Hong Kong History
Up to the Arrival of the Europeans
While Hong Kong’s development is a comparatively recent thing, humans have inhabited the region for millennia, a fact underlined by the discovery of various ceramics, bronzes and tools, including a 6,000-year-old stone hammer on Lamma Island. However, little of note occurred until the arrival of the Europeans in the 1500s.
Portuguese mariner Jorge Alvarez first visited the Pearl River Delta in 1513, although initial foreign incursions focused on Macau and Canton (present day Guangzhou), while Hong Kong remained little different from anywhere else along this stretch of coastline