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History of Hong Kong

This article details the history of Hong Kong.


Early history

According to archaeological studies, human activity on Hong Kong dates back over five millennia. Excavated Neolithic artifacts suggest a difference from northern Chinese Stone-Age cultures, including the Longshan . Bronze fishing and combat tools were excavated on Lantau Island and Lamma Island. Eight stone carvings (on Tung Lung Island, Kau Sai Chau, Po Toi Island, Wong Chuk Hang (黃竹坑), Cheung Chau and Shek Pik on Lantau Island, Big Wave Bay on Hong Kong Island and Lung Ha Wan in Sai Kung) have been found so far; all are believed to date back to the Bronze Age during the Shang Dynasty on weather-related worship. Excavations in the 1930s have been dated between the 6th century BC and the 3rd century BC and suggested to be culturally related to those in neighboring modern day Guangdong during the Warring States Period.

Imperial China

The territory has been settled by Han Chinese since the Han Dynasty. The ancient tomb at Lei Cheng Uk has been commonly linked to the Eastern Han Dynasty. Hong Kong's history during Three Kingdoms, Southern and Northern Dynasties is less known owing to the lack of records and archaeological findings. A statue at the Castle Peak Monastery (青山禪院 Mandarin: qing1 shan1 chan2 yuan4; Cantonese: tsing1 san1 sim4 yuen2) is said to illustrate a Buddhist itinerant monk of the Southern Dynasties.

Guangzhou flourished as an international trading center during the Tang Dynasty. The so-called "Tuen Mun area" (which can be thought of as the area from Lantau Island to Dongguan in Shenzhen) served as an outer port, naval base, salt production and anchorage area. Pearl has been exploited since the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms. Still, no significant residence occurred until major migrations from mainland China to Hong Kong during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Salt production was stepped up under state apparatuses. This is evidenced by excavations of coins, fishery and farming utensils. All this was reduced by Mongolian conquest to a mere anchorage for the exiled Song government which controlled the area of present day Kowloon City.

In 1276, the Southern Song Dynasty court left for Fujian, then to Guangdong by boat, fleeing Mongol invaders after the surrender of Emperor Gong of Song China in Hangzhou. Any hope of resistance rested in two young princes, who were Emperor Gong's brothers. The older boy, Zhao Shi was declared emperor at age nine, and in 1277, the imperial court sought refuge first in Silvermine Bay (Mui Wo) on Lantau Island and later in today's Kowloon City (see Sung Wong Toi). The older brother became ill and died, and was succeeded by the younger, Zhao Bing, aged seven. When in 1279 the Song army was defeated in its last battle, the Battle of Yamen, against the Mongols in the Pearl River Delta, a high official is said to have taken the boy emperor in his arms and jumped from a clifftop into the sea, drowning both of them. These emperors are also believed to have held court in the Tung Chung valley, which takes its name from a local hero who gave up his life for the emperor. Hau Wong , an official from this court, is still revered as a god in Hong Kong.

The Mongolian conquest of the Song Dynasty pushed even more Han Chinese refugees into the area including the descendants of the Chinese patriotic leader Wen Tianxiang. The five families of Hou, Deng, Peng and Liao and Wen were among the earliest recorded familial settlers of Hong Kong. Despite the immigration and light development of agriculture, the area was still relatively barren and had to rely on salt, pearl and fishery trades.

First contacts with the West and Hong Kong during the Ming and Qing dynasties

Hong Kong also features in the first contact of organized western merchants with China. When the Portuguese merchant Fernao Pires de Andrade met Chinese officials through an interpreter at Pearl River estuary in 1517 to negotiate trade with Canton (Guangzhou), the sailors landed at a so-called "Tuen Mun Island" and killed some local villagers. This "Tuen Mun island" and village has been interpreted as proof of the maritime trading decline of the aforementioned "Tuen Mun area". Kowloon first appeared in a military text of the Jiajing era. A map of Hong Kong of the Wanli era recorded names of places including Hong Kong Island, Wong Nai Chong , Stanley and Tsim Sha Tsui.

During the Qing Dynasty, Hong Kong was governed under Xin'an County (新安縣 pinyin xin1 an1 xian4). Forts, garrisons and outpost s, including the Tung Lung Fort on the Tung Lung Island, were built during the Kangxi era after the defeat of the Koxinga Administration in Taiwan.

The British East India Company made the first successful British sea venture to China in 1699, and Hong Kong's trade with British merchants developed rapidly soon after. In 1711, the Company established a trading post in Canton (Guangzhou).

British colony

After a series of defeats during the First Opium War (1839-1842) by Capt. Charles Eliot of the Royal Navy and Capt. Anthony Blaxland Stransham of the Royal Marines, Hong Kong Island was occupied by the British on January 20, 1841. The ostensible authority for the occupation was negotiated between Captain Eliot and the Governor of Kwangtung Province. The Convention of Chuenpeh was concluded but had not been recognized by the court of Qing Dynasty at Beijing.

