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Special Report


Hong Kong Palace Museum, the city’s newest arts and cultural landmark, aspires to link past and present, China and the world

By Yi Ziyi , Ni Wei Updated Sept.1

A ceiling fresco in the Louvre Museum, Paris

If you had a chance to talk with yourself in the past, that young man who paid his first visit to the Palace Museum 40 years ago, what would you say?” a reporter from CCTV News show Relativity asked Dr Louis Ng Chi-wa.  

“I’d say to him, ‘Now I’m back, not as a visitor but as part of it,” Ng said.  

In the winter of 1981, Ng was a 19-year-old freshman at the department of history of the Chinese University of Hong Kong when he visited the Palace Museum, also known as the Forbidden City, in Beijing for the first time. In awe of the complex’s grandeur and solemn beauty, Ng could never imagine that four decades later, Hong Kong would have its own palace museum and he would be the director.  

The seven-story Hong Kong Palace Museum stands on reclaimed harbor-front land in West Kowloon Cultural District, one of the most anticipated museum projects in Asia. On July 3, 2022, two days after the 25th anniversary of the return of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China, the museum officially opened to the public.  

The museum exhibits 914 artifacts from the Beijing Palace Museum, 116 of them first-class national treasures, the largest loan from the Palace Museum to another cultural institution since it was established in 1925. These objects will be displayed at the HKPM from a month to over a year. The inaugural exhibition also contains artifacts from the Louvre Museum in Paris and other museums in Hong Kong.  

“The museum is curated from Hong Kong’s perspective with a global vision,” Ng told NewsChina. “Through displaying the treasures both from the Palace Museum and other important cultural institutions around the world, the HKPM is determined to promote Chinese culture to the world.” 

‘A Pair of Brothers’ 
Though containing Palace Museum in the name, the HKPM is not a branch of the Beijing Palace Museum. It is an independent museum with autonomy to curate, research and popularize culture.  

“It’s like a pair of brothers,” Ng said. “The younger brother needs some help from his older brother to better promote Palace Museum culture together,” he told NewsChina.  

HKPM’s inaugural exhibitions comprise nine galleries, seven of which host Palace Museum-related exhibitions for architecture, ceramics, paintings and calligraphy from culturally prosperous dynasties such as the Jin (265-420), Tang (618-907), Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1279-1368), as well as court life and portraits from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), China’s last imperial dynasty.  

“We chose the pieces not only based on their cultural and historical value, but more importantly we hoped that every piece of art had a story behind it, which allows visitors to feel the depth of Chinese culture more vividly,” Ng told CCTV.  

In Gallery Eight, the exhibition “The Making of Masterpieces: Chinese Painting and Calligraphy from the Palace Museum” showcases 35 iconic first-class works, including a 13th century copy of the painting The Nymph of the Luo River by the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420) painter Gu Kaizhi, known as the father of Chinese painting, Tang Dynasty calligrapher Yu Shinan’s work Preface to Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion in Running Script, and Song Emperor Huizong’s calligraphy Poem on a Summer Day in Regular Script.  

Gallery Three displays more than 140 Song ceramics from the Palace Museum collection. Made in the Ding kilns of Hubei Province, the ceramic piece “Headrest in the shape of a reclining boy” is among the most prized first-class national treasures. The ceramic pillow was a favorite of Qing Emperor Qianlong, who composed many poems about it.  

Two extremely rare blue-green pottery wares from the Ru kilns of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) are also on exhibit. The Ru kilns in what is today’s Henan Province produced exquisite blue-green wares exclusively for the imperial court. Because Ru ware was only produced for 20 years, it is extremely rare. Only 100 pieces survive, 20 of which reside in the Palace Museum in Beijing.  

The museum’s architectural design manifests its intrinsic connection with the Forbidden City. In front of the HKPM is a ribbon-like glass path, representing the Inner Golden Water River outside the Meridian Gate of the Forbidden City. The HKPM’s entrance, with its imperial red doors decorated with brass door nails, resembles the doors of Beijing’s Palace Museum. 

