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Wuhan’s Yellow Crane Tower: Resistance and Resilience


Our latest blog comes from Dr Yang Chan, Shanghai Jiaotong University. A graduate of Hunan University, Dr Yang was awarded her PhD at the University of Bristol in 2014, and then worked at Wuhan University, before moving in 2017 to Shanghai Jiaotong University where she is now Associate Professorship in the Department of History in 2017. A historian of wartime and post China, her first book, World War Two Legacies in East Asia, China Remembers the War, was published by Routledge in 2017.

The Yellow Crane Tower (Huanghelou 黄鹤楼) is probably the most famous landmark in Wuhan. Located at the confluence of Yangzi and Han rivers, it was built originally as a military watch tower during the Three Kingdoms period in 223 AD. In the course of history, it gradually became a well-known scenic spot. The Yellow Crane Tower has been destroyed many times and rebuilt, repeatedly, across the centuries. The present version is based on a Qing Dynasty reconstruction, which was destroyed by fire in 1884. The photograph below was taken by a studio owner in Wuhan, just before this first disaster).

The Yellow Crane Tower (黄鹤楼), Wuchang (Wuhan). Photograph by Pow Kee, whose studio was to the right of the pagoda. A scan of a magic lantern slide © 2019 Royal Asiatic Society. Historical Photographs of China ref: RA-m122.

Numerous men of letters visited the Yellow Crane Tower, and composed poems which are still on everybody’s lips today. The verse of Tang Dynasty poet Cui Hao 崔颢  provides one example (translated by Peter Harris) :

Long ago someone rode away on a yellow crane;
All that’s left here, pointlessly, is Yellow Crane Tower.
Once a yellow crane has gone it won’t come back again –
The white clouds will be empty, endless, for a thousand year.
Across the river in the sun are the trees of Hanyang in rows,
And scented grass on Parrot Island growing thick and lush.
But whereabout is my home village, in the evening light?
Seeing the misty waves on the river I grow disconsolate.

Other renowned authors include Cui Hao’s contemporary, the poet Li Bai, the national hero General Yue Fei from Song Dynasty, and Chairman Mao Zedong. These literary and artistic works had transformed the Yellow Crane Tower into a cultural symbol of Wuhan and even China as a whole.

During the second Sino-Japanese War, Wuhan became the centre of Chinese resistance between 1937 and 1938, as the Nationalist government and people from the Japanese occupied areas took refugee there. In these days, the Yellow Crane Tower was the centre of China’s war mobilization effort. In front of it, politician’s speeches were given, demonstrators were assembled, battlefield news was broadcast, and ‘anti-Japanese’ murals were painted on the walls.

An anti-Japanese banner, Wuhan, 1938, during the Sino-Japanese War. Historical Photographs of China ref: Bi-s162.

After the fall of Wuhan, peculiarly, the Yellow Crane Tower was protected by the Japanese Imperial Army and its puppet Wuhan municipal government. It was lauded as the symbol of the shared culture of China and Japan, and the ‘Greater East Asian Prosperity Sphere’. As Tang Dynasty poems were beloved by the Japanese for centuries, the Yellow Crane Tower was well-known in Japan; and thanks to the travel notes of Wuhan written by Japanese writers from the Meiji Restoration onwards, Japanese people were further fascinated by it. Nevertheless, for the war-torn Chinese people who never yield to neither the cultural hegemony nor the military strength of imperial Japan, the Yellow Crane Tower had nothing to do with Japan at all. Imperial Japan’s plan of changing the symbolic meaning of the tower eventually failed.

Due to the coronavirus outbreak, Wuhan is suffering a different, but equally serious war at the moment. We despair at hearing bad news and tragedies daily, but at the same time, we are also touched by many other stories showing the glory of human nature. For instance, a Tang Dynasty verse was written on parcels of medical supplies donated by Japan: ⼭川异域 风⽉同天 (Although the mountains and rivers are different, we share the same wind and moon). Most Chinese people are moved by the beauty of the language and the heart of their neighbours in the East. This kind of human nature – compassion and selfless assistance to those in need – can definitely serve the Sino-Japanese friendship much better than the ‘constructed’ Yellow Crane Tower.

