Hong Kong is a city of skyscrapers situated on the South China Sea. It was once a British colony but on June 30, 1997 it was returned to China under the principle ‘One country, two systems’. The premise is that socialism and capitalism can co-exist within a unified China.
The territory is more than Hong Kong Island and also includes Kowloon Peninsula, the New Territories and about 250 other islands. It has long been wedged between East and West, in particular between mainland China and Britain.
Britain took an interest in China as early as the 18th century when it was producing far more goods than it needed and was on the hunt for overseas markets. China, with its large population, seemed like a good choice. But it didn’t work as intended for the British goods were not in high demand in China whereas Chinese tea was wildly popular in Britain.
So the British decided to ship opium from its colony in India to China—over the objection of the Chinese government—and opium addiction swept through the country. The two countries fought a war over opium (1839-42), Britain won, and Hong Kong was occupied under the British flag.
Britain’s occupation of the island is just one of many stories about Hong Kong that can be found at the Museum of History. There are 8 galleries, over 3,700 exhibits, and it’s a very worthwhile way to spend some time for you leave with the impression that the people of Hong Kong are an admirable lot.
Before the British came along, the four main Chinese ethnic groups living on the island were the Punti, Hakka, Punti and Hoklo. Space was extremely limited and much of the land infertile.
The Punti (‘local people’) were the first to arrive and settled on the fertile plains where they worked in farming, farmland leasing and small businesses.
The agrarian Hakka (‘guest people’) migrated into Hong Kong much later than the Punti and could only settle in relatively remote and infertile hill areas.
The Boat Dwellers lived by fishing in the waters of the Pearl River Delta and the coastal waters of Guangdong and Guangxi provinces. They traditionally spent their entire lives on boats. When on shore, they had to be extremely careful not to get into trouble with the land inhabitants.
The Hoklo mostly settled in Hong Kong as fisher folk and also had to live on boats.
When civil war broke out in China in 1927, people from China flooded into the territory “at an unprecedented rate”. Most lacked skills and were forced to live in squatter huts.
The Japanese arrived in 1941 and occupied the island for 3 years and 8 months in what is described as a “time of untold misery for the people”. When the war ended, the British were back.
Four years later, when the communists took control of mainland China, the island dramatically changed again and the population almost doubled in size as Chinese refugees fled into the territory. Many of these people were businessmen and brought with them skills and capital. They “gave their all to make Hong Kong the international metropolis that it is today”, says the exhibit.
Indeed, Hong Kong progressed at an extraordinary pace after the war. Its principal asset was its deep-water harbor. Under the British it offered a stable government, the rule of law, low taxes and a duty-free port. Hong Kong soon became known as a world supplier of cheap goods. It’s tourism industry started to flourish during the Vietnam War when American servicemen went there on leave.
There are lots of touristy things to do in Hong Kong. You can learn about Chinese Tea and how to make a Wife Cake. You can take the outdoor escalator that passes through Soho and later go up to The Peak, the tallest point on the island. You can take the ferry across the harbor and shop til you drop along Nathan Road.
The turn-on for me, though, is its people and learning about them was the best way to spend a few hours.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2013