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Unique Quality of Oral History

Oral history is a method of historical enquiry that focuses on the individual. Through in-depth conversation, the researcher seeks to understand the life experience, perceptions and feelings of the interviewee, and his/her comprehension of and opinion in regard to things and events. Memory is a primary source for historical research, and oral history (as a methodology) provides the means for retrieving undiscovered remnants from important past events, remnants that will enable forgotten historical realities to reemerge. 

Oral history also provides a platform for the voices of the less privileged -- the working classes, ethnic minorities and poor common people who cannot express themselves in literary works, or who lack the resources to record individual experiences and views. Their stories and feelings have often been overlooked as a result. Through participating in oral history projects, less privileged people are given a voice in the mainstream; at the same time, they provide researchers with valuable new perspectives to rethink history and to create new areas of enquiry. 

As an alternative to official documents, oral history reveals to researchers aspects of the past that written documents cannot reveal. Most studies of Hong Kong’s post-war development, for example, have depended on government statistics which provide only a general and incomplete impression of the process of industrial development. The lack of oral history materials limits the capacity to explore topics of social dynamics and processes such as industrial entrepreneurship, the modus operandi of family enterprises and conditions of workers in factories, etc. Likewise, in the study of local districts, local gazetteers and district histories tend to concentrate on describing streetscapes, buildings, institutions and major events while issues such as the daily lives of ordinary people, neighbourhood relations, social mobility and community consciousness, are missing. Only through oral history can these basic issues be highlighted and explored. 

The real value of oral history lies in documenting the voice and sentiment of the interviewee. Researchers can “hear” hidden meanings in the narrative by paying attention to the vocabulary, tone and volume, speed, hesitation and feeling of the speaker and also assess the impact of events on individuals and groups. Much of the oral history previously conducted in Hong Kong has been published in the form of written works. Unfortunately, in the course of processing the materials, much of the real value of the primary materials is lost; in some cases, even the content provided by the interviewee has been modified, making it impossible to access his/her original feelings. Hong Kong Voices, by showing a combination of text and sound on the internet, hopes to preserve the most primary record of the interview while also taking into consideration the needs of scholars and general readers. 

Oral history materials might appear to differ from or even contradict readers’ own experiences or what they have heard. This is because oral history is individual-based, giving the interviewee space to speak about experiences, perceptions and feelings that might vary from those of other individuals . Users--readers and listeners-- should be open-minded when accessing the interviews and be prepared to encounter different experiences and views, and recognize the complexity and multifacetedness of history.