Finally, the Yellow Crane Tower has experienced and overcome countless difficulties in its history. Just as with this long-surviving landmark, we’re sure that, with the resilience of Wuhan people and the assistance from their compatriots and the international society, Wuhan will resist the virus heroically and recover from this disaster soon.

Reference: Zhao Huang, ‘Reconstruction of Power Around Yellow Crane Tower during the War of Resistance Against Japan’, Urban History Research 2017 (2) 赵煌 : ‘抗战时期中⽇围绕黄鹤楼的 记忆之争与权⼒重构’, <城市史研究>2017 (2).

Wuhan photographed


Over the past month Wuhan has been much-discussed, but its history is still largely misunderstood. I wrote about its long and intimate relationship with world markets in this blog post. It was of course, like most of the Chinese treaty ports, opened up as a consequence of conflict, and the exercise of foreign might.

The fact that it was a site of foreign residence and trade, means that it often crops up in photographs in our collections. You can find about 460 searching for Wuhan in our advanced search, including probably the earliest photograph taken in the city, this portrait of the Manchu Governor-General Guanwen 官文 taken in December 1858.

This collection continues to grow, and last week we received an unexpected donation of a small album from the daughter of a couple working with the China Inland Mission from 1923-1926. While the bulk of the collection consists of photographs taken in the hill-top summer resort of Guling (Kuling), there are a number from Wuhan showing (we think, but we may well be wrong) the floods of late August 1926. Wuhan was repeatedly afflicted by flooding, and the devastatingly destructive floods of 1931 form the subject of Chris Courtney’s 2018 book The Nature of Disaster in China: The 1931 Yangzi River Flood (Cambridge University Press). Sometimes the echoes from history sound familiar. Flooding in Wuchang in 1924, one Shanghai headline pronounced ‘A Flood caused by “bad government”‘. Here are three of the images, the first and second forming a before and during of the scene.

We will be copying all these photographs and adding them to the website, but for now these pages of this small album, until last week in the hands of the family, show yet again how globally interconnected Wuhan has long been.

Chang Ning on Cultural translation: Gambling Cultures


Dr. Ning Jennifer Chang is an Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica, Taiwan. She has just published her first book, Cultural Translation: Horse Racing, Greyhound Racing and Jai Alai in Modern Shanghai (異國事物的轉譯:近代上海的跑馬、跑狗與回力球賽). Here she introduces the book and its main arguments.

Cultural Translation explores how culture was ‘translated’ through a study of three imported Western sports/gambling in the colonial setting of Shanghai. They were, namely, horse racing, greyhound racing and jai alai (also known as Basque Tennis). The book shows these sports all experienced deviation and re-interpretation in China in very different ways.

A man leading a horse past the ‘CASH SWEEP’ betting booth, Peking races, Beijing, c.1925-26. Oliver Hulme Collection, OH02-62.

Historical Photographs of China contains a great many photographs of racing life, with images of racing and race days at Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Xiamen, Fuzhou, Tianjin, Qingdao and Hankou. Racing was a leisure activity, but it was also about display and it was a business. As the photograph above of a horse being led by its owner at Beijing’s race course in about 1925 indicates, it was also about gambling: the windows in which racegoers could enter the Cash Sweep can be seen in the background.

Tiffin on the re-opening of the Chinese Jockey Club in Oct. 1935. (Quan Guo Bao Kan Suo Yin (Source:

We know that racing clubs played a prominent role in the colonial world but less well-known is the fact that not only the Chinese elite, but underworld figures such as the leaders of the Green Gang saw such clubs as tools for social navigation. After the establishing in Shanghai of first an International Racing Club, at Jiangwan, and later a Chinese Jockey Club, they became proud club members. When joint meetings between the clubs were held, British gentlemen had to rub shoulders with Chinese gangsters. The class identities of the British club were thus redefined to an unknown degree.

Famous gangster, Du Yuesheng, leads in Merry Memories, winner of the Ladies Purse at the Chinese Jockey Club meeting on 6 June 1935. (

Madame Du presents the Ladies’ Purse to Charlie Encarnacao, the winning jockey. (

No doubt quite a few of the Chinese elite and even gangsters embraced British racing culture. Not only did they follow British rules strictly, they registered their clubs at Newmarket in England to prove their authenticity. When examining spectator behaviour in these sports, however, my work has revealed a gradual development in spectator behaviour from watching to betting. When jai alai was staged, spectators even found a way to Sinicize it. They managed to establish a forecast theory by borrowing from traditional Chinese betting knowledge, leaving Western theory of probability no room to act.

