Where the ideas for the M+ museum came from

Hong Kong on Friday celebrated the opening of the M+ museum, at which a top British education official in the 1960s played a pivotal role in forcing China into backing a plan for Hong…

Where the ideas for the M+ museum came from

Hong Kong on Friday celebrated the opening of the M+ museum, at which a top British education official in the 1960s played a pivotal role in forcing China into backing a plan for Hong Kong’s democracy. The official, Sir Russel Griggs, recognized that if Hong Kong moved forward, other Chinese cities would want their own museums dedicated to the arts and education in Britain, particularly its students.

It was during Griggs’ tenure as a secretary in the British Ministry of Education that he commissioned artist Keith Hayton to produce several sketches of an iconic building in London that had been deemed inadequate for the purpose of a school. After Hayton proposed designing his design as a cylindrical building instead of an upright one, Griggs assigned him to the project, instructing him to create a prototype building. It was when the building — the existing Central School of Broadcasting — was not finished, that Griggs — who was also director of education in a central department in the British government — felt the building needed a school in the upper floor. By the time it was finished, as Hong Kong’s democracy movement got underway in the early 1970s, it had been renamed. Since then, it has become known as the Russell C. Griggs School of Architecture.

While the opening on Friday is only the first in a series of steps toward opening the M+ in time for its 2020 deadline, the building has been beset by decades of controversies over censorship, human rights, and terrorism.

In 1991, design plans were sent to Chinese authorities for a total of 40,000 pounds (about $50,000) in cash — but Chinese officials demanded they arrange the plane ticket for the first Chinese architect to come to Hong Kong. The outcome was an award of just $47,000 for the commission. A year later, the life guard at the nearby Central swimming pool was strangled in his swimming pool by a collector and landscaper, which was then seized by the police and stashed in a secret facility in Shenzhen.

Back in 1992, a 32-year-old former underground journalist, Robert Soh, who had taken it upon himself to seek asylum in Britain, disappeared. Ten days later, he was found outside the City Hall building with a beak penetrating his skull. Police investigators eventually dismissed all allegations of his having been murdered, or that his murder was ordered by Chinese authorities.

In a video clip, which was made by an advocacy group dedicated to what it sees as the “territorial integrity of Hong Kong,” Jocelyn Cockerell, professor of history at Goldsmiths, University of London, said that prior to the outbreak of civil war in the south, Britain was well aware of China’s possible manipulation of terrorism to destabilize the mainland. However, for years China was given a pass, as it was finally referred to as “the greatest bomb maker in history.” But in the 1980s — after all the banks in the city had been destroyed during the 1989 quake — civil unrest against the regime had taken hold.

Through her book The Long March: Hong Kong, An Uprising, and the Chinese Revolution, Cockerell outlines in detail how that old complaint — the poor job that the “incestuous English teachers” were doing among the Chinese students — was taken on board as Britain’s global concerns were sparked and exploited. By naming the 1950’s plan as a propaganda campaign to create great enemies for Beijing — at a time when there was a crackdown on communist literature in Britain — to charge China as encouraging students to “shed tears of fury” in protest of land grabs — Cockerell makes a reference to another of Griggs’ blueprints, as the British were afraid of losing business in Hong Kong. In fact, the number of British industries — the textile, sugar, banana and fish processing — that have since moved out of the city was much greater than those that relocated to Hong Kong.

It is not immediately clear what the cultural museum will have to do with all this. Griggs’ daughter, Jane Griggs-Lowther, told The Telegraph that she “can’t imagine my dad being a target. I’m a free spirit, and if I said I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be telling the truth.”

But even some of Griggs’ American colleagues in the 1950s were subjected to authoritarian intimidation from the Chinese, including the Times of London’s R.K. Wallace, whose sentence to a prison term was commuted by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and Queen Elizabeth.

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