Special Experience 
The idea for a palace museum in Hong Kong began in November 2010, while the animated version of the Along the River During the Qingming Festival, a famous scroll painting by Song dynasty artist Zhang Zeduan (1085-1145), was displayed at Hong Kong’s AsiaWorld-Expo. It was a resounding success. In 21 days, over 920,000 people visited the exhibition, the equivalent of one out of every seven Hong Kong residents.  

At the end of 2015, Hong Kong applied to the central government to build a palace museum in Hong Kong.  

With HK$3.5 billion (US$446m) in funding from the Hong Kong Jockey Club, the HKPM project formally launched in 2017.  

Ng was involved in the museum’s design, curation and preparation from the start. He became HKPM director in 2019. Before taking the job, Ng was deputy director of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, which manages museums in Hong Kong.  

To build a museum in five years was “almost a mission impossible,” HKPM deputy director Wang Yiyou said in the documentary Witnessing the Hong Kong Palace Museum.  

“It usually takes more than two or three years to prepare for a large cultural relics exhibition,” Palace Museum deputy director Lou Wei said in the documentary. “But to construct a brand-new museum from nothing and curate nine opening exhibitions of such quality and size – all this work was finished in only five years. It’s a miracle,” Lou said.  

Behind the HKPM’s debut is a multicultural team comprised of leading curators, experts and scholars with diverse cultural backgrounds. Through innovative curating and narrative, these creative minds deliver HKPM visitors a new way to experience the charm of ancient palace culture.  

For instance, Gallery Two hosts the exhibition “From Dawn to Dusk: Life in the Forbidden City.” Through more than 300 artifacts and multimedia designs, the exhibition presents a day in the life at the Forbidden City in the 18th century.  

That day is the eighth day of the first lunar month in 1765, the 30th year of Emperor Qianlong’s reign. The exhibition shows how the imperial court ran, with intimate details and scenes from the life of Qianlong, his wives, children, officials, servants, palace maids and eunuchs.  

According to the exhibition, the emperor got up at 4am, ate bird’s nest soup for breakfast and did his morning reading. At 7am, the emperor attended a shamanistic morning sacrifice at the Palace of Earthly Tranquility, a custom on the eighth day of the first lunar month. At 10am, the emperor invited his minister to tea, where they composed poems. After a day’s work, he went to bed at 8pm.  

Near the exit of the gallery is a large round sofa, big enough for 12 people to lie on. A huge screen is installed right above the sofa on the ceiling, which plays a video about what the emperor may have dreamt that night. Part of it features the real elegy he wrote for his beloved Empress Xiaoxian, who died at the age of 36.  

Mok Kar-leung is on the HKPM board of directors and was dean of the Department of Arts at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Mok told NewsChina that Hong Kong museums were often short on exhibits of national treasures. Because the HKPM can display so many Palace Museum pieces, the number and quality of national-level exhibits in local museums will increase.  

Mok added that long-term displays of Palace Museum treasures in Hong Kong can strengthen Hong Kong citizens’ cultural identity and help people around the globe better understand the city’s cultural inheritance.  

He pointed to the academic value of the HKPM, stressing that high-quality academic-based curation is necessary for the HKPM to catalog, display, interpret and research the Palace Museum collections.  

“In this way, the HKPM can create high academic value and also better serve a leading role in promoting the public’s appreciation and understanding of Chinese culture,” Mok told NewsChina. “As a member of HKPM’s board, I always insist on this standpoint.” 

‘A Connected Museum’ 
Ng envisions a museum that presents human civilization from a level point of view instead of a Eurocentric perspective.  

“We call the HKPM a connected museum. The word ‘connected’ implies connecting ancient times and modern day, digital technology, strengthened bonds between the museums in the mainland and those in Hong Kong, and to promote global visitors’ understanding of and communication with Chinese culture,” Ng told NewsChina.  

In one of the inaugural exhibitions in “Gallery Nine, Grand Gallop: Art and Culture of the Horse,” besides more than 100 horse paintings, sculptures and decorative objects from the Palace Museum, there are also 13 treasures from the Louvre Museum in Paris that highlight the significance of the horse in other cultures.  

