Museum of Medical Sciences and the Sun Yat-sen Museum

It is fun to know the many different nooks and crannies of Mid Levels (it makes it easier to beat the traffic too).  But one of my fondest memories is skipping on the Escalator when it first opened, having my first Escalator hill-side dinner.

It was over 20 years ago, and it was fun.

Today’s generation of restaurants are certainly less romantic and busier than before.  But it is noteworthy that two niche museums have opened in the Mid-levels in the last 20 years.

The “Escalator” is the Central to Mid-levels escalator (it has its own Wiki page and a map too), and while on it, it may be worth hopping off at Caine Road to go visit the Museum of Medical Sciences (from the Caine Road exit on the escalator, walk west about 2-3 minutes to Ladder Street, descend one flight of steps and turn left).

One can also hop off to go to the Café Lavande either before or after the museum visit (going up the escalator from the Caine Road exit, hop off when one sees Princes Terrace on the right-hand side).

Opened in 1996, the Museum of Medical Sciences actually tells a lively history of Hong Kong.  It charts the historical development of the provision of medical services in the community, and is one of the first museums in the world that compares traditional Chinese and Western approaches to medicine.  There is a charming herb garden within the grounds as well.

The museum is housed in the old Bacteriological Institute building with a distinctive red-brick facade, the first purpose-built medical laboratory in Hong Kong at the time, built in response to the plague outbreaks that started in 1894, and opened in 1906.

The main exhibits tell of the beginning of public health in Hong Kong, and trace the history of a number of reforms in environmental and hygiene policies in Hong Kong through the 20th century and including a history and analysis of the SARS outbreak in 2003.  It was here at this museum that I learned about the Tai Ping Shan plague at the turn of the 19th century (it was at the Institute, this exact site, that the plague virus was first isolated).

It was here also that I learned about the fascinating differences and similarities in Western versus Chinese medical approaches to understanding the “spleen” in our bodies: considered part of the lymphatic system in Western medicine but part of the digestive system in Chinese medicine, it is seen to play the role of cleansing blood in Western medicine and of transporting nutrients in Chinese medicine.   Indeed, the spleen is part of a paired complex in traditional Chinese medicine, the yin component to the yang stomach.

The Museum also has the distinction of being entirely privately funded, mostly from donations, receiving no government funding.   It is managed and run by a non-profit institution, the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences Society, which is the result of collaboration by many dedicated practitioners and enthusiastic patrons in the city.

In 2011, the museum launched the Tai Ping Shan Medical Trail to educate the public about the history of the area, especially how successive governments in Hong Kong as well as private benefactors collaborated to improve medical services to the populace through the years.

The neighbourhood around the museum indeed tells a lot about the history of medicine in late 19th century Hong Kong and turn of the century: the College of Medicine (which later became part of the University of Hong Kong) was founded in 1887 by private practitioners in western medicine to train Chinese doctors in the use of western medicine to serve the Chinese community.   It was also in the late 19th century when, in response to an outcry over the appalling conditions of hygiene amongst the Chinese in the area, the colonial government agreed to a long-standing request from the Chinese community for land for a Chinese hospital that led to the founding of the first Tung Wah Hospital.  This was the first hospital built to provide solely traditional Chinese medical care for the Chinese community, and in 1896, Western medical care was started in addition to Chinese medical care.

Another hospital that originated from the area very early on is the Alice Memorial Hospital: it was the first teaching hospital in Hong Kong to train local Chinese in Western medical science.  Established by the former London Missionary Society in 1887 and with the donation from local barrister and physician Dr Ho Kai, it quickly spurred the Society to set up another new hospital at 10 Bonham Road which was called Nethersole Hospital which became the first hospital providing nurses training in Hong Kong.  A recognition of the need for maternity services led to the opening in 1904 of the Alice Memorial Maternity Hospital at 6A Bonham Road, the first maternity hospital in Hong Kong, which was later merged into Nethersole Hospital.  This was followed by the establishment in 1906 at the adjacent Breezy Path, of the Ho Miu Ling Hospital.  These 3 hospitals were then merged into the Alice Ho Miu Ling Nethersole Hospital in 1954, which became one of the most well-respected hospitals in post-WWII Hong Kong until today, and a landmark on Bonham Road until its move to a site in the eastern side of the Island in the 1990s.

Another hop off the escalator on the Caine Road exit (1 minute’s walk west of the Caine Road exit, then walk up Castle Road on the left) is a second relative newcomer to the museum scene, the Sun Yat-Sen Museum.  Opened to the public in 2006, the four-storey Museum is dedicated to Sun Yat-Sen who is considered the father of modern China given his role in the 1911 revolution and in founding the Chinese Republic, who received much of his education in Hong Kong and had a strong connection with the city.

The museum is housed in the building called Kom Tong Hall which was built in 1914 and owned by the younger brother of the prominent philanthropist Robert Ho Tung whose family was the first Chinese family permitted to live in the Mid-levels in the early colonial period.  We can trace much of Sun’s footsteps in the vicinity: he studied at the College of Medicine at 81 Hollywood Road, set up the headquarters of Xing Zhong Hui (literally, Revive China Society) at 13 Staunton Street, was baptized in a church that is located at what is today’s the Bridges Street market, and attended Central College for his secondary school studies (which was located at the junction of Shing Wong Street and Hollywood Road).

Many of my Japanese friends know about Sun Yat-Sen.  That is likely to be because Sun spent about 16 years in exile from his homeland (he was a wanted man after the failure of the first Guangzhou uprising in 1895) and travelled extensively in Japan, southeast Asia, the US and Canada, as well as England (where there is a plaque erected to him in Bloomsbury at 4 Warwick Court, WC1 … he was also kidnapped while in London though managed to be released).   In fact, he was banned even from Hong Kong between the years of 1902 and 1907.  Japan was where Sun spent almost 10 years in exile, and Japanese scholars aided and supported his revolutionary activities.  Sun also had strong links with the west coast of the US, where his brother lived and where he spent part of his teenage years (his brother also provided strong financial support to him throughout the time he was exiled from China, and all of his three children studied at Berkeley).

It may also be worth mentioning again the link between Sun and the University of Hong Kong.  Visiting the University of Hong Kong in 1923, after the Revolution, Sun declared that he felt as though he had returned home, because Hong Kong and the University of Hong Kong were his intellectual birthplace.  The university unveiled a Sun statue next to its lily pond in 2003.

Sun remains unique among 20th century Chinese politicians for being widely revered amongst people from both sides of the Straits.

Taken as a whole, these two wonderful museums tell us how Hong Kong enables a fusion between the east and the west: on one hand, we see the revolutionary hero who received western training and who wanted to modernize China but who is unmistakably Chinese and patriotic, and on the other, we see the city caught between the expats and the locals and where understandings are engendered between the traditional Chinese approach and the Western scientific method.

A side-note on tracing the footsteps of Sun: For those historically minded, there is a Museum of the Wuchang Uprising of 1911 Revolution, in Wuchang, the site of the Revolution.  For those interested in visiting places focused on Sun’s life, there is the one located at his former residence in his home-town Zhongshan in Guangdong (the old name of Zhongshan is Xiangshan, and the prefecture-level town was named after Sun a year after his death), as well as the one built around his tomb in Nanjing.