Exciting Hong Kong, modern and traditional, glamourous and seedy; Hong Kong is steeped in history yet has an impressive skyline giving the illusion that the past has been lost.
Beyond the luxury stores, around every corner is something unexpected and more down to earth, and probably an assault on your senses.
Unknown to many visitors though, mountains, forests, fishing villages, and beautiful beaches can be easily reached within an hour, making Hong Kong a great blend of the manic and the tranquil.
History of Hong Kong
The early clans and empire
The early inhabitants were maritime peoples. Along with the tribes in Guangdong, the area now called Hong Kong was incorporated into the Chinese empire under the Manchus of the Qin dynasty (BC 221 to 206).
The Han and the Han family dynasty took over the Qin (BC 206BC to AD 220), bringing the first of the 'Five Clans' of Hong Kong. A tomb from the time was found in the middle of Kowloon in 1955 and can be visited. The Tangs came first, then the Hau, the Pang, and later on the Liu, and finally the Man. The original Tanka inhabitants, got pushed off the land and had to live on boats or stilted houses above the tidal flats.
Part of the Chinese empire, the area was a remote, neglected pocket of empire and of no significance until the end of the Song dynasty (AD 960 to 1279) defeated in battle on the Pearl River.
In the struggle between the Ming (1368 - 1644) dynasty supported by those around Hong Kong, and the victorious Qing (1644 - 1911), the Qing forced those who supported the Ming to leave the area. The area didn't repopulate until the Hakka people arrived in the 18th and 19th century.
Arrival of the outsiders
Nearby Canton (Guangzhou) was a great trading port that traded with the Arabs, and with the Portuguese in 1557, who set up in Macau. The Dutch and French arrived soon after, with the British arriving in 1683 in the form of the East India Company, and set up warehouses in Canton in 1711.
Willing to sell their products, China refused to purchase manufactured goods from the European countries, creating a great trade imbalance. However, there was one thing the Chinese did want to buy and that was the opium that Britain could supply from India.
The Opium Wars
With addiction spreading and great quantities of silver flowing out of China, the Qing made the opium trade illegal in 1799 (it was already made illegal in 1729), in 1814, and again in 1831. Banning it didn't stop it and in 1839 serious penalties were put in place. A confrontation led to 20,000 chests being handed over to the Emperors' representative. This led to the First Opium War. The end of the war was concluded with the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 with the trade in opium remaining intact, and with with the sparsely populated, barren island of Hong Kong ceded to the British in perpetuity.
British Hong Kong
Hong Kong became a British possession on 26 June 1843. A rocky island of no obvious benefit, Victoria Harbour was strategically located in Asia, and had a deep water harbour that would be the basis of the success that was to follow. Before that though, along came the Second Opium War in October 1856. The opium trade in China was technically still illegal and China tried to stop the trade again, initiating the war by seizing a British ship, imprisoning the crew, and executing a French citizen.
The war appeared to end two years later with the Treaty of Tientsin but in 1859 a shooting match broke out again. The British and French saw this as an opportunity and occupied Peking. During peace negotiations it became clear that prisoners captured by the Chinese were tortured. To punish the emperor and not the civil populace, the Summer Palace was looted and burned down - a point that the Chinese Communist Party today sees as a great propaganda continually reminding people but not explaining why it was burned down.
The end of all of this resulted in the Convention of Peking, and among various terms, Kowloon at the point today called Boundary Street was ceded to Britain. Russia also got itself involved and sliced off a part of China for itself, and founding the port city of Vladivostok in 1860.
Feeling that Hong Kong could not be defended under the existing agreement, the Qing in 1898 were persuaded to hand over the New Territories which ran from Boundary Street beyond the mountains up to the Sham Shun River, beyond which is Shenzhen, along with many islands for a period of 99 years. No one realised it at the time, but this agreement also spelled the end for Hong Kong as a British colony.
World War 2
Japan entered World War 2 with its surprise attack on the US at Pearl Harbour, and launched simultaneous invasions of the European colonies in Asia and US holdings in the Central Pacific. On 8th December 1941, Japan launched its attack on Hong Kong. By the 25th December it was all over and Hong Kong entered a 3 year and 8 month brutal occupation.
With the Japanese surrender, the British were quick to regain control, to prevent Nationalist China taking back control. Immigration from Chinese fleeing civil war rebuilt the workforce and British control lasted another 52 years, seeing a huge boom in the economy and making Hong Kong a rich business hub.
Despite Hong Kong becoming an Asian Tiger economy and the improvements in public services, unrest occurred with protests and fighting between pro-Communist China and pro-Republic of China (Taiwan) groups. The deadly 1967 Hong Kong riots, promoted and supported by Communist China, did not start the uprising that the left wanted, though the damage, deaths and injuries led to a loss of confidence in the territory and the emigration of many wealthy Hong Kongers.
With the end of the lease of the New Territories in 1997, unpopulated land that was leased now held the majority of the population of Hong Kong and it wasn't feasible to return the New Territories but retain Hong Kong and Kowloon.
In the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, the United Kingdom would return the entirety of Hong Kong in 1997 and China would guarantee the freedoms in Hong Kong that mainland Chinese are denied, and the economic system for 50 years though this didn't stop half a million people leaving. The protests and massacre of students around Tiananmen square in 1989 was also another trigger for a wave of emigration.
The Return to China
Hong Kong transitioned successfully and for many life has continued as before. Open political debate centred around democratic reforms and the One Country, Two Systems has worked remarkably well with very little interference from China.
However, the erosion of freedoms came to international attention when five Hong Kong book sellers, selling books critical of the Communist party leadership and other books banned in mainland China went missing. Those living in mainland China were taken. Those living outside of mainland China, including in Hong Kong where the mainland authorities were supposed to have no power, also went missing but then turned up in China - without the travel the documents to have allowed travel. Another book seller was in Thailand and also turned up in China without the travel documents.
This and potential other issues have simmered away but it wasn't until 2019 when the Hong Kong government proposed legislation allowing the extradition of 'fugitives', potentially allowing China to have extradited anyone it wants from Hong Kong. Mass protests, the majority of them peaceful and involving up to 3 million people brought Hong Kong to a standstill.
When the protests subsided, Hong Kong brought in an ambiguous National Security law that has been devastating for human rights. Whilst it can be argued that it has restored order to Hong Kong again, it has been done on the basis of fear, and has made Hong Kong a less free place. Charges under this law remove many legal rights and visibility that normally a defendant would have.
One Country, Two Systems was supposed to end in 2047, with no view yet on what it will like after, but for many, China has already broken the agreement laid out in the Sino-British Joint Declaration. In fact since 2014 the People's Republic of China has gone on record as saying that it considers the treaty to be a historic document with no legal effect. The UK, US, and G7 disputes this - the treaty is held by the United Nations and sets out how the territory shall be governed until 2047.