About 18 months earlier, Ng sent nearly 70 letters to notable museums around the world. The HKPM has since secured relationships with global cultural institutions, including an Indian art exhibition with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, an exhibition from the Vatican Museum and another about the paintings and decorative art objects collected by the royals of Liechtenstein.  

Ng stressed that Islamic art and culture is rarely exhibited in Hong Kong, something the HKPM strives to change. He told NewsChina that HKPM is slated to hold an exhibition of Islamic art from the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul of the Ottoman Empire.  

The HKPM is also collaborating with other museums in the Chinese mainland. Ng said the HKPM is currently in talks with Sichuan Province government about borrowing newly discovered artifacts from Sanxingdui Relics Site for an exhibition next year.  

The museum also aims to highlight its host city. With over 100 objects on display, Gallery Six features the exhibition “Private to Public: The History of Chinese Art Collecting in Hong Kong,” which outlines the development of the city’s public museums since World War II. The exhibits include collections from local museums such as the Art Gallery of the University of Hong Kong, the Art Museum of Hong Kong, the Art Museum of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Maritime Museum. Gallery Seven is dedicated to contemporary Hong Kong art, where six local artists have been invited to create multimedia artworks inspired by the Palace Museum artifacts.  

The HKPM is also plugged into innovative technology. More than 53 multimedia displays are installed throughout galleries that introduce collections with videos, audio and interactive services.  

When asked for his recommended exhibitions to see, Ng suggested getting a one-year membership. “I’m sure one can’t finish it in one day,” he said. “[This way] you can come anytime and savor it leisurely.”

A famous painting by Gu Kaizhi (around 345-406). The painting is based on a classic poem by Cao Zhi, a prince who lived during the Three Kingdoms period (220-280). The poem tells a romance story between Cao and the nymph of the Luo River. [Photo from HKPM official website]

A portrait of Qing Dynasty Emperor Yongzheng (1722- 1735) likely painted during the reign of Emperor Qianlong around 1750, Palace Museum collection. Like other Qing portraits, the likeness, temperament and exalted status of the Yongzheng is captured in a dignified and extravagant style. [Photo by VCG]

A calligraphy work by Zhao Mengfu (1254–1332) of the Yuan Dynasty, Chinese University of Hong Kong Art Museum collection. Among the greatest calligraphers in Chinese history, Zhao rejected the gentle brushwork of his era in favor of the cruder style of the Jin (266-420) and Tang (618-907) dynasties. [Photo from HKPM official website]

A ceramic work from the Ding Kilns of Hebei Province in the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). Headrests like this were popular during the Song Dynasty. Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong (who reigned from 1735-1796) loved this headrest so much that he composed many poems about it. [Photo by IC]

A work by Tang Dynasty calligrapher Yu Shinan (558-638), Palace Museum collection. This is Yu’s copy of a famed calligraphy piece by the great calligrapher Wang Xizhi (303-361) of the Eastern Jin Dynasty. [Photo from HKPM official website]

A silk painting by an unknown imperial painter in the Qianlong Period (1736-1795) of the Qing Dynasty, Palace Museum collection. It depicts the annual tribute missions of foreign delegations to the Qing court in the Forbidden City to mark the Lunar New Year. [Photo by VCG]

Jade (nephrite) sculpture from the Qianlong Period (1736- 1795) of the Qing Dynasty, Palace Museum collection. A poem by Emperor Qianlong (who reigned from 1735- 1796) is inscribed on its base. Qianlong lived to be 87, longer than any Qing ruler, and wrote more than 42,000 poems in his lifetime. [Photo by VCG]

A kinetic sculpture by Hong Kong contemporary artist Joseph Chan. Inspired by a mechanical clock used in the Qing Dynasty court, Chan attempts to blend modern clock-making technology with traditional mechanical clock designs to juxtapose two times – past and present – in one artwork. [Photo from online source]

An aerial view of the Hong Kong Palace Museum, May 29, 2022