The History of Hong Kong

Apple | Spotify | Amazon | iHeart Radio | Player.FM | TuneIn
Castbox | Podurama | Podcast Republic | RSS | Patreon

Podcast Transcript

Located on a peninsula and series of islands off the southeastern coast of China lies what is today called the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong. 

Hong Kong didn’t play a central role in the thousands of years of Chinese history. However, it has played a pivotal role in the region for the last 200 years. 

It went from being a backwater to becoming one of the most important financial and business hubs in the world. 

Learn more about Hong Kong, its past and its present on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The story of Hong Kong is the story of politics and geography. Throughout the grand sweep of Chinese history, the area we know today as Hong Kong barely merits a mention. 

It wasn’t the seat of power for any emperors. It wasn’t a major trading port that connected China to the outside world. It wasn’t a center of industry or agriculture. 

Nonetheless, the story of how Hong Kong became one of the most important commercial centers in the world does start in the distant past. 

Hong Kong roughly consists of two parts: a peninsula that juts into the South China Sea and over 200 islands just off the coast of the peninsula. The entire area is mountainous, and the coastline of the peninsula and the island have a highly irregular shape, almost looking like a fractal. 

More importantly, it is located at the mouth of the Pearl River. 

Humans have inhabited Hong Kong since the Paleolithic era. The earliest evidence of human settlement dates back somewhere between 35,000 to 39,000 years ago. 

Hong Kong probably had some continuous human settlement for most of its history. However, it was little more than a collection of small fishing villages.  

The earliest settlers in the region were most probably Austronesians, who were the ancestors of the native people of Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and the islands of the Pacific. 

By the Bronze Age, the area had become widely populated, with many villages occupying the region. 

The area wasn’t part of China until the year 214 BC when it was incorporated into the Qin Dynasty. This means that it was relatively late to become part of China compared to the rest of the country. This was simply due to its location to the south and on the coast, which was far from the center of imperial power. 

After the collapse of the Qin Dynasty, the area fell under the control of the Nam Viet, which was an early forerunner to what would become Vietnam. 

It was later reconquered by the Han Dynasty and remained under the control of the various Chinese dynasties for the next several centuries. 

Perhaps the most significant period was during the Southern Song Dynasty in the 13th century. As the Mongols moved south, the Southern Song set up the royal court in what is now known as Kowloon. Eventually, it came under the control of the Mongols in the Yuan dynasty, when seven well-connected families owned most of the land.

During the Ming Dynasty, people were still migrating to the area, but it was never a major population center. There were trading ports that were established, but it was never considered to be a major center for trade.

The first Europeans to arrive were the Portuguese in 1513. They established a small trading settlement there known as Tamão. They were expelled in 1520 but later managed to reestablish trade with China and received a long-term lease to nearby Macau.

However, beginning in 1661, the Qing Dynasty issued a series of decrees known as the Great Clearance. This depopulated the coastal areas in Southeastern China in an effort to fight Ming loyalist groups operating in the region.

However, the decisions were reversed in 1684, which resulted in an influx of immigrants into the region, as well as a reopening of China to international trade. However, in 1757, the Qing eventually restricted all foreign trade to the single port of Canton, now known as the city of Guangzhou.

Fast forward to the mid-19th century. Britain desperately wanted to restore the balance of trade with China. The British were importing much more than they were exporting. 

As I mentioned in a previous episode, they exported opium to China and managed to create a generation of opium addicts. 

The resulting conflict, known as the Opium Wars, resulted in a British victory in 1842 and their imposing lopsided peace terms on the Chinese government in the Treaty of Nanking.

One of the terms of the treaty was that the Chinese government would cede the island of Hong Kong to the British to use as a trading port. 

The British wisely chose the location for their trading settlement. For starters, it was located at the mouth of the important Pearl River, which was the location of other important trading ports such as Macau and Canton. 

More importantly, Hong Kong had a great harbor. It was an extremely deep natural harbor that provided excellent protection from ships. 

The British expanded their territory in October 1860 in the Convention of Peking, acquiring Kowloon, the part of the peninsula directly on the other side of the harbor, now dubbed Victoria Harbor, after Queen Victoria.  

The Convention of Peking is considered to be one of the unequal treaties that China was forced to sign with Western powers in the 19th century. 

In 1898, the British dramatically increased the territory under their control under the Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory. This land was ceded to the British under a 99-year lease, and it was called the New Territories. 

I should note that the original Treaty of Nanking, signed in 1842, ceded the island of Hong Kong to the British in perpetuity…more on that in a bit. 

Hong Kong grew rapidly as a British Crown Colony. The British established Western institutions such as churches, hospitals, and schools, which drew people from nearby areas who were looking for more opportunities. 

In the early 20th century, the freedom offered in Hong Kong made it the center of the movement to overthrow the Qing Dynasty and establish a Chinese Republic. Here, I’ll refer you to my episode on Sun Yat-Sen. 

The biggest event in the history of Hong Kong up until that point was the invasion of the Japanese in December 1941. At the time of the invasion, Hong Kong had a population of 1.6 million people, many of whom fled there after the Japanese invasion.

The invasion began on December 8, 1941, just hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor. 