Afternoon greyhound racing in Shanghai. (

Betters watch jai alai attentively from behind the wire netting. (

By demonstrating this deviation and re-interpretation, this book argues cultural translation was not a simple phenomenon of localization. Instead, it was a result of a complex seesaw battle between cultures. The direction and degree of its deviation depended on how powerful the cultures were. For example, China had a longer and stronger tradition in gambling, so the spectators managed to re-interpret these sports in the Chinese way. On the other hand, the British empire no doubt played a more important role in the colonial setting in Shanghai. The British way of racing captured the attention of the Chinese elite and even gangsters.

Charles Frederick Moore (1837-1916), a photographer in China


Jamie Carstairs, who manages the Historical Photographs of China Project, follows up  serendipitous events, leading to a rabbit hole, in which a ‘new’ nineteenth century China photographer was found.

‘Mr. C. F. Moore, in the service of the Customs at Ningpo, has been staying here in the same temple with us. He seems an enthusiastic photographer, and spends most of his time in taking views of the surrounding country. He has a sedan chair ingeniously contrived for his operations, which his coolies (sic) carry about the country wherever he goes. I hope to induce him to spare me a few views.’ So wrote Thomas Hanbury in a letter to his father when staying at the “Temple of Shih Douzar, about 40 miles from Ningpo” in October 1870. [1]

Following on from this intriguing snippet, I started working with the Royal BC Museum in Canada, identifying buildings and locations depicted in ninety-nine glass plate negatives by Charles Frederick Moore (Royal BC Museum ref: MS-3171) that they hold.  I was pleasantly surprised to see among them, three negatives which brought to mind prints made from them, being photographs taken in Zhapu (Chapu), a coastal town half way between Shanghai and Hangzhou. These prints are in an album in the Edward Bowra Collection: Bo01-044 (below) is off the negative with the Royal BC Museum reference J-00445. Bo01-045 is from negative J-00452. Bo01-046 is from J-00458.

Fort Chapu, Zhapu, north Zhejiang, c.1870. Photograph by Charles Frederick Moore. HPC ref: Bo01-044.

Another Moore negative (Royal BC Museum ref: J-00444) is of a pagoda at the Changchun yuan (长春园; 長春園), the Garden of Everlasting Spring, at the Yuanming Yuan, the Old Summer Palace, Beijing – discussed and reproduced in Nick Pearce’s Photographs of Peking, China 1861-1908 (Edward Mellon Press, 2005), plate 31 and page 119. This rarely photographed and distinctive pagoda with a round top, stood until 1900. The photograph can be considered to be by C.F. Moore, rather than ‘possibly’ by Dr John Dudgeon.

The Royal BC Museum also have an album (ref: MS-3171) of 155 prints among their Moore material. The album, not in the best condition, probably contains many photographs by Moore. There are therein some photographs of the ruins of the European palaces at the Yuanming Yuan (圆明园), including the following panoramic view of the burnt out shell of the Palace of the Delights of Harmony (Xieqiqu):

Two-part panorama of the ruins of the Palace of the Delights of Harmony (Xieqiqu), Yuanmingyuan (Old Summer Palace), Beijing. Photograph attributed to Charles Moore, c.1875. Image by Sally Butterfield (Archivist, Royal BC Museum) taken under a fume hood due to old mould.

In Barbarian Lens, Western Photographers of the Qianlong Emperor’s European Palaces (Gordon and Breach, 1998), Régine Thiriez speculates about a mystery/unidentified photographer and is tentative about attributions to Théophile Piry. However, two images of the ruins reproduced in Barbarian Lens, which are attributed to anon, turn out to be by Moore: J-00442 at the Royal BC Museum is the negative for Fig 35 on page 58. J-00463 is the negative for Fig 47 on page 88.

Furthermore, at least four images reproduced in Terry Bennett’s book History of Photography in China Western Photographers 1861-1879 (Quaritch, 2010) are also, most probably, by Moore rather than Piry, including:

J-00413 (fig. 5.35, page 299)

J-00443 (fig. 5.36, page 300)

J-00479 (fig. 5.29, page 298)

J-00508 (fig. 5.33, page 299).

