an offshoot of the founding venue in Beijing, pushing instead to amplify the reach of Chinese culture and history through its striking new location on the West Kowloon waterfront.
“We need to showcase the rich artefact collection of the Palace Museum through its Hong Kong counterpart and illustrate the story of China,” urged Wang Xudong, director of the Beijing entity.
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