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History of Hong Kong (Part I)

Flag of British Hong Kong
(in use from 1959 to 1997)

Hong Kong is a unique place. It was Britain’s first and only direct colonial possession in China; and it was the last big British colony, the last remnant of the Empire that ruled a quarter of mankind. Under British administration, Hong Kong rose to become one of the richest, most exciting, and densely populated cities in the world. 


Yet it has always been a thoroughly Chinese city, in which East and West met, but didn’t merge into one single people, one single civilization.


When Commodore Sir Gordon Bremer of the Royal Navy took possession of Hong Kong in the morning of 26 Januray 1841, in a place that is now known as Possession Point, the island of Hong Kong had nothing in common with the vibrant metropolis that we see today.
Dismissed by Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston (1784 – 1865) as ‘a barren island with hardly a house upon it’, Hong Kong was nothing more than a remote outpost of the Chinese Empire, a small island, home to less than 8,000 fishermen and farmers. Today, it has over 7 million inhabitants, and a GDP of $351.119 billion.

Only this street name reminds
of the location where the British
arrived in 1841

To be honest, I didn’t come to Hong Kong because of its history. In fact, I knew very little about it. I’d been here twice before, and my first impression was that of a multicultural world city. Hong Kong’s ‘Britishness’, if it ever existed, seemed to me to have faded, except for a few last reminders that on this island once fluttered the Union Jack: street names, driving regulations, the preference for British spelling and accent.


After two weeks, the colonial past of Hong Kong became more visible. Buildings, old coins with the portrait of Queen Elizabeth, rituals, but, above all, a sense that Hong Kong as it is today is a product of one and a half centuries of British rule. On the other hand, it is astonishing how fully Chinese the population of Hong Kong is, despite having been administered by Britain for so long. 

As a matter of fact, the British and the Chinese did not mix. For most of its colonial rule, racial separation prevailed; at a time when racial prejudices were common in Britain, most expatriates did not seek to mingle with the ‘natives’ in their narrow, crowded streets, among hygienic conditions that Westerners considered intolerable, with a people they saw as inferior; they did not bother to learn their language and customs. Rather, they isolated themselves in their exclusive European residential areas, established their own exclusive clubs and associations, and never sought to become Chinese. The Chinese, for their part, lived mostly among themselves, following their own traditions and rules. In between, there was a class of educated Chinese and of Eurasians that lived somehow between those two worlds. But today, in a globalized world, what was then exceptional has become normal. You don’t need British rule any more to speak English and being familiar with British culture. 

The clock tower is the last relic of the former Kowloon-
Canton railway station. The station went into
operation in 1911, and it was demolished in 1977

1930s Hong Kong

Ironically, the nature of British rule suited the mindset of the Chinese. Given its lack of resources and personnel, the colonial administration left their Chinese subjects alone, as long as they did not disrupt the order and didn’t violate the laws of the British colony. The natives minded their own business, prospered financially, and the sentence that is as true today as it was back then, i.e. that the Chinese are not interested in politics, but in earning money, having a family and living a good life, explains why they didn’t rebel against foreign rule, but accepted it as a safe framework that allowed them to make a living without the danger of war or disturbances. 


The British gave Hong Kong their imprimatur: the rule of law, a liberal economic system, freedom of speech. They gave Hong Kong’s political system a touch of democracy, though basically maintaining a pure colonial administration, with a Governor and senior civil servants appointed by London, who had to govern a city where 95% of the population were Chinese, many of whom couldn’t even speak the language of those who ruled them. When Chris Patten, the last Governor, came to Hong Kong in 1992, his wife tried to learn some smattering of Cantonese in an effort to come closer to the people; and Patten himself, who loved to tour around the city and meet his subjects, needed an interpreter to communicate with them. 

Modern skyscrapers in the centre of
Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s population grew from 301,000 in 1901 to 850,000 in 1931. When the Japanese occupied it in 1941, the population had increased to around 1,639,000. Most inhabitants were thus first generation immigrants, who had fled mainland China to seek refuge in the peace and stability of the British colony, escaping the poverty and the wars that marred their motherland. In 1937 the Japanese invaded China, which was liberated only in 1945. And then, the civil war between the Communists and the Nationalists broke out. As a consequence of the instability on the mainland, millions of Chinese crossed the border to look for a more stable life in Hong Kong. 
In 1941, only 38.5 per cent of the Chinese population had lived there for more than 10 years and only 6.4 per cent for over 30 years (Tsang 2011, p. 109-110). In 1955, the influx of migrants would make the population swell to 2.5 million. 


Hong Kong was a city of migrants, ruled by a class of foreigners. Both categories didn’t come to Hong Kong to settle down forever. Most Chinese wanted to go back to their ancestral home. And most foreigner would sooner or later leave. Hong Kong is a city with a fluid, a vague identity. A place that always changes, in which history is overshadowed by the present. “Many people in Hong Kong,” said professor Wang Gungwu in the early 1990s, “would have little time to contemplate the past. They think Hong Kong is more a place for trade or for refuge or for good feng-shui; a place to make money rather than one in which to make history” (Wang Gungwu: Preface to Lectures on Hong Kong History by K.C. Fok, p. i).
Peninsula Hotel (1928)


In fact, if you walk around the city you may wonder where the history is. History has often enough been buried under skyscrapers; buildings have been torn down to give space for the new. In a city that lives in and for the present, the past had little or no importance. But it is perhaps this vagueness, the changing and undefined identity of this enigmatic city that makes up its fascination.
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