Displacement >

The Retrieval, Restoration and Predicament (2017-20) >

The Retrieval, Restoration, and Predicament: Objects, memories and records in wartime

The Retrieval, Restoration, and Predicament: Objects, memories and records in wartime [Excerpt]

Text: Lee Kai Chung


During the occupation of Hong Kong, a great deal of money was taken for the Japanese military in the Pacific and other theatres. So, the cash-strapped Hong Kong government, faced with an enormous cost for repair and maintenance expenses, appealed to HSBC Bank [1], which had paid for the development of Statue Square before the war, but HSBC was struggling with its own property damage and lost assets. […] After the Japanese surrender, HSBC staff found large quantities of property that did not belong to the bank or its customers [2], including gold and silver jewellery, military supplies, opium, etc. […] So, the government decided to sell these items through public auction [3] to raise money to rebuild public buildings and restore statues. However, another problem arose: not all of the items were suitable for public auctions, for instance left over military equipment (bullets, military equipment, guns), opium, etc. To take the latter as an example, it was sold through a semi-public auction to a Singapore pharmaceutical firm to make anaesthetics. In the end, part of the proceeds of the auctions went into a Special Revenue Fund to pay the costs of repatriating and restoring the statues.

In this short history and recollection of war, colonies, and former colonies, the bronze statue appears in different images and forms, and its movements and physical transformations form a perfect cycle – from the Japanese occupying Hong Kong and confiscating the statue, melting it down to make weapons to attack and invade other countries, to Japan’s defeat and surrender, the return of the statue to Hong Kong, the Hong Kong government gathering up and auctioning off the things left behind by the Japanese to raise money to restore the statue. At the physical level, this cycle is not just a record of the statue’s travels and the experience of regime change, it is also witness to the transformation of a symbolic representation, and how people face transition.


In the middle and late stages of the research, I finally obtained some relevant information from the British National Archives. In February 1947, Port Supervisor Mark Young, in a report to the UK Colonial Office, mentioned that the statues had been sent by the UK Liaison Missions from Tokyo back to Hong Kong [4].


Restoration – the damaged Queen Victoria statue and the lost blueprint

When the colonial Hong Kong government heard that the statues had been found, they did not take any immediate action. There are always many pressing issues and the return of some statues was not a high priority. According to documents from the UK Colonial Office , one of the main reasons for the delay was that the war had damaged and changed the landscape and buildings of Central District, and it was hoped that this could be an opportunity for another round of urban planning and reclamation works, a proposal for which was submitted to the UK in 1947.

Around this time, the Hong Kong colonial government established a temporary Public Monuments Committee, in conjunction with the Public Works Department and its Architectural Office. The Committee commissioned Raoul Bigazzi, an Italian sculptor who had set up a studio in Central in the 1930s, to research and remake the Queen’s missing pieces.

From the minutes of the Committee’s discussions, when the Queen’s statue was returned from Japan, every part of it had been cut away or damaged to various extents as follows:
1. Orb held in her left hand;
2. The crown on the queen’s head;
3. The sceptre [4];
4. The right arm holding the sceptre;
5. An imperial crown resting on the ornamental pedestal in the centre of the throne;
6. A lion on the throne;
7. A unicorn on the throne;
8. A pair of earrings;
9. A receding panel at the foot of the throne;
10. Two studs;
11. One side panel of the chair.

The Queen Victoria statue was originally designed by Mario Raggi [6], an Italian sculptor living in Portland Place, London, and cast by H. Young and Company, a foundry in Pimlico, before finally being officially unveiled in Hong Kong in 1896. Bigazzi asked the colonial government to ask the UK government for a production blueprint to use as a reference. Unfortunately, the UK government hadn’t had the blueprint even before the war, or it had been destroyed in the Blitz. The Hong Kong government commissioned the UK Ministry of Works to liaise with the sculptor, but in the end Raggi could not be found; according to the National archives, there is no shortage of documents and photos of Raggi’s commissions predating Victoria, so it is very strange that the British government didn’t put any blueprints, sketches, or minutes of any discussions between officials and the sculptor into the archives. The British government then asked the casting workshop for any copies of the blueprint, but unfortunately, the workshop had been destroyed in the Blitz, they’d moved to another location and dropped out of contact. For this reason, the Colonial Office proposed commissioning the Morris-Singer Company, who had cast the statue of George V in Statue Square.

