Introducing Stella Wang

This week our guest writer is Meng (Stella) Wang, PhD candidate at University of Sydney. Stella’s research interests lie in the history of childhood, particularly on children’s everyday life, their use of urban space, and the formation of their identity in their lived spaces. Stella has kindly accepted our invite to write a reflective piece on how she uses visual materials in her project.

A Visual History of Colonial School Architecture in Hong Kong 1921-1941

Meng Wang | University of Sydney


This entry is a reflection on the use of visual materials in my project, which explores the history of colonial childhood in Hong Kong, particularly on the architecture of childhood and children’s everyday activity spaces and how that has changed over the interwar years. I trace the spaces that were designed for and used by children such as school playground and science laboratory and the transformation of these spaces. I am interested in, in particular, the coproduction of space, the child’s body, and identity, of how changes in childhood spaces transformed bodily experiences and produced identities.


I use visual images as sources to substantiate the narratives on colonial school architecture, and more generally architecture of childhood in interwar Hong Kong. In this entry, I will discuss the methods I use to approach visual sources, in relation to two research areas: architecture and the child’s body; space, body and identities. I will also address the importance of picture archives to the visual history of colonial school architecture.


I. Architecture and the Child’s Body

Part of my project explores the child’s body and school, I examine the transformation of the child’s body through addressing architecture in relation to curriculum. I look at the transformation of particular school spaces, such as school playground and science laboratory, through which I then trace the gendered history of curriculum, in relation to physical education and science teaching. I am also interested in how the transformation of the child’s body differed at government, grant-in-aid, and vernacular schools, which led me to a search on visual materials on schooling buildings of different types of schools, both their interior and exterior. I read these photographs, collected from different visual image database, including Hong Kong Memory, Hong Kong Image Database, and USC digital library, for the possible bodily movement enabled by the space, for example, the layout of the classroom and how child may possibly use this space, I then compare these among different types of schools. Throughout the project, I aim to trace the difference in school architecture of government, missionary and vernacular schools in relation to the different ideals of the child’s body, of what was considered suitable and capable of the child.

As a second line of questioning, I am interested in gendered difference in schools, and how architecture functioned as a social technology in constructing gendered identities. This focus on gendered history led me to explore the boarder architecture of femininity and masculinity in colonial contexts, which required an interweaving of visual and documentary sources. I use visual sources to substantiate documentary evidence, and I evaluate the pictures base on their potential to answer the key research questions: gendered differences produced by architecture. I collected pictures on school buildings, school children, playgrounds, and school publications, through which I aim to trace the architectural history of schools and the changing use of school spaces, such as access and use of playground. Visual source is an essential piece of this project on colonial school architecture and the child’s body, not only because its potential to add evidence to the argument, but also that the compiling of picture archive on colonial school life lends itself to the analysis of lived experience of schooling and enables comparison on school life in other colonial contexts.

The absence of colonial school architecture in Hong Kong in current historiography makes the compiling of its archive a fascinating opportunity to consider how colonial architecture interacted with the history of education, of femininity, of masculinity. This project will therefore reconfigure understanding of colonial architecture by developing knowledge about the lived experience of its key users, and specifically on the coproduction of colonial educational space and the feminine and masculine body.

I further argue that colonial school architecture is an emerging field in the history of colonial education, particularly in relation to the history of femininity and masculinity, to explore the role of colonial school architecture in the production of the female and male body, therefore, opens up new discussions on the construction of femininity and masculinity in education contexts, and how imperial gender ideals were produced through the choreography of the body.


II. Space, Body, and Identities
When I first approached the existing picture archives in Hong Kong, it was not immediate clear the importance and potential they carry for the project. To get a glimpse into the lived school life in the interwar years, I searched the oral history archives in Hong Kong, and through the reading of oral histories, I traced the memories of school buildings. The second step was to group the school buildings chronically, and based on the school types, as government, grant, or vernacular. Schools built in the interwar years shared common features such as sports and science facilities, which led to a read on curriculum.
When read school photographs, I start by asking the location of schools; the use of space within schools; and methods of learning and teaching. Although not a prime focus of my study, the location of the school suggests the potential liminal spaces the child travelled to and from school, and whether boarding facilities was necessary. The use of space within schools is where I analyse the function of the space. Corridors, gates, verandas are transitional spaces between activities, where interactions and encounters took place, that transforms the individual body to the social body. I am particularly interested in how the space produced experience, and how changes in space reconfigured everyday sensorial experiences.
As another potential line of inquiry, the materiality of schooling, captured in school pictures, also lends itself to the analysis on school architecture and children’s health. The layout of classroom, the size of windows, the height of desks, all had an impact on the users experience of the learning space and children’s wellbeing in particular.

The last point I want to address in this entry is the need to use innovative approach to develop visual archives that lend itself to the collaboration with other types of sources, such as oral, documentaries sources. And to classify the content in the archive temporally and spatially, for example, to map school architecture chronically, and in selected geographic regions. Picture archives on school architecture is only emerging, and quite often for individual projects, the need to collect visual sources from multiple existing archives that were not designed for the specific research on history of education is common, in which case, the interweaving of diverse types of sources becomes necessary, and often with an interdisciplinary research design. The lived experience of schooling, and the everyday life of children at school is not an extensively research area in the history of education, and it is also an area that would benefit from the development of picture archives, and with specific research focuses, the connection between architecture and child’s body could be addressed in a more nuanced manner, and join larger discussions on gendered history of education, modern architecture, as well as order and discipline in modern institutions.