The History of Hong Kong

The History of Hong Kong

The History of Hong Kong

For a land on the backside of the globe, Hong Kong bears striking similarities to the United States of America. With a legacy of freedom from repression and refuge for the oppressed, this island haven welcomes anyone with an entrepreneurial spirit and healthy work ethic to its ranks of millionaires.

Only 800 years ago, Hong Kong became the home of smatterings of fishermen and rice farmers further inland. Life was simple and quiet except for the occasional pirate vessel or typhoon.

Enter the Europeans

When European trade set its sights on the Far East, the Chinese province of Canton was designated as open to settlement for traders. Various nations built factories in this mainland province, and they were restricted to only the land adjacent to their holdings.

At the entry into this Cantonese inlet, the Portuguese set up a holding at the isthmus of Macau. On the eastern edge, the island of Hong Kong became a growing port for merchants to wait until the Cantonese trading season opened.

By the 19th century, western appetites for tea, silk, and porcelain guaranteed that Britain and America would remain loyal customers of China. In return, Britain searched for a commodity that would equally entice the Chinese so trade could be financially profitable on their end. Unfortunately, China was unimpressed with English textiles or American tobacco.

Tensions Mount

Western coffers depleted as the Chinese government maddeningly refused to accept any commodity but silver. British merchants, in defiance of the Chinese legal system's routine use of torture, turned a deaf ear to legal arguments from the Chinese government.

The quandary was resolved in the worst way imaginable. Britain found the Chinese people more than eager to deal in illegal opium trafficking. A highly decorated protocol for smoking the drug allured the elite Chinese, and with the increased availability the habit spread to 90 percent of working males.

Soon opium dens had zapped the strength and sense of a generation. Productivity ceased, and the military was crippled.

Striking Back

The Chinese government's terror at this crisis moved them to confiscate $9 million worth of opium and burn it publicly. They also arrested 1,600 foreign merchants and their Chinese counterparts.

War was the inevitable result. Hong Kong provided a base for the superior British navy to win decisive victories, and the Island was ceded to Great Britain as a spoil of victory. The defeat forced the Chinese to reconsider their unwillingness to change with the times and resulted in the beginnings of a new Chinese society.

A Great Society, Victorian Style

In Hong Kong, the arrival of more British officers and soon, ladies meant a new culture. Intermarriage of British men with native Hong Kong girls was the beginning of the new Eurasian class. Their descendants would find special opportunities in this land of freedom as the privileged few who could navigate both cultures with ease.

A police force was instituted to keep the peace. As the first of its kind anywhere, it became a model for peacekeeping around the globe. Architecture flourished, and high society ladies brought culture and a full schedule of parties to rival the most posh colonial outposts. The city of Victoria was a marvel of grandeur with stone mansions glittering throughout the island's hills.

On the other side of Hong Kong, Chinese newcomers abounded in shantytowns and worked as coolies. They were more than willing to remain separate from the European circles, with most of them only there for business, and willing to return home to China when business was completed.

Unrest Abroad

At the turn of the century, the European countries steadily competed with one another in an arms race that would soon embroil the globe. In 1898, Great Britain acquired a lease on Hong Kong to keep it from Germany, Russia, and France, who had all laid claim to the territory. The lease added 390 square miles to the city of Hong Kong and was set to expire in 1997, a 99-year contract.

The World War I left Hong Kong relatively unscathed. The city became a tourist attraction with the construction of the tram, "a shortcut to fairyland." Chinese businessmen built a bank to open the city to them and eliminate the foreign dominance of Hong Kong. Political and religious customs varied greatly between the Chinese and European groups.

The Rumble of War

After World War II started, the threat of Japanese invasion required all women and children to evacuate to the Philippines and Australia. The day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, the Japanese bombed Hong Kong. Their takeover of the city decimated its population. Europeans were herded into prison camps, and Hong Kong residents starved in the deprivation.

When the war finally ended, the British continued with their lease of Hong Kong. With political doctrines that honored Hong Kong natives' initiative, a new era of unity between Europeans and Asians was prominent.

Four years later, Mao enshrouded China in the iron fist of Communism, and a mass exodus fleeing sought refuge at Hong Kong's borders. By day, thousands would tramp over the mountains to wait at the fences, and at night they'd overrun the fences and flee into Hong Kong. Despite their dire conditions in this city ill-equipped to house such numbers, the newcomers were thrilled to be among the few who'd escaped to freedom.

From Rags to Riches

Through the years, many of these same people rose above their poverty and built impressive industries, thrusting Hong Kong into the international spotlight. By 1997, Hong Kong had risen to greatness. As Britain honored the terms of the lease, Hong Kong was returned to China.

Since Hong Kong's farewell to the freedom afforded by Great Britain, a growing tension has developed between the Hong Kong citizens willing to maintain Hong Kong as a bastion of freedom and the Communist overseers in Beijing, eager to absorb the gleaming city into the Communist machine and eradicate any religious thought contrary to state-approved dogmas.

As Hong Kong citizens regularly commemorate the Tiananmen Square Massacre, they keep prominent what no one in the mainland is allowed to honor: the guts of people to stand for freedom. Hopes are high that light of the truth that makes them free will remain lit for generations of overcoming Hong Kong residents. With such a legacy of resilience and fortitude, it's a gripping story to watch unfold.