After comparing the Hong Kong and UK archives, I can only conclude that the blueprint is lost, and Bigazzi was working from a number of photos from the UK Public Works Department of the Queen’s statue taken before it had been shipped to Hong Kong, plus his artistic judgement, to produce the new pieces of the statue. In addition, the written descriptions of the damaged portions of the statue in the Hong Kong and UK archives differ. This discrepancy in the historical narrative probably springs from the two regions’ differing images of the statue, as well as speculation by the British government based on similar images of the Queen.

In the middle of 1947, the British and Hong Kong governments assessed the costs and feasibility of the restoration of the statue. The British government asked the Morris-Singer Company for recommendations, and they offered two proposals:
1. Send the statue back to the UK for measurements, so the lost and damaged portions could be recreated in clay, then use the lost wax method to cast new parts, attach them to the statue and make adjustments.
2. Have the Hong Kong sculptor (Bigazzi) make plaster models of the lost and damaged portions, and send them back to the UK for casting.

From an artist’s perspective, the first option is the most appropriate, because the only way to get accurate clay modeling is directly from the statue; if the parts don’t match up exactly, they can be adjusted. The damaged or missing portions of the statue all extend out from the torso, and the ‘wounds’ were not tidy; if plaster casts were made in Hong Kong, and a British sculptor used the models and drawings to make and cast the pieces, it is possible that the pieces wouldn’t be able to join neatly to the main body.

In the end, the Hong Kong government did not pursue either of the above proposals, because the costs of the first proposal exceeded the budget, and the British government was unwilling to pay the full costs, while the feasibility of the second proposal was not guaranteed. Instead, they decided to commission the Hong Kong-based Bigazzi to make models. Regrettably, I have only found the exchanges between Bigazzi and the Hong Kong government at early stage of this process, and have no information to show that the items were cast in Hong Kong. Bigazzi’s studio was in Central, and a foundry for the statue would require sufficient space and ventilation, so I surmise that the government used a third party for casting, which may have been the Morris-Singer Company.

When I read in the files of the twists and turns in the ‘refurbishment’ part of the story, and the circumstances around the files, the order in which they are arranged, I feel that neither the process of ‘refurbishment’, the artist’s imaginings of the statue (in the absence of the original plan, Bigazzi’s individual creativity had to play a role), nor the opinions of officials and the public towards ‘refurbishment’ are adequately recorded. For this reason, in the absence of sufficient information (including the blueprint and the refurbishment documents), I tried to use my own methods to reconstruct the missing pieces.



[1] HSBC funded the construction of Statue Square and the production of some of the bronze statues in the square before the war.
[3] In 2016, I researched and created a project called The Order of Things, relating to the history and process of public auctions, and the people and objects involved in them. The earliest record in the Hong Kong Archives dealing with public auctions is from 1886, when the Navy received a consignment of goods, and discusses how to convert it into cash through a public auction. Early public auctions usually took the form of public-private partnerships, wherein independent auctioneers were commissioned to conduct the auctions in official or non-official venues. The dates of the auctions were not predetermined, but depended on the quantity of the goods received. After the Handover, the Hong Kong Government Logistics Department has held regular public auctions since 2003. Items auctioned include confiscated and unclaimed goods, and unused tools and goods from various government departments.
[4] Hong Kong: Statue of Queen Victoria, Showing Missing Parts, 1947, CN 3/46, The National Archives, United Kingdom.
[5] According to the archives, during the restoration, the sceptre was possibly modelled on that of King Edward VIII.
[6] Photograph of a plaster cast entitled ‘Compulsory Education. A lady teaching a child, profile view, 2 June 1877, COPY 1/37/322, The National Archives, United Kingdom.