With the British occupied in Europe and with simultaneous attacks on Singapore and Hawaii, neither the British nor the Americans were able to do anything to help Hong Kong. 

On Christmas Day, 1941, Hong Kong officials surrendered in person to the Japanese. 

For the next three years and eight months, Hong Kong was under Japanese military rule. They replaced the Hong Kong dollar with the Military Yen, a currency that resulted in hyperinflation.

The Japanese cut food rations to feed soldiers, which resulted in starvation and famine.

Over 10,000 people were executed during the war, with thousands more tortured, 

Japanese occupation ended on August 30, 1945. By the end of the occupation, the population of Hong Kong had dropped by one million people to just 600,000. 

However, the drop in population proved to be short-lived. With the communist revolution in Mainland China in 1949, the territory saw a flood of refugees from China. 

The post-war period also saw Hong Kong experience an unprecedented economic boom, transforming from a colonial port city to a manufacturing powerhouse. This period was characterized by rapid industrial growth, spurred by an influx of skilled migrants from mainland China and access to international markets. 

Much of this growth was due to the fact that Hong Kong during this period had perhaps the most liberal free market economy in the world. They had very little regulation and free trade policies, which allowed the economy to flourish.

It became one of the four Asian Tiger countries to rapidly industrialize, including South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore.

By 1950, the population of Hong Kong had risen past its pre-war levels to 1.9 million people. For the next several decades, the population of Hong Kong steadily grew. Today, it has a population of approximately 7.5 million people. 

One of the oddities of Hong Kong during this period was the Walled City of Kowloon. The result of a border anomaly in which a small area was technically still part of China, but they had no means or desire to actually administer it. The result was what was perhaps the most densely populated place in human history, and I’ll refer you to my previous episode on the subject. 

Hong Kong has also become a cultural power through its cinema. Hong Kong cinema produced talents such as Chow Yun Fat, John Wo, Jackie Chan, and Bruce Lee.

For all the economic success of Hong Kong in the post-war era, there was one fact hanging over the head of the territory. It was the 99-year lease to the New Territories, which was set to expire in 1997.

The New Territories constituted 86.2% of the Territory of Hong Kong. If it were returned to China, there wouldn’t be much of Hong Kong left.  Moreover, since the end of the war, Britain had been getting out of the colony game.

In preparation for the end of the lease in 1997, China and Britain sat down to negotiate the future of Hong Kong in the early 1980s. Here, I should note that while the UK did have to give up the New Territories, it did not legally have to give up the island of Hong Kong or Kowloon. 

Britain initially wanted to negotiate an extension to the lease, but China wasn’t interested. 

So, it was agreed that Britain would cede all of its territory to China. In exchange, China agreed to a policy called “one country, two systems.” Hong Kong would be a part of the People’s Republic of China, but it would retain its own autonomy, currency, and a host of other privileges, including their own passport. 

As part of the agreement, China agreed to keep the economic system of Hong Kong in place for 50 years. 

On the evening of June 30, 1997, officials from both countries attended a handover ceremony. British officials included Prime Minister Tony Blair and the then Prince Charles. Chinese officials included President Jiang Zemin and Chinese Premier Li Peng.

At the stroke of midnight July 1, 1997, Hong Kong went from being a British Territory to being a Special Administrative Region of China. 

In the almost 30 years since the handover of Hong Kong, significant changes have been seen. 

Hong Kong continues to have its own passport and currency and still maintains border controls with China. It continues to be a global financial center, but not quite as dominant as it was previously.

However, much of the autonomy that Hong Kong experienced is now gone. The PRC exerts more direct control over the territory than it did in the years after the handoff. It can determine who can sit on the Hong Kong Legislative Council, and there have been a series of laws enacted that prevent any protests aimed at the PRC.

Despite many of the current problems in Hong Kong, it has still managed to maintain its high standard of living. If it were a country, it would have the 22nd highest GDP per capita, above countries like the UK, New Zealand, and France. Likewise, it also has the highest life expectancy of any country or territory on Earth. 

Hong Kong is still an exciting place to visit. Its skyline and skyscrapers are matched only by New York City, and it is one of the best food cities in Asia. 

Hong Kong has come a long way in a very short amount of time. It went from being a humble collection of fishing villages to being a global financial center. Perhaps most significantly, it went from being a part of China to a part of Britain and back again. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel. 

The associate producers are Benji Long and Cameron Kieffer. 

I have several new completionist club members who have left reviews over on Spotify.

The first is from e.mara-nz who said

Kia ora (hi), Gary. Whew l’ve just caught up since starting your podcast 9 months ago. Thanks for all your work, love it. I look forward to joining the New Zealand completionist club. Cheers. Dion

The next is from Jake, who writes

Whoa… I just became a member of the completionist club! I realize there’s already a clubhouse in Kalispell, MT, but we may need one in eastern Montana. May I suggest Billings!? Keep up the great work!

The final one comes from Tom Hughes who wrote:

This episode marked my entry into the completionist club. Thank you so much Gary for keeping the joy of curiosity and knowledge alive and well.

Thanks to all of you who have managed to listen to every episode of the podcast. Every day that a new episode comes out, the accomplishment becomes more impressive.

Remember that if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.