Hong Kong Noah
The Chinese version of Noah's Ark
After leaving the jungles and islands of Thailand on Thursday, I arrived at my final destination: Hong Kong. The official purpose of my visit was to be scholar-in-residence at the Ohel Leah shul. It’s a truly remarkable community. The magnificent shul, built over 120 years ago, sits nestled among the skyscrapers after overcoming those who wanted to tear it down. Adjacent to it is the JCC complex featuring a kosher store along with a meat and dairy restaurant. It was great to meet the rabbis and people in the community, along with the Carmel school, and to see how Jewish life operates in such a far-flung place. The JCC Sunday barbeque reflected the diversity of the community - you could choose from the Asian, American or Middle Eastern sections!
But I had actually wanted to visit Hong Kong for a different reason. With my work over last year-and-a-half on developing a Noah’s Ark exhibit, opening in a few weeks at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, Hong Kong was on my wishlist of destinations. The reason is that they have a life-size Noah’s Ark museum, along with a collection of model arks.
Noah’s Ark Hong Kong, built by wealthy Chinese Christians, was very, very different from the Ark Encounter in Kentucky (and, it must be said, overall very much inferior). It looked impressive from the outside, especially with all the animals pouring out of the door. But inside, there was absolutely no feeling of being in the ark, unlike with the Ark Encounter where you are always very conscious of being inside a gigantic wooden vessel. The Hong Kong ark contained a collection of gaudy rooms, most of which were simply about general science topics and had absolutely nothing to do with the Ark.
One of the five floors, however, was dedicated to an exhibit about the Ark. This included a movie about the story of Noah, in which he and his family were played by Chinese actors!
Interestingly, their presentation of the story of a global flood as history was very different from the Kentucky museum. The Hong Kong exhibit very modestly and briefly explained that the account of a global flood and all the world’s animals and nations being repopulated via the ark was viable (for Jewish responses to those challenges, see this post), and the major focus of the exhibit was on the beauty of the story and the idea of caring for nature (see their introductory sign below). This is in stark contrast to the Kentucky museum, where they were much more forceful in disputing the heresies of modern science, and presented the story of the ark as one of harsh punishment against sinners.
Another difference was regarding non-accurate models of Noah’s Ark. The Kentucky museum has an entire exhibit about how problematic cute models are, claiming that they detract from historic accuracy and trivialize the account. The Hong Kong ark, on the other hand, which is much more positive in outlook, enthusiastically embraced such representations (as indeed the vast majority of Christians do), as making the ark more appealing, especially for a younger audience.
I have to admit that I approached their exhibit of model Noah’s Arks with some trepidation. Would it be superior to the collection that we are assembling at the BMNH? Would there be models that I would be upset about lacking?
Well, I needn’t have worried. While the room displaying the arks was impressive, the arks themselves was rubbish; nothing like the spectacular artistic models that we have collected, which reflect both artistic skill and cultural/zoological uniqueness. The sign said that they were arks from all over the world, but virtually every single one was made in China. And I mean mass-produced kitsch and plastic children’s toys, not genuine Chinese art, such as the extraordinary carved wood Chinese arks that we have at the BMNH, one of which is this amazing Noah’s Dragon Boat:
But while the Noah’s Ark was somewhat of a letdown, Hong Kong itself was a fabulous surprise - especially from the perspective of nature and animals. More about that in a forthcoming post!
P.S. - I'm available in the US as scholar-in-residence for Shabbos July 15th. Please be in touch if you want to arrange this for your community.
P.P.S. - If anyone can bring some small items for our exhibit from Teaneck to Israel, please let me know!
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