Early Settlers & the “Five Great Clans”
Human life in the Hong Kong area can be traced back to the Middle Neolithic era (4000 BCE – 2500 BCE), evidenced by relics like the Fan Lau stone circles on Lantau Island. In fact, Hong Kong is known to be particularly rich in artifacts from both the Neolithic and the Bronze Age (1500 – 220 BCE).
Traditional Chinese people didn’t have a presence in Hong Kong until around 221 BCE, and much of this was characterized by conflicts between various clans and ethnic groups. There is evidence that the Che people were the earliest of the area’s inhabitants and were soon followed by groups who moved in to take advantage of the area’s abundant fishing potential. Many of them, such as the Tanka, who inhabit boats and stilt homes at Tai O Fishing Village, still call the area their home.
In fact, the Tanka fisher folk were not originally boat dwellers, but were slowly forced offshore by the influx of several Han Chinese groups who ironically called themselves “Punti” (本地; local). The Punti were made up of the Five Great Clans, a set of five powerful families who settled the area with a scattering of their own walled villages.
The first clan to settle the area was the Tang. Originally arriving in the 11th century, the Tang held the position as the most powerful of the new immigrants. The Hau and Pang soon followed, creating the first Han Cantonese culture in the Hong Kong area, and these three clans were joined by the Liu in the 14th century and the Man 100 years later. To this day the descendents of the “Five Great Clans” hold considerable political and social clout in Hong Kong.
Their settlements were little more than small villages, however, and the first major Han establishment in Hong Kong came when the Southern Song Dynasty was driven to the area by the invading Mongols.
The Mongol Invasion & the Song’s Establishment in Hong Kong
The Mongols tore into China in the beginning of the 13th century, choosing a time when resistance was particularly weakened, as the Southern Song Dynasty was competing for land with the Jin Dynasty to the north. An initial alliance was formed between the Song and the Mongols, who held a common enemy in the Jin. Once the Jin were defeated, however, the Song abandoned the alliance, allowing the Mongols to consolidate their territories in the west, including the Dali Kingdom in Yunnan, and quickly turn their full attention to the Song.
With a large population, a strong economy and advanced weaponry, the Song presented a great challenge to the Mongols. During the 1250s and 1260s, the Mongols slowly chipped away at the Song’s territory and political support, with Kublai Khan exacerbating internal disputes by offering land to Song defectors. In 1268, Kublai began the siege of Xiangyang, a long struggle that ended in a Mongolian victory in 1273. The Song fell three years later, and its court soon fled to Hong Kong.
With the establishment of the Song court in Hong Kong, the economy prospered through salt, fishing and pearls as more and more Chinese came to escape conflict and famines. The last two of the Five Great Clans, the Liu and the Man, came during this time, and established villages in the New Territories that you can still visit today.
The Mongolians didn’t hold onto China for long, however, and by the 14th century the Ming Dynasty had taken control of the country. By the time the Qing Dynasty took power in 1644, the routed Ming Dynasty had fled to Taiwan. Ming loyalists were strong in the Hong Kong area, the greatest of them being Koxinga, a pirate who wreaked havoc on the Qing Dynasty coastlines for the two decades after the dynasty’s founding.
Instead of continuing a losing war against Koxinga, the Qing eventually gave up on Hong Kong. In 1661, the Kangxi Emperor commissioned the Great Clearance, requiring 16,000 people to leave the area, banning any inhabitation until 1669. Less than 2,000 people returned when the ban was lifted, and though the Qing Dynasty tried to encourage Hakka (an ethnic group of Han Chinese) migrations to the area afterwards, Hong Kong didn’t have a substantial population again until the British set up their colony.
Opium: A Prelude to War
Trade between China and Europe became regular after Portugal’s 1557 establishment of their base in Macau, just 65 km (40 mi) west of Hong Kong. The British joined the show 130 years later, bouncing off their East India Company ports along concessions on India’s east coast. By the 18th century, the British (and much of Europe) had accumulated a trade deficit with China due to their insatiable demand for Chinese products like porcelain, tea and silk; a trade demand that was not reciprocated by the Chinese. To counteract their growing trade deficit, the British introduced opium, a product the British had in endless supply from their holdings in India, and one that the Chinese soon became rabidly addicted to.