1888 German map of Hong Kong, Macau, and Canton (now Guangzhou)
1888 German map of Hong Kong, Macau, and Canton (now Guangzhou)

Subsequently, Hong Kong was ceded to Britain in 1842 under the Treaty of Nanking, at which point in time the territory became a Crown Colony.

The Opium War was ostensibly fought to liberalize trade to China. With a base in Hong Kong, British traders, opium dealers, and merchants launched the city which would become the 'free trade' nexus of the East. American opium traders and merchant bankers soon joined in the trade (See Russell family ; Perkins family ; Forbes family).

Britain was granted a perpetual lease on the Kowloon Peninsula under the 1860 Convention of Beijing, which formally ended hostilities in the Second Opium War (1856-1858).

During the 1890s, an epidemic of bubonic plague broke out in southern China. In the spring of 1894, about 100,000 dead were reported from Guangzhou. In May 1894, the disease erupted in Hong Kong's overcrowded Chinese quarter of Tai Ping Shan. At its height, the epidemic was killing 100 people per day in Hong Kong, and it killed a total of 2,552 people that year. The disease was greatly detrimental to trade and produced a temporary exodus of 100,000 Chinese from the colony. Plague continued to be a problem in the territory for the next 30 years. 1,290 people died of the disease between 1898 and 1900.

In 1898, the United Kingdom, concerned that Hong Kong could not be defended unless surrounding areas were also under British control, executed a 99-year lease of the New Territories, significantly expanding the size of the Hong Kong colony. The lease would expire at midnight, on June 30, 1997.

In the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, Hong Kong developed into a warehousing and distribution center for U.K. trade with southern China.


World War II

Main article: Battle of Hong Kong

The development of Hong Kong was disturbed by the Japanese rule during World War II.

The British, Canadians, Indians and the Hong Kong Volunteer Defense Forces resisited the Japanese invasion commanded by Sakai Takashi since December 8, 1941, the day after the Attack on Pearl Harbor. The defensive positions were doomed from the start; the Japanese achieved air superiority on the first day of battle and the defensive forces were outnumbered. The British and the Indians retreated from the Gin Drinker's Line and consequently from Kowloon under heavy aerial bombardment and artillery barrage. Fierce fighting continued on the Hong Kong Island; the only reservoir was lost. Canadian Winnipeg Grenadiers fought at the crucial Wong Nai Chong Gap that secured the passage between downtown and the secluded southern parts of the island.

On December 25, 1941, British colonial officials headed by the Governor of Hong Kong Mark Aitchison Young surrendered in person at the Japanese headquarters on the third floor of (the hotel) The Peninsula Hong Kong. Isogai Rensuke became the first Japanese governor of Hong Kong. This ushered in the three years and eight sorrowful months of Imperial Japanese administration.

Post-War period

After the end of World War II and the communist takeover of Mainland China in 1949, hundreds of thousands of people emigrated from China to Hong Kong. Some of the new immigrants brought with them skills and capital, while others became a vast pool of cheap labour. At the same time, many foreign firms moved their offices from Shanghai to Hong Kong. This helped Hong Kong achieve its first economic success and become a major manufacturing centre.

However, despite the economic success, many bosses did not treat their employees well. The ideal of communism impressed many young Hongkongers in the 1960s. In 1967, a labour movement under the influence of the Cultural Revolution in China became violent. A famous radio host, Lam Bum , who openly criticized the movement, was murdered. After the Hong Kong government brought down the labour movement, the communists' web in Hong Kong was completely broken and the Hongkongers' view of the communists became negative.

In 1974, Murray McLehose founded ICAC, the Independent Commission Against Corruption. The situation was so bad that there was a mass petition by policemen against prosecutions. Hong Kong was quite successful in its anti-corruption efforts, eventually becoming one of the least corrupt societies in the world.

The opening of the mainland Chinese market and rising salaries drove many manufacturers north. Hong Kong transformed into a commercial and tourism centre. High life expectancy, literacy, per capita income and other socioeconomic measures attest to Hong Kong's achievements over the last four decades of the 20th Century.

Transition to Chinese rule

In 1982, fifteen years before the lease on the New Territories would expire, the governments of the UK and the PRC began talks on the future of Hong Kong. The British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, hoped that the increasing openness of the PRC government and the economic reforms on the mainland would lead the Chinese to agree to a continued British presence. On the contrary, not only did the PRC want to see the New Territories returned to Chinese control but it refused to recognise the "unfair and unequal" Treaties under which Hong Kong Island and Kowloon had been ceded to Britain in perpetuity. China did not recognise British sovereignty in Hong Kong, only its administration.

