Hong Kong is one of the most unique cities in the world, and one of the most densely populated! Once part of China, but then occupied by the British for many years, it is now a fusion of East and West, of tradition and modernity. So, what’s the whole story?
When most people think of Hong Kong today, they think of giant skyscrapers, packed in tightly next to each other. That dramatic skyline overlooking the harbour. But of course, the city didn’t start that way! The earliest inhabitants of the region were simple boat dwellers and fishermen. We assume the area became part of Imperial China during the Han dynasty, 2000 years ago.
The region saw a population boom in the 12th century, when the Mongols invaded China, so refugees fled to the south. Five major ‘clans’ settled in Hong Kong, driving out the early inhabitants, making them boat dwellers again. Rude? Anyway, the location of Hong Kong, on the southern coast, made it a valuable location as a military outpost and a trading port. Goods began to be imported and exported all over the world, bringing profits to Imperial China.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing though – piracy was rife, with many hiding out on the 260 islands that now make up Hong Kong. Dynasties rose and fell over the centuries. The Triads formed, secret societies that still exist today, as Hong Kong’s version of the Mafia. Then, in the 19th century, the British arrived.
The Opium Wars
Once the British arrived in Asia, they traded with China for many years, buying tea and silk. Meanwhile, China wasn’t showing much interest in foreign goods, except for one; opium. The British were growing it in abundance in India, which they had already colonised, and the Chinese bought stacks of it. That is, until a Qing dynasty emperor banned the trade of the drug in 1799 – I mean, can you blame him? Yet illegal trade continued for another four decades, until the Chinese cut off the British from food supplies in Guangzhou and seized their supply of opium.
So Britain decided the obvious response was war. The First Opium War began in 1840, as Britain invaded China from the south, and continued north towards Beijing. From 1841, they occupied Hong Kong Island, so to make peace, China agreed to cede the island to them in 1842, with the signing of the Treaty of Nanking. Hong Kong was officially a Crown Colony of the British Empire. War was over!
But not for long. Hong Kong Island is isolated, so Britain wanted a ‘cushion’ of land on the mainland. So, the Second Opium War broke out in 1856, and ended in 1860 with the cession of Kowloon. This allowed Britain to control the entirety of Victoria Harbour. The population of Hong Kong then rose dramatically in the following years, so Britain petitioned China for more land, to protect their colony. China agreed to lease the New Territories, and over 200 islands, for 99 years, starting from 1st July 1898.
A Century of British Occupation
Ok, we all know that colonialism is bad, right? The British Empire, and other European invaders, caused so many problems all over the world, including slavery and the persecution and displacement of indigenous peoples. It sucked.
Yet somehow, Hong Kong boomed, transforming from sleepy fishing villages, to the international centre of trade and commerce we see today. The population increased in the early 20th century, as people fled from the invading Japanese in mainland China. However, the Japanese then occupied Hong Kong during World War Two, so many fled to China instead! Eventually, the British government took back control in 1946, and the city began to flourish again. Former inhabitants returned from China – so much swapping! – and were joined by more seeking to escape the rise of communism in the mainland. This population surge, in a small area of land, led to the construction of the dense skyscraper city we see today!
There were plenty of snags along the way though – colonialism is bad! – with much political and social unrest, due to poorly paid workers, and British governors, who were not chosen by the public, controlling everything! This culminated in riots in 1967, which then lead to reforms, though not full democratisation yet. Then, China opened its economy in the 1970s, opening up new trade for Hong Kong. The city continued to manufacture goods and trade all over the world, then became a financial hub, home to many major banks. By the 1980s, it was one of the top ten economies in the world, attracting the huge, multinational community of residents, who live there today.
The Handover of Hong Kong
However, with the 1980s also came the realisation that the New Territories lease would run out soon. When the British Empire collapsed, most countries fought for independence. Britain technically owned Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, so they could have remained a British colony, or perhaps sought independence. That wasn’t an option for the New Territories and Outlying Islands though, which China would take back.
The problem though, was that half the population lived in the New Territories, so they didn’t want to break up the region. And since Hong Kong was becoming more democratic, while China was communist, many Hong Kong citizens didn’t want to rejoin the mainland. Realising how complicated the issue was, Britain and China began negotiations in 1982.
In 1984, they signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration. They decided that the entirety of Hong Kong would be handed back to China, but under the “one country, two systems” formula. It would exist as a Special Administrative Region (S.A.R.), able to retain its autonomy, its capitalist economy and democratic politics – for fifty years. Ultimately, they would have to defer to China.
On 1st July 1997, the official handover took place, in Bauhinia Square, purpose built for the occasion. The last British governor, Chris Patten, and Prince Charles attended the ceremony, with the Chinese Premier Jiang Zemin, and the new Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Tung Chee Hwa, chosen by the Beijing government.
Being an S.A.R. and the Future
Many aspects of daily life in Hong Kong stayed the same after the handover. They still speak Cantonese and use their own currency. They continue to have freedom of the press. Immigration is different to mainland China – most people don’t need a visa to visit Hong Kong, while they do for the mainland. Equally, Hong Kong passports are more powerful than Chinese ones. Cars still drive on the left, plug sockets are still British. Mostly, China has kept its promise of allowing autonomy.
