You have probably seen the message from Dr Wendy Gan about the departure of English, with rest of the Arts Faculty, to a new building on the Centenary Campus. As far as we know, this move will happen in the summer of 2012. There is no word yet about who will occupy the Main Building after we’re gone.
Though taxi drivers know it as Loke Yew Hall (which is strictly speaking just one of its rooms) the Main Building of HKU reaches its hundredth birthday still wearing its drab generic name. I feel it really ought to have a more romantic title, or at least an exclamation mark – the Main Building! – to indicate how much it has meant and continues to mean to those of us who have worked and studied here.
The Main Building has been my workplace for more than three decades. I arrived, the ink still wet on my PhD degree, to be installed in a room on the third floor, in what is now the School of Chinese. I was on the extreme margin of the Department of ESCL (English Studies and Comparative Literature), in the last office at the end of the corridor leading to the bridge which links the back of the Main Building to the library. This was miles away from the department office, which I didn’t mind too much, but very handy for the toilet and the library. It was the first time in my life that I’d had an office of my own. I couldn’t believe it – in fact to this day I can’t altogether shake off the suspicion that I was employed by mistake, and some day will be unmasked as an impostor.
One advantage of being housed on the top floor of the building was that it was easy to stroll out onto the roof to take a breather or have a cigarette. (The majority of the staff smoked in those days. I was so terrified in my first lecture, in another room in the Main Building, that I chain-smoked throughout. It’s the only thing I remember about it.) When the department moved downstairs a few years later, I was in room 118, nestled up against the flank of Loke Yew Hall in the courtyard with palm trees. This was picturesque but had its disadvantages. Then as now, when there was to be a dinner function in the Hall of an evening, the cooking was done in the courtyard. There were consequences. I recall sitting in my office with the door open one afternoon, when I saw what seemed to be a cat trotting across the courtyard towards me. When I put on my glasses I saw it was a large rat. It looked well-fed.
Later still, when I became Head of Department, I had a large and elegant office in the fountain courtyard, with a balcony overlooking what must be one of the most photographed places in Hong Kong. Especially at weekends, the courtyards of the building swarm with photographers and photographees: aspiring models, building up their portfolio with the help of sinister-looking professional photographers; brides and bridegrooms in their wedding finery, and graduands in their academic robes (nowadays it seems obligatory to clutch a cuddly toy topped with a mortarboard); and more recently, cosplayers in their delirious clothes, like creatures from some fabulous alternative universe.
Everybody knows that the Main Building has a ghost. I know people who swear they have seen it. I suppose it won’t be relocating with us, but will stay in the building to welcome its new neighbours. But in fact, the building is haunted by more than one presence. It must be saturated with the memories of all the people who have moved through it, over its century of life. I wish there were some way we could capture these memories (like the Ghostbusters), and take a look at them. This building has played such an important part in so many people’s lives, it’s like a huge anthology of stories – about intellectual discovery, love and friendship, quarrels and reconciliations, about ties formed here that have survived good times and bad, just as the building has.
If you’re an alumna or alumnus, or a former or current staff member, of the School of English or the Department of English or the Department of English Studies and Comparative Literature, we hope you will use this website to share some of your memories of HKU and the department. Please do send us something – it could be a very brief anecdote of a few sentences, or a longer reflective piece of up to a thousand words. It doesn’t have to be about academic matters, or about the Main Building, so long as it’s a memory of your time here. We will put it up on the site for others to read and perhaps to respond to.
The move from the Main Building, and the hundredth anniversary of the Department of English, seems like a good time to look back as well as forward.