CLASS in the Media

A Silent Marker Speaks Again

Written by Professor HON Tze-ki
Professor, Department of Chinese and History

Outside the former Kai Tak Airport in Kowloon City lies the Sung Wong Toi Garden. Inside the garden, silently but solemnly, stands a stone tablet bearing three big Chinese characters “Song Wang Tai” 宋王臺 (the Song Emperor’s Terrace).

For many visitors, the stone tablet looks like another ornament to decorate the garden. But for those interested in history, a pair of memorials — one in English and the other in Chinese — recount the story of the Song loyalists who, from 1276 to 1279, resisted the Mongols after their capital city, Lin’an (today’s Hangzhou), had fallen. Led by two young brothers of the Zhao royal family, the loyalists reached Kowloon Bay by boat in mid-1278. Resting for a few months, the loyalists continued their arduous journey. In 1279, they were cornered in Yashan, just west of Hong Kong, and fought to the bitter end in a heroic sea battle.

During the first half of the 20th century, this saga of resistance and martyrdom had been twice given new meanings. After the 1911 Revolution that toppled the Qing dynasty, some Qing loyalists settled in Hong Kong. To express their disappointment with what happened in China, they commemorated the “benevolent rule” of the Manchu rule (1644-1911) by regularly visiting the Song Emperor’s Terrace. In the 1950s, the Hong Kong government expanded the Kai Tak Airport by leveling the Sacred Hill where the Song Emperor’s Terrace used to be. To revive the memory of Song loyalism for the cultural Cold War, the Hong Kong government moved what remained of the Song Emperor’s Terrace into a newly built Chinese-style garden, the “Sung Wong Toi Garden.” Together, the garden, the tablet, and the two bilingual memorials announced to the world that Hong Kong was “a bastion of freedom” at the doorsteps of Red China.

In both cases, the remembrance of Song loyalism was to give hope to people in difficult times. For the Qing loyalists, the thirteenth-century resistance of the Mongols reminded them of their own struggle against the Republican government formed after 1911. For the British Hong Kong government, the memory of the Song loyalism transformed the colony into a “Cold War outpost” for the battle against Communism. Despite the different uses, the symbolism of the Song Emperor’s terrace remained the same. It stood for an opportunity to make something out of nothing, a momentous moment to change one’s fate by one’s sheer will, and above all, a turning point in one’s life to make an indelible mark in history.

Now, as the MTR is building the Shatin to Central Link (SCL), the Song Emperor’s Terrace will speak out again. After the completion of the SCL, thousands of passengers will pass through the “Sung Wong Toi” station daily. Will these passengers see hope in the darkness like the Song loyalists did hundreds of years ago? Will they be as determined as the Qing loyalists were a century earlier in critiquing a corrupt and corrupting government? Will they have a global vision like those in the Cold War who saw their daily life as part of a world-wide battle between good and evil?

Whatever it may be, the memory of Song Emperor’s Terrace will no longer remain dormant. It will evoke new meanings as Hong Kong meets the challenges of the 21st century.

This is an updated version of an article originally published on Young Post, South China Morning Post, on May 10, 2018.