Though the Qing court issued major edicts in 1729 and 1799 banning the drug, they soon found themselves powerless to stop its import. In 1730, there were some 15 tons of opium traded. By 1773, the amount had increased to 70 tons per year, and by 1800 it was an astronomical 280 tons per year.
The insatiable demand for opium in China had spun the trade deficit on its head, with China seeing its silver tael reserves plummet. Even worse was the effect of the opium on the populace, making addicted court officials and soldiers lazy and ineffectual at their duties, severely weakening China’s governing and military power.
The situation became dire in the 1830s as opium imports (per year) surpassed 1,400 tons. Emperor Dao Guang (reign 1820 – 1850) decided on a new course of action, first issuing arrest warrants for dozens of foreign opium merchants, and then appointing the honorable Lin Zexu – governor of Hubei and Hunan – to end the opium trade once and for all. The hard-nosed Lin arrested thousands of Chinese opium dealers and called the foreign merchants to hand over their inventories. When they refused, Lin put them under house arrest and proceeded to confiscate a massive cache of 20,283 chests of opium, equal to approximately 1,700 tons and valued at 2 million pounds. After he destroyed the narcotics, Lin demanded the British merchants sign agreements not to trade opium under punishment of death. The majority refused and were forced back to England.
Unfortunately for Lin and the Qing emperor, this was not the end of their opium problem. The British crown saw their expulsion from China as a major insult from a less advanced nation and labeled the Qing court as xenophobic. On the other side of the water, the Chinese equally felt themselves superior to the foreign “barbarians,” and tensions brewed throughout the 1830s. After Chief Trade Superintendent Charles Elliot – who was sent to negotiate with the governor of Canton – was refused an audience and died of fever while exiled in Macau, British merchants angrily penned the Canton Petition, demanding the British government take a stand.
Among the 85 merchants who signed the petition, there was none more powerful than William Jardine. Jardine had graduated from medical school in 1802 and joined the East India Company as a surgeon’s mate on a trade ship. On his journeys, he engaged in personal trade, and eventually quit medicine for commerce in 1817. In 1832, he founded Jardine, Matheson & Co with James Matheson and became one of the most loathsome and unscrupulous foreigners in China. When a 1837 edict called for “Jardine and others” to be expelled from China, Jardine began an aggressive lobbying campaign for war. He appealed directly to British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerson and hired journalists and pamphleteers to push his case. Though war was opposed by Chartists in Parliament, Palmerson was convinced on military action. The narrow 271-261 pro-war majority was pushed over the edge when Sir G Thomas Staunton summarized British imperial sentiments: “If [we] submitted to insults from China, British ascendancy will collapse!”
The Opium Wars: Britain Takes Hong Kong
British warships arrived from India in 1840, and with their far superior technology captured Canton and easily routed the Chinese military. Figures cited by the historian Foster Stockwell put the British death toll at 500, compared to a staggering 20,000 for the Chinese. The next year, Captain Elliot took Hong Kong and proposed concession of the colony as the main condition for a peace treaty.
The British government was furious at first, seeing nothing of value in the small island. Elliot had been told to “obtain freedom for the British to live and trade at the five ports of Canton, Amoy, Foochow, Ningpo and Shanghai,” but Palmerson wrote, “Instead... Elliot had obtained a barren island with hardly a house upon it.”
Elliot was quickly dismissed from his position, and Britain eventually got everything it wanted with the 1842 Treaty of Nanking, including giving British citizens extraterritorial rights in Chinese ports, something not offered to Chinese in British lands. Though Palmerson thought of Hong Kong as a useless outpost that could be traded back to China for more concessions, subsequent governors of Hong Kong quickly developed the island to something worthy of a permanent interest.
Jardine’s associate James Matheson understood the importance of Hong Kong early on. In a letter to an official arguing for retention of Hong Kong, he said, “It is by far the best harbor for large ships in the vicinity of the Canton River.” A later correspondence from a Jardine, Matheson & Co representative concluded, “Many prefer the Kowloon Peninsula, but we ought to have both.”