Contemporaries in the Imperial Maritime Customs, Ernst Ohlmer, Charles Moore and Thomas Child (followed by later photographers, but interestingly, not John Thomson, apparently) photographed the melancholy and evocative ruins of the ‘ravishing’ ‘fairy palaces’ and gardens [2] which had been looted and torched by Franco-British forces in 1860 at the end of the Second Opium War. Their photographic records of the devastation as it degraded can be dated: Ohlmer (c.1873), Moore (c.1875) and Child (c.1877).

Bibianne Yii (1848/49-1914) married Charles Moore at the British Legation in Beijing on 23 March 1868 and the couple went on to have eleven children. In this photograph, presumably by Charles Moore, Bibianne is said to be sitting next to her wedding headdress (Source: DeeDeeEmme, via

More attributions to Moore could surely be ascertained in archives and collections that have emerged recently. For example, an album sold at Bonham’s Knightsbridge on 27 March 2019, is promising. This album includes an inscription by Bibianne Moore, Charles Moore’s wife, who had presented it to Hester Hart, Sir Robert Hart’s wife.  The album contains at least sixteen duplicates of prints also found in an album in the Edward Bowra Collection (HPC ref: Bo01), and nine photographs usually attributed to Dr John Dudgeon. However, given the provenance of the album, the chances are that some of the photographs in it would have been taken by Bibianne’s husband Charles. Indeed, two photographs in the Bonham’s album are almost certainly by Moore: a wooden cabinet carved by Sung Sing Cung and a carved bedstead – these photographs are listed in Moore’s 1873 ‘Catalogue of Pictures’, see below, respectively Y3 and Y2. This furniture was exhibited in Vienna in 1873; the Chinese contribution to the exhibition was organised by Edward Bowra.

The Bonham’s album also contains several photographs of Jiujiang (Kiukiang), where the Moore family were living at the time. The Jiujiang photographs may well be by Moore, including one entitled ‘Kiukiang – Bungalow’ of a modest residence (and a possible outhouse darkroom, with a useful fresh water stream nearby?), which was likely their home. It is also noted that oval shaped masks on prints (or prints then cut to an oval shape) could be a characteristic of Moore’s, although other photographers of course also made oval shaped prints.

Moore lists for sale, forty-one views of Hangzhou, Ningbo and vicinity. Some of the more specific descriptions may help identify these photographs, if they still exist, as by Moore. The ‘Catalogue of Pictures by C.F. Moore’ is in the Royal BC Museum ref: MS-3172.

The photograph X1 (‘Ch’a P’u. – Promontory showing Section of Circular Fort’) listed in Moore’s 1873 catalogue is most probably Bo01-042. X2 (‘Ch’a P’u. – City Wall’) is most probably Bo01-047.  X3 (‘Ch’a P’u. – City Gate’) is probably another atmospheric Moore photograph: Bo01-048. Bo01-043 can also be attributed to Moore. These four Zhapu photographs are in addition to the three Zhapu photographs by Moore, noted at the beginning of this blog. X15 (‘Custom’s Station, Chên Hai’) could well be Bo02-044.

There is a further album, which will surely add to our knowledge of Charles Moore when it has been digitised and studied. The Irish Jesuit Archives (IJA) in Dublin hold an album of approximately 186 prints, housed in a wooden box inscribed with the name ‘C. F. Moore’ and ‘Pekin’. It could be the photographer’s working portfolio. The IJA archivist has pointed out that there are scribbled pencil marks beside some photographs – ‘Bad copy’, ‘Negative sold for £12.10’ (!) [3], and some shorthand notes (not unusual for Moore. His notebook for his lectures on China, see poster below, contains much shorthand). At least two of the photographs have been reproduced and attributed to Dudgeon – attributions, which, given the context, could be revisited. [4]

A portrait in the IJA album is captioned in the same distinctive handwriting (likely to be Bibianne Moore’s hand) as in the Bonhams album, as follows: “Our photographic friend the Major” – i.e. Major James Crombie Watson, superintendent of police at Ningbo. Terry Bennett has noted that it seems that there was a group of photography enthusiasts in Ningbo – residents and passers through. Very likely they would often team up for outings, and take more than one camera. This would explain variants that crop up so often (a scenario possibly exemplified by Bo02-086, Bo02-087, Bo02-088 and negatives J-00460, J-00471 and J-00453 – all taken at the same place, recorded in the Bowra album as an ancient tomb near ‘Wang Chă’.

