Most people outside of today’s modern shipping industry would have garnered their knowledge of piracy from Hollywood movies or 19th century novels of swashbuckling and adventure. Those closer to the sea are all too aware of the continuing existence of piracy and its often devastating effects.
In April this year, Somali pirates re-emerged as a menace by taking two vessels and kidnapping crews. Such pirates wreaked havoc between 2008 and 2012. Today, Southeast Asia is again a hotspot for incidences of piracy.
So the latest exhibition at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum can definitely be considered timely, even if its focus is on the South China Sea between the 16th and 19th centuries.
Pirates of the South China Sea: Chasing Cheung Po Tsai and the Port Cities, which runs from 28 April to 8 October 2017, is an extraordinarily ambitious exhibition with a presence on all three levels of the museum. Consisting of exquisite works of art and insightful analysis the exhibition reveals piracy in the South China Sea as an age-old phenomenon with complex origins and various interpretations of what constituted a pirate.
Star of the show Cheung Po Tsai, whose career straddled the 18th and 19th centuries, along with other pirates such as Zheng Zhilong and Zheng Chenggong may have been the bane of the Ming and Ching authorities but were often treated as heroes by the their local communities. Meanwhile, a lasting legacy of their conflicts at sea is the rapid technological development of sea craft as the opponents sought superiority at sea.
The Director of the HKMM, Richard Wesley described the nature of the exhibition and its objectives when he said at the premiere:
“The story is redolent with political, social, cultural, economic and technological themes, which can be interwoven in different ways to create completely different mythologies…
The pirate story provides boundless educational opportunities for senior students interested in understanding Qing dynasty politics and the relationship between the rulers and the ruled, coastal trade and the economics of living by the sea in a primarily agrarian society.”
For the rest of us, it’s a fascinating excursion into a past age that sadly continues to echo down the centuries to today.