They would have both in 1860 when the Second Opium War resulted in China’s concession of Kowloon, and in 1898, Britain was leased the New Territories for 99 years.
About 200 years later, the name of the war-mongering profiteer Jardine continues to carry with it connotations of power and commerce in Hong Kong. His name adorns street signs, building names and mountains, and his former company, Jardine Matheson Holdings Ltd, has a huge presence in China, controlling companies like Hong Kong Land, Jardine Motors Group and the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group.
Early British Rule
The early years of Hong Kong required the British to essentially build from scratch as the area was full of little more than scattered fishing villages. Their first order of business was to clear out the pirate scourge, which didn’t fare much better against modern British war ships than the Chinese navy did.
The British established the city center in Central, then called Victoria. The Canton Bazaar was one of the first buildings built in 1842 as the first major trade space. The Former French Mission Building on Government Hill, now housing the Court of Final Appeal, was the first building in which British legislators met, while Queen’s Road and Hollywood Road became the city’s first roads.
Land reclamation began in 1859 at Sheung Wan, and from 1864 to 1878, a major stretch of land, including present day Causeway Bay, Wan Chai and Kennedy Town, was pulled from under the ocean. The area that today is Queen’s Road Central, a deep jungle of tall buildings, was little more than sandy coast 150 years ago.
Over its first few decades, Hong Kong struggled to grow as famines, an outbreak of the bubonic plague, and numerous typhoons rocked the area’s property and population. The early years saw a number of criminals and shady characters take up residence as well, but over time the city began to blossom into a strong community.
Hong Kong reached a population of 33,000 in 1850, and just 46 years later it had climbed to a staggering 240,000. This number escalated even further as Chinese began immigrating from the Mainland, which had fallen into chaos under the failing Qing Dynasty. The Qing finally collapsed in 1912, bringing more fleeing immigrants to Hong Kong as a gaggle of war lords, the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) and the Communist Party decimated the country in a bloody civil war.
World War II: Japanese Occupation
Six years after the Japanese invaded Manchuria in 1931, their complete takeover of Shanghai drove more Chinese south and caused the population of Hong Kong to increase from about 1 million to 1.6 million between 1937 and 1941. When the Japanese invaded Hong Kong in 1941, they took the city in 17 days, with a British surrender on December 25.
The Japanese military set the tone of their occupation from day one, storming the military hospital at St Stephens College, killing doctors, raping nurses and putting the bayonet to injured soldiers. The occupation of Hong Kong continued in this harsh manner for the remainder of the war, as Chinese civilians found themselves indiscriminately killed in the early weeks and foreign residents were imprisoned at a POW camp in Stanley. The Japanese Military Yen replaced the Hong Kong Dollar, and soon the economy tanked as local businesses were usurped. Long lines for rationed food meant severe malnourishment and starvation for many, and Hong Kong’s population more than halved during these four years. After the Japanese surrender in 1945, the British tried 122 Japanese officers and soldiers in Hong Kong for war crimes, 108 of whom were convicted, and 21 given death sentences.
Hong Kong’s dwindling population was down to 700,000 at the end of World War II, but a sharp rebound saw the city once again at 1.7 million by 1947.
The 1950s in China brought even more terror and social strife to the nation, setting the stage for Hong Kong’s fast-paced growth in the second half of the 20th century. With the nation falling into communist hands, Mainland refugees began pouring into the city, increasing significantly as the Cultural Revolution ran amok in the 1960s.
Local authorities began to fear subversion by communist factions and a rise of CCP revolutionary zeal. Many communists set up “patriotic schools,” whose curriculums ran hardline pro-communist agendas, most of which were quickly shut down. Riots sparked by communist furor hit the streets in 1956 and 1967, marked by young revolutionaries marching the streets under banners of Mao slogans.
At a time when Mainland and Hong Kong tensions were at their highest, a People’s Liberation Army invasion force that was slated to enter Hong Kong was called off at the last minute by PRC Premier, Zhou Enlai.