Photomontage double portrait of Major James Crombie Watson, c.1870 (See Bo02-001), holding a second portrait of himself and with someone/something in his pocket, pasted in to the album at the IJA. Image courtesy of the Irish Jesuit Archive, Dublin.

By 1873, Moore was a member of the London Amateur Photographic Association. A moot question is: had he been an active photographer earlier, when he served as paymaster with General Charles Gordon’s ‘Ever Victorious Army’? In any case, in 1907, Moore gave lectures in Canada, on ‘China in the time of General Gordon’, illustrated by ‘Stereopticon Views’ (i.e. magic lantern slides). The Moores had emigrated to British Columbia, Canada in 1885, and Charles worked there as a notary public. The Royal BC Museum also hold Moore’s lecture notebook, listing, I gather, the lantern slides projected, including the remarkable image below (negative ref no: J-00496), an ambitious action shot/narrative photograph for the period, which is also a valuable historical document (Visitors to the temple nowadays are asked not to spit at replicas of these statues).

Poster for ‘China in the time of General Gordon. (Royal BC Museum ref: MS-3172).

Photograph by C.F. Moore. Two men posed, seemingly throwing stones at iron figures, at Yue Fei Temple (Yuewang Temple 岳王廟), West Lake, Hangzhou, c.1870. This photograph (negative ref no: J-00496) is listed in Moore’s ‘China in the Time of General Gordon’ lecture notebook: “13. Iron figures in stone cages, being the conspirators who compassed the death of Yoh Fei, his son and family.” See Ar01-016 (note the sculpture on a column in both images).

There is a brief biography of Charles Frederick Moore here , based on a longer one here.

C.F. Moore was evidently an accomplished and significant photographer, active over diverse parts of China, for several years. It is marvellous to think of Moore’s ‘ingeniously contrived’ sedan chair darkroom, carried hither and thither by patient porters – the Chinese equivalent of Roger Fenton’s ‘Photographic Van’ in the Crimea. Further research, including into the albums, negatives and associated papers mentioned above, and into Moore’s career in China, will cast more light on his importance as a photographer in China, hitherto underappreciated.

This is thought to be a portrait of Charles Frederick Moore, taken in British Columbia, Canada, c.1910 (Source: DeeDeeEmme, via


[1] Quoted in The Letters of Charles Hanbury (1913), page 218. Letter dated 31 October 1870. Dr Andrew Hillier kindly sent me this extract, for interest.

[2]Barbarian Lens, Western Photographers of the Qianlong Emperor’s European Palaces by Régine Thiriez (Gordon and Breach, 1998), page 92.

[3] Attributing nineteenth century photographs taken in China is notoriously difficult, complicated by the selling of negatives (cf. ‘The Firm’). Prints circulated between friends, and among photographers. Prints shared with the recipient’s name written on the back can be a red herring.

[4] The photograph in the IJA album captioned “161. The Bell Tower French Legation – Montbelle, Rochechouart, Champes” is surely Fig. 2.11 on page 44 of Terry Bennett’s History of Photography in China Western Photographers 1861-1879 (Quaritch, 2010). Another photograph in the same album which is captioned “176. Students British Legation, Pekin – Bristow, Andrews, Ford, Hillier[s], Scott, Baber, Margary, McKean, Carles” must be Fig. 2.23 on page 55, ibid.  Both of these photographs are currently attributed to Dr John Dudgeon.

Statue and symbol: Queen Victoria in Hong Kong


Dr Helena F. S. Lopes is Senior Research Associate in the History of Hong Kong and a Lecturer in Modern Chinese History at the University of Bristol. She holds a DPhil in History from the University of Oxford.

Wikipedia’s ‘List of statues of Queen Victoria’ includes more than a hundred such monuments scattered around the world, many of them in former British colonies. One remains in Hong Kong, having endured more than a century of tribulations.