In fact, a decade earlier on November 8, 1972, the 27th United Nations General Assembly had adopted a resolution affirming China's stand and demands on the issue of Hong Kong. In a letter to the chairman of the UN Committee on Decolonization in March 1972, Huang Hua, the Chinese permanent representative to the United Nations wrote that 'Hong Kong and Macau are parts of the Chinese territory occupied by the British and Portuguese authorities. To solve Hong Kong and Macau issues is completely within the sphere of China's sovereign rights. It does not at all fall into the general category of the so-called "colony"'. He added that 'China will use peaceful means to resolve the Hong Kong and Macau issues when the conditions become ripe. The status quo will be kept until the settlement.'

Regardless of the competing claims for sovereignty, the PRC's 'paramount leader' Deng Xiaoping recognised that Hong Kong, with its free market economy, could not be assimilated into the mainland overnight and that any attempt to do so would not be in the interests of either. He advocated a far more pragmatic approach known as the One Country, Two Systems policy in which Hong Kong (as well as Macau and Taiwan) would be able to retain their economic systems within the PRC.

On December 19, 1984, the Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong (The Joint Declaration) was signed between the PRC and UK Governments. Under this agreement, Hong Kong would cease to be a British Crown Colony from July 1 1997 and would henceforth be a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the PRC. Hongkongers opposing the handover led to the first wave of emigration. The Governor, Sir Edward Youde, died in 1987, and was replaced by Sir David Wilson.

On June 4, 1989, one million Hongkongers marched in support of the Beijing students in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. After the suppression of the protests, Hongkongers was polarised into two groups, the pro-Beijing who supported the suppression and the pro-democratic who opposed it. The unpleasant feelings led to the second and largest wave of emigration. Australia, Canada, Singapore, and the United States emerged as the favourite emigration destinations. Richmond, British Columbia gained the nickname "New Chinatown".

On April 4, 1990, the Hong Kong Basic Law was officially accepted as the mini-constitution of the Hong Kong SAR after the handover. The pro-Beijing bloc welcomed the Basic Law, calling it the most democratic legal system to ever exist in the PRC. The pro-democratic bloc criticized it as not democratic enough.

In July 1992, Chris Patten was appointed as the last British Governor of Hong Kong. Patten had been Chairman of the Conservative Party in the UK until he lost his parliamentary seat in the general election earlier that year. He was the only professional politician to hold the post of Governor of Hong Kong, his predecessors having been from the diplomatic service. By contrast, Patten had little knowledge or experience of Hong Kong or China, and spoke neither Mandarin Chinese nor the local Cantonese dialect.

Relations with the PRC government in Beijing became increasingly strained, as Patten introduced democratic reforms that increased the number of elected members in the Legislative Council. This caused considerable annoyance to the PRC, which saw this as a breach of the Basic Law. See Politics of Hong Kong.

On July 1, 1997 Hong Kong was handed over to the People's Republic of China by the United Kingdom. The old Legislative Council of Hong Kong, elected under Chris Patten's measure, was replaced by the Beijing-appointed temporary Legislative Council. Tung Chee Hwa became the Chief Executive of Hong Kong.

Some of the changes were purely symbolic:

  • All public offices now flew the flags of the PRC and the Hong Kong SAR. The Union Jack now flies only outside the British Consulate.
  • Many schools would now teach in Putonghua, or Mandarin Chinese, in parallel to English. English is still an official language (see Hong Kong Basic Law) and is still being taught in all schools.
  • Queen Elizabeth II's portrait disappeared from banknotes, postage stamps and public offices. As of 2003, many pre-1997 coins are still in circulation.
  • The 'Royal' title was dropped from almost all organisations that had been granted it, with the exception of the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club.
  • Legal references to the 'Crown' were replaced by references to the 'State', and barristers who had been appointed Queen's Counsel would now be known as Senior Counsel.
  • Public holidays changed, with the Queen's Official Birthday and other British-inspired occasions being replaced by Chinese National Day and Hong Kong SAR Establishment Day.

In other respects, many things remained unchanged:

  • The new SAR remained a separate jurisdiction, continuing to use English common law.
  • The border with the mainland continued to be patrolled as before, with Hong Kong, unlike the mainland, continuing to drive on the left.
  • It remained a separate customs territory, with freer trade with the rest of the world than with the mainland.
  • It retained its own immigration controls, with mainland citizens required to apply for visas in order to visit the SAR. Similarly, Hong Kong SAR passport holders had easier access to countries in Europe and North America, which mainland citizens did not.
  • It continued to have more political freedoms than the mainland, including freedom of the press (although this became vulnerable to self-censorship) and freedom of expression (although the SAR government came under pressure to clamp down on the Falun Gong movement).

Hong Kong since 1997

In 1998, another election was held. The real estate market, a key component of the Hong Kong economy, went into free-fall as a consequence of the Asian financial crisis.

In 2003, concerns about the proposed anti-subversion arising from Hong Kong Basic Law Article 23 and the unpopularity of Tung Chee Hwa and his officials, plus dissatisfaction about the poor state of the economy, prompted half million people to march on July 1, making it the largest protest aimed at the Hong Kong government ever in the history of Hong Kong.

For more details about the political situation, see Politics of Hong Kong.

See also

External links and references

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45