The population boom meant that a great number of the new residents were impoverished refugees living in shanty towns in the hills on the fringes of Kowloon. Made of little more than wood, clothing and blankets densely packed into a relatively small area, these shanty towns saw tragedy when multiple fires took some 200,000 lives during the 1950s. Public housing became an obvious necessity and was seriously pursued after the 1953 Shek Kip Mei fire that left 53,000 people homeless. Today about 50% of the population lives in publicly subsidized housing. Shanty towns and squatter settlements can still be found on the edges of some of the country parks in the New Territories.
Hong Kong’s first major economic boom began as manufacturing found its way into the city in the ’50s. Toys and textiles took the majority of the production, which continued to increase through the ’70s, and it was at this prosperous time that Hong Kong’s economy began shifting towards finance. By the end of the decade, manufacturing made up about a quarter of the economy, continuing to decline through the years as white collar services came to the fore.
The increasing economy of the 1970s meant that more and more Hong Kongese were able to live middle class lives comparable to those in the West. Local restaurants quickly began developing their own fusions of Western and Chinese food, particularly at the cha chaan teng (tea and food halls), which began to serve up ramen-style spaghetti.
Entertainment also took off during the thriving ’70s, as the growing middle class sat down in front of their television sets to watch news reports and dramas every night. The theme songs from many of these dramas gave rise to Cantopop music as stars like Roman Tam, “The Godfather of Cantopop,” found their breaks and rose to fame.
Hong Kong found its place as the leading film producing country in Asia with much help from talents like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, as the city’s cinema began to take the world by storm.
The 1970s made way for wide development of Hong Kong’s transportation infrastructure as well, punctuated by projects like the Cross-Harbor Tunnel in 1972, which allowed automobiles to drive between Hong Kong and Kowloon for the first time. The MTR opened its first subway lines in 1979.
The boom in the wake of WWII was not all rainbows and lollipops, however. The driving economy and swift development opened lucrative opportunities for corruption, especially among police, fire fighters and other civil servants, who were known to require kickbacks before taking action in an emergency. Police officers often protected Triad members and drug dealers in exchange for money, and many businesses factored police bribes into their budgets. Police corruption got so bad that in 1977, when the government busted up a large police corruption ring, they ended up giving amnesty to low level officers who committed crimes before 1977 out of fear they would hardly have a force left if they prosecuted all their crimes.
Since the formation of the Independent Commission Against Corruption in 1974, Hong Kong has made monumental strides against corruption. Transparency International ranked the city as the 14th least corrupt country or territory in the world in 2012, beating out both the United States and the United Kingdom and falling just short of Canada.
The 1980s and ’90s would continue along the same upward trajectory as that of the previous decades. In fact, some have called the ’80s and ’90s Hong Kong’s Golden Era. It was an especially rich time for cinema and music, and many of the best Chinese films of all time, as picked by the Hong Kong Film Association, were filmed during this Golden Era. The 1986 film A Better Tomorrow set the standard for gangster films, a standard that was emulated by 1990s Hollywood as well. Singers like Anita Mui and Leslie Cheung showed that they could act as convincingly and passionately as they could sing on their platinum-selling records.
The excitement of 1980s Hong Kong also sat side-by-side with an unnerving look at the uncertain future. In 1984 the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed, requiring Hong Kong to be handed over to China in 1997.
The Return to China
As Britain’s 99-year lease over the New Territories edged towards its 1997 expiration date, anxiety began to seep into the city. Hong Kong Governor Murray MacLehose went to Beijing in 1979 in an attempt to extend the lease. Instead he was greeted with Deng Xiaoping’s staunch refusal. Discussions between the United Kingdom and China on the future of Hong Kong took place again in 1982, culminating in the December 19, 1984 signing of a declaration that would established Hong Kong as a Special Administrative Region of China in 1997. The government and civil rights were to be left unchanged for 50 years (in 2047), at which point it would become fully integrated into the People’s Republic of China.
The people of Hong Kong had become used to a high level of social and political freedoms, albeit without full democracy, under British rule. Hong Kong had developed a vibrant, free marketplace of ideas, critical newspapers and rights to protest; liberties that are largely nonexistent in China. Many Mainland incidents, not least including a particularly notorious event in Beijing in 1989, gave the citizens of Hong Kong cause for great concern, and they now commemorate the events of Tian’anmen Square every year with a candlelight vigil.