Commissioned by the Hong Kong Jubilee Committee to mark the fiftieth anniversary in 1887 of Queen Victoria’s accession, the statue was funded by public subscription and designed by the Italian sculptor Mario Raggi (1879-1907), who lived and worked in London. Amongst his notable works were other memorial statues, including one of Benjamin Disraeli in Parliament Square (1883) and one of William Gladstone in Albert Square, Manchester (1901). Raggi’s statue of Queen Victoria was cast by H. Young and Co., bronze statue founders in Pimlico, a company which had been responsible for other prominent sculptures in the capital such as the monument to the Duke of Wellington in St Paul’s Cathedral.

Statue of Queen Victoria, designed by Mario Raggi, for Hong Kong. HPC ref: Bk13-04.

In 1893, before being shipped to Hong Kong, Queen Victoria’s statue was exhibited in London. The Illustrated London News reported on the viewing and included a photograph of the sculpture without the canopy that would be attached to it in Hong Kong. In the article, the vision of the statue’s commissioners is described as one of British colonial loyalty. The ‘artistic memorial’ was to be ‘fixed upon a prominent site in Hong-Kong, as a mark of the loyalty of that colony to the Queen and of their attachment to the mother country’.[i]

The ‘prominent site’ selected was on Wardley Street, in the heart of what was then known as the city of Victoria, on a site on the newly-reclaimed waterfront. Still, it would be almost ten years until the statue was finally unveiled on 28 May 1896, on the occasion of celebrations for the Queen’s 77th birthday. A few weeks before the event, the North-China Herald reported on a committee meeting debating the unveiling ceremony to be presided by the Governor, Sir William Robinson. It stipulated that ‘it should be made as public as possible, all foreign Consuls, all officers of the Army and Navy, and all subscribers of the Fund being invited, as well as all the ladies.’ Efforts would also be made for ‘having as grand a military display as possible.’[ii] This performance of colonial might was projected as an elite affair, even though afterwards the statue was on full display for anyone passing through the square.

Even in its early days, the statue caused some controversy. Shortly after the unveiling ceremony, the Hong Kong Daily Press lamented that the ‘predominant feeling with reference to the Queen’s statue is one of disappointment’. This was due to the materials used: ‘Bronze under a canopy is an anomaly and is repulsive alike to common sense and artistic feeling’. Citing a 1890 letter from James Johnstone Keswick, the Scottish businessman who had been the Chairman of the Queen’s Jubilee Memorial Committee in Hong Kong, the article noted that there had been a misunderstanding with the sculptor regarding which material to use and a decision in favour of marble had been lost in communication. The idea of requesting a marble replacement was considered but it did not occur.[iii] In her study of Sir Catchick Paul Chater and Statue Square, Liz Chater mentions that a small marble statue of Queen Victory was also cast in the same period, most likely for a private client (her book includes a rare photograph of it).[iv]

The Supreme Court and Queen Victoria’s Statue, Hong Kong, c.1923-29. HPC ref: JC01-01.

Queen Victoria’s Statue, The Cenotaph and the Hong Kong Club, Statue Square, Hong Kong, c.1924. HPC ref: Bk09-11.

The Historical Photographs of China website has some images of what is now known as Statue Square, where Queen Victoria’s monument first stood. A few, likely taken in the 1920s, are in an album (ref: JC01) in the Jamie Carstairs Collection. The statues are not the main focus of the unknown photographer, whose views over the square tend to privilege iconic buildings such as the Supreme Court (which later housed the Legislative Council and now the Court of Final Appeal). Queen Victoria can be glimpsed in some of these. A slightly closer look at the sculpture can be found in the photographs by Denis H. Hazell published in his Picturesque Hongkong.

R. C. Hurley ‘Tourist’s Guide to Hong Kong and Mainland’ (1897). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Despite its controversial bronze-marble combination, the statue of Queen Victoria became a major landmark in the city. It was regularly featured in photographic albums such as  JC01, illustrated books such as Hazell’s and tourist guidebooks such as that written by R. C. Hurley and published in 1897 – only one year after its unveiling. In June 1911, to celebrate the coronation of George V and his wife Mary, the statue was decorated with dozens of Chinese lanterns on wires – a nocturnal spectacle captured with stunning results by the Lai Afong (賴阿芳) Studio, ran by one of Hong Kong’s most distinguished first professional photographers.

Queen Victoria’s statue, Hong Kong, lit up with lanterns for the coronation of King George V and Queen Mary, June 1911. Photograph by Afong Studio (Lai Fong). HPC ref: Bi-s184.

