Lunching in the hub with Richard Wesley of the Maritime Museum

An ungrateful hongkongmaritimehub is yet to cough up the payment for my last foray into the eating habits of Hong Kong’s maritime notables. So I was particularly grateful for an invitation to the Foreign Correspondents Club semi-buffet last Friday. If I play my cards right I thought, it could sustain me through part of the weekend.

The pleasure of this lunch is much enhanced by the presence of Hong Kong Maritime Museum director, Richard Wesley.

Richard was appointed to his current post on the end of Pier 8 in Central, seven years ago. The ensuing years have seen the profile of the Maritime Museum magnified many times, due to the hard work of him and his team and the unstinting support of the Hong Kong Government and the territory’s shipping community.

In 2017, the Museum welcomed nearly 137, 000 visitors. It expects to welcome its millionth visitor by the end of 2018.

I arrive at the table, barely noticed. My dining companion has his head buried in a document, and momentarily I’m only afforded a view of the high brow of a highbrow, and a partial head of corrugated steel grey hair. Eventually he notices my presence, greets me amiably, and passes said document for my perusal.

With an eye-catching front cover depicting dragon confronting eagle, it’s a well-crafted summary, replete with illustrations, of an upcoming exhibition at the Museum. The proposed show aims to explore trade relations between Southern China and the northeast United States during the 19th century. “This,” I pronounce, “is both prescient and apposite given the current relations between the two nations.”

“It has to be good,” he says, “they’re all consummate professionals here. They wouldn’t accept anything shoddy.” By they, I discover, Richard is referring to high-powered maritime professionals in Hong Kong with a bit to spare for a good cause.

Part of Richard’s remit is to mingle cap in hand among the more enlightened of Hong Kong’s maritime community, as he looks to raise funds for the many ambitious exhibitions the museum holds each year. I’m not sure if it’s a part of the job description he enjoys most but he assures me that in meeting both maritime business leaders and government members he has stumbled upon “a great bunch of people with a keen interest in the sea.”

At this point we are both keenly aware of the tables behind me, groaning under the weight of the buffet. On offer are soup, luminous green salads, mushroom salad, and various other salads under such a weight of opaque dressing that one is unsure whether it conceals fruit or root vegetables, until sampled.

There’s parma ham, roast beef slices, something akin to an upmarket spam, salami, one or two terrine dishes and smoked salmon, as far as I recall. Most importantly Richard suggests wine. We both have a glass of the house white after Richard demurs on my offering to buy a bottle.

We agree that we are both huge fans of smoked salmon. This happens as I shovel all but a remaining thin slice of the fish onto my plate. I’m just tucking in when in an attempt to ruin my eating pleasure Richard recalls a story he’s read that day. It’s shocking!” he says.

“All this plastic they’re finding in the fish you eat.” He’s referring to a number of studies that have discovered we are poisoning ourselves on various species of fish that are stuffed with plastic micro-particles. I’m not falling for it. I carry on relishing every bite.

But of course it is a serious concern and just one of the many ways that we are destroying the oceans and decimating the creatures that live in them. Richard is genuinely shocked. It’s a cause that has been taken up by the Museum over the past year or so, first with the superbly moving “On Sharks and Humanity, a contemporary art exhibition actually depicting man’s inhumanity to sharks. According to an onsite survey 70% of visitors left claiming they would avoid consuming shark-based products.

More recently there has been an exhibition on the pollution of the near seas and beaches of Hong Kong. Still running until 22 July, is the “Water in the Balance” Exhibition, a part of the “Jockey Club Water Caretakers of Tomorrow Programme”.

(Second trip to the buffet. Trousers appear inexplicably to be shrinking).

Such programmes illustrate the attempt by today’s curators such as Richard to shrug off the outdated image of museums as simply dingy buildings full of dust covered objects in glass cases and instead present lively often interactive exhibitions and displays that young and old can instantly relate to.

Increasingly the spirit of the Museum steps beyond its physical manifestation and engages Hong Kong on the street or, as in the case of NAUTIC QUEST. In their most ambitious collaboration to date the Hong Kong Maritime and Port Board used the Maritime and Aviation Fund to donate over HK$1m to a Museum-designed project aimed at more than 60,000 S4 Hong Kong students.

NAUTIC QUEST is a set of specially designed school-based learning materials supported by a multitude of interactive and multimedia components covering a broad range of intriguing and inspiring maritime topics.

“This learning platform aims at enriching the knowledge of students and the general public on the most precious natural resource of Hong Kong – our harbour – and its deep connection with a host of maritime industries as well as our daily life,” says Richard.

I attempt to earn my crust and start digging into Richard’s past. Seems I needn’t have held back on the usual convict references Poms are prone to throw at Aussies. Richard grew up in Hobart, Tasmania, and an island notorious for its penal colonies in the 18th and 19th centuries. Indeed after Richard graduated the remains of these colonies were a rich source of archaeological research before he moved onto Sydney to teach.

Just what inspired Richard to move to Hong Kong I’m not sure although he does mention that it was important to him that his daughter was grown, graduated and independent first.

(Cheese and biscuits, and coffee)

I wonder idly if it was because Australia has relatively little history compared to China and he was looking for a bigger challenge. But instead I ask him what he enjoys best about his work at the Museum.

“It’s immensely satisfying to receive a new exhibit. The look of it and the feel of it can convey a deep sense of its history and connect us directly to the past,” he says.

Whatever the reason he’s here in Hong Kong, its clear he’s a happy man here and we are happy to have him for as long as it lasts.


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