However, there are ever-growing fears about Beijing’s interference. Before the handover, Chris Patten had tried to bring more democratic reform into Hong Kong. China, unsurprisingly, wasn’t happy about this, and threatened to overturn the reforms, so they were scaled back. Today, the city still doesn’t have universal suffrage – an Election Committee chooses the Chief Executive – and China controls their election laws, preventing further democratisation.
Over the years, pro-democracy citizens have held protests against interference from Beijing, becoming more and more frequent over time. The handover agreement included promises of universal suffrage in the future, which has yet to materialise. In 2016, pro-independence legislators were removed from office by Beijing. Some citizens accept China’s ultimate rule of course, but others are resisting. And the clock is ticking towards 2047, when the fifty years of autonomy runs out. What will happen then? Will China allow Hong Kong to remain as it is… or will it reclaim the city entirely? Only time will tell.
Hong Kong & Kowloon
There is an incredible number of things to see and do in Hong Kong, depending on your interests! Due to being a British colony for so long, there is a fascinating fusion of East and West, and a hugely international population lives there. And as well as its fascinating political history, the city is also full of traditional Chinese culture, breathtaking natural scenery, and endless entertainment options.
On Hong Kong Island, marvel at the skyscrapers of Central and Wan Chai. Travel through them on a tram ride or the Mid-Levels Escalators, and explore streets of shopping, dining, and nightlife options in abundance. Visit the ancient Man Mo Temple, or watch the famous horse racing in Happy Valley every Wednesday. Taking the tram (or hiking) up Victoria Peak is the most popular thing to do, for amazing views over Victoria Harbour, or go for a stroll through Hong Kong Park. Head to the south side of the island to explore Stanley village, relax on the beach in Repulse or Big Wave Bay, hike the Dragon’s Back trail, or spend a day at the famous Ocean Park.
Cross Victoria Harbour on the iconic Star Ferry, and wander Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade for the best views of the Central skyline, and to see the Avenue of Stars. Check out the city’s history, science, and art museums, or have British style afternoon tea in the famous Peninsula Hotel. There’s plenty more food and shopping to find here as well, in these narrow, jam packed streets – Mongkok is actually the most densely populated area of the planet! Haggle for bargains in Ladies Market or Temple Street, or escape the crowds by heading to Kowloon Park. Discover beautiful temples with a visit to Wong Tai Sin Temple and the neighbouring Nan Lian Gardens.
New Territories & Outlying Islands
The New Territories is one of the lesser explored areas by visitors to Hong Kong, but actually is the largest section of the city! Well, it’s not much of a city actually, as most of it is green country parks, an incredible contrast to the skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island. Swap the fast paced chaos, for quiet and serenity! It’s the perfect place to go hiking or to the beach, with loads of places to choose from. The Ten Thousand Buddhas monastery is worth exploring for tradition and culture; the Lion Peak hike offers incredible views of the city or Monkey Mountain gets you up close with wildlife; and Sai Kung has some of the best beaches in the whole of Hong Kong!
Over on Lantau Island, the Big Buddha is one of the most popular sights to explore, taking in stunning views from the Ngong Ping cable car on your way up! You could combine this with a trip to Tai O fishing village, with its stilt houses. Lantau is also home to Hong Kong Disneyland, plus there’s many beaches and hiking routes to explore.
Lamma and Cheung Chau islands also make for great day trips, with small villages, scenic hikes, and remote beaches to discover. Both can be reached by ferry, from the Central Piers. Other islands are much more remote and don’t have regular services, but another fun activity is to hire a junk boat and go sailing for a day!
Cantonese Chinese is the first language. Children also learn English and Mandarin Chinese in schools.
The official currency is Hong Kong Dollars. Most international debit and credit cards can be used as well.
Hong Kong Airport is an international airport, with regular flights going all over the world. It is located on Lantau Island, and the Airport Express MTR line is a quick route to the city centre. From Mainland China, there is also a train line, and from Macau, the ferry or newly opened bridge!
To get around the city, the MTR is the most convenient option for most central areas. There is an extensive bus network, including double deckers and smaller minibuses as well. Note that the green minibuses have set routes and schedules, while red minibuses do not – it’s mostly locals that use them, as they know the routes! The tram lines also run on Hong Kong Island, and ferries serve the major Outlying Islands. Taxis are available in abundance as well!
There is a combination of Western/Christian holidays and traditional Chinese holidays – many British holidays, like the Queen’s Birthday, were replaced by Chinese ones, like National Day, after the handover. Some land on set dates every year, others are determined by the lunar calendar.
1st January – New Year’s Day
Late Jan or early Feb (3 days) – Lunar New Year
Early April – Ching Ming Festival
Mid April, Fri-Mon – Easter Weekend
1st May – Labour Day
Early May – Buddha’s Birthday
Early June – Dragon Boat / Tuen Ng Festival
1st July – S.A.R. Day
Late Sep / early Oct – Mid Autumn Festival
1st October – National Day
Early Oct – Chung Yeung Festival
25-26th December – Christmas
Have you visited Hong Kong before? Leave a comment about your experiences!