Victoria’s image in Hong Kong was not just that of a visual symbol of colonial prestige. Its materiality as a valuable bronze statue was to be of no small importance. During the Pacific War, when Hong Kong fell under Japanese occupation, the statue was taken to Japan to be melted down and the metal recycled for the Japanese effort. The wartime dismantling of the statue mirrors what happened elsewhere, notably in Shanghai where memorials erected by foreign communities, such as the statue of Sir Robert Hart or the Allied War Memorial, were taken down. In Shanghai, and despite attempts to the contrary, these statues were not reinstated after the war, their absence a signifier of de facto decolonisation.[v] In Hong Kong, colonial rule returned and so did Queen Victoria.

The statue of Queen Victoria, damaged during the war. Source: Bill Hillman “Hillman WWII Scrapbook, HMCS Prince Robert Tribute Site”.

Some of the other monuments in Statue Square did not escape their intended wartime fate. But Victoria survived the ordeal, despite some damage, and was returned to Hong Kong after the war. The restored version – without the canopy – was unveiled in 1952 in Victoria Park, where it continues to stand today.

Statue of Queen Victoria in Victoria Park, facing south in the tradition of all Chinese Imperial figures, November 2008. Photograph by Minghong. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The statue’s association with the British empire – a considerable expansion of which happened under Victoria’s long reign – has become for some a contested symbol in late- and post-colonial Hong Kong. In 1996, about a year before the Hong Kong’s handover, Pun Sing Lui (Pan Xing Lei 潘星磊), a twenty-something artist, defaced the statue with red pain and broke its nose, protesting against ‘dull, colonial culture’.[vi] Pun was arrested and the statue fixed. For some, it remains an uncomfortable monument, as news of a possible ‘cover up’ in the running up to a visit by President Xi Jinping in 2017 suggest.[vii] However, its public display at Victoria Park has seen other types of protest, too. Over the past months, it has been a site where pro-democracy protesters gathered, their numbers and movement dwarfing the static Victoria.[viii] Some also chose to make her a vehicle for their message.

The many lives of Queen Victoria’s statue and its multiple meanings have recently inspired a solo exhibition by the Hong Kong artist Lee Kai Chung (李繼忠). Entitled ‘I could not recall how I got here’ (「無法憶起我怎樣到達這裏」), and awarded the WYNG Media Award in 2018, the show was based on archival research about the history of the statues seized by Japanese forces. The artist uses photography, film, bronze sculpture, 3D modelling, and 3D printing to investigate ‘the transition of meanings of a “memorial bronze statue” brought about by the passing of time’.[ix] As this latest artistic reinvention of the statue shows, both its symbolism and the material aspects of its production and reconstruction continue to invite multiple interpretations.


[i] ‘Signor Raggi’s Statue of the Queen’, The Illustrated London News, 28 January 1893, p. 118.

[ii] ‘The Queen’s Statue in Hongkong’, The North-China Herald, 8 May 1896.

[iii] ‘The Queen’s Statue: Why is it in Bronze instead of Marble’, The Hong Kong Daily Press, 30 May 1896.

[iv] Liz Chater, The Statues of Statue Square, Hong Kong (Chater Genealogy Publishing, 2009), pp. 15-16.

[v] On these, see Robert Bickers, ‘Moving Stories: Memorialisation and its Legacies in Treaty Port China’, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 42/5 (2014), pp. 826-856, Robert Bickers, ‘Lost monuments and memorials of the Shanghai Bund 1: The War Memorial (1924)’ and ‘Lost monuments and memorials of the Shanghai Bund 2: Statue of Sir Robert Hart, 1914’.

[vi] The episode is analysed in Elizabeth Ho, Neo-Victorianism and the Memory of Empire (London: Continuum, 2012), pp. 1-6.

[vii] Danny Mok and Tony Cheung, ‘Out of sight, out of mind? Queen Victoria statue obscured by boards and banner ahead of Xi visit’, South China Morning Post, 28 June 2017.

[viii] E.g. ‘Hong Kong: 1.7m people defy police to march in pouring rain’, The Guardian, 18 August, 2019; ‘China condemns U.S. lawmakers’ support for Hong Kong protests’, The Asahi Shimbun, 18 August, 2019.

[ix] ‘LEE Kai Chung Solo Exhibition, ‘I could not recall how I got here’, WMA Commission.