Both sides in the handover tried to assuage the Hong Kong people that they would have autonomy. The British set the first legislative elections, and Deng Xiaoping, in a talk to visitors celebrating National Day on October 3, 1984, said:
"In the agreement we stated that no change would be made for 50 years, and we mean it. There will be no changes in my generation or in the next. And I doubt that 50 years after 1997, when the Mainland is developed, people will handle matters like this in a narrow-minded way. So don’t worry, there won’t be any changes."
"Besides, not all changes are bad. Some of them are good, and the question is what should be changed."
Though some Hong Kongers took comfort in Deng’s statement, many have had some concerns about changes under Chinese control. One particular concern came to light when in 2012 protests erupted against newly proposed curriculums that would teach what critics called an “indoctrinating version” of Chinese history.
Anticipating the eventual handover to China, the British government began slowly introducing democratic reforms to the city in 1985. That year, they hosted the first ever legislative council (LegCo) elections, but the indirect election only appointed 24 of the 46 members. In 1995 the first full elections were held and allowed half the members of the LegCo to be elected by geographic constituencies, and the other half to be elected by functional constituencies (FCs), including corporations and workers representing commercial, labor and social interest groups. Currently the Chief Executive is elected by an Election Committee composed mostly of FC members.
However, some Hong Kongers are even dissatisfied with their own form of government, and protests for universal suffrage in the Chief Executive elections (which the territory does not have) still hit the streets on a regular basis. One Hong Kong University law professor is trying to organize a takeover of Central (Occupy Central) in 2014 if the city isn’t granted universal suffrage.
Hong Kong in the 2000s
As the city enters the new millennium, some of Hong Kong’s dynamism of the past two decades has slowed down. The population rose from 6.87 million in 2000 to just 7.07 million in 2014, and much of the increase has come from Mainland Chinese immigrants, as local Hong Kong birthrates have actually dropped.
Tragedy fell upon Hong Kong in 2003 when the SARS outbreak claimed 299 lives. That same year, two of the city’s most beloved cultural icons, Leslie Cheung and his longtime friend and singing and acting partner, Anita Mui, passed away. For many Hong Kongese, the deaths of such beloved cultural icons signaled to many the end of an era and seemed to coincide with the coming of a concerning and unsure future under the rule of Mainland China.
Surveys done by the University of Hong Kong during the past decade have found that less than 30% of Hong Kongese identify themselves as Chinese citizens, while a majority identify themselves as Hong Kong citizens or “Hong Kong citizens plus Chinese citizens.” In 2012, the survey found its most striking results yet when just 16.6% of respondents said they considered themselves Chinese citizens. This result garnered strong criticism by Mainland Chinese state-run media.
Friction between Hong Kongese and Mainland Chinese rose to the forefront of controversy in January 2012 when a Hong Kong man and Mainland woman got into an argument on an MTR train after the man told the mother’s child to stop eating on the train (which is not allowed in Hong Kong but common in the Mainland). The incident, which was filmed by another passenger, heated up quickly, and the video was soon shared online. In the aftermath, Professor Kong Qingdong of Peking University went on CCTV and called the Hong Kongese “imperialist running dogs.” Hong Kongers responded by calling Mainlanders “locusts.”
Many Hong Kongese oppose the trend of Mainland Chinese mothers coming to city to have babies in order for the children to obtain local citizenship. Others also resent the fact that Mainlanders, who gave birth to 37% of babies in Hong Kong in 2010, are crowding hospital beds and putting a burden on the social welfare system. Mainland citizens also like to come to Hong Kong to purchase milk powder, which is perceived to be much safer here than in Mainland China, where there have been a number of poisonous milk scandals. This prompted the Hong Kong government to put a customs limit on milk powder to prevent Hong Kong’s own reserves from becoming depleted.
Though Hong Kong’s future is uncertain, there are many who hold high hopes that, instead of the political and social climate tightening and becoming more repressed, perhaps the city and its people’s penchant for progress and free thought may inspire positive change on the Mainland. Only time will tell, though there is no doubt that the Hong Kongese won’t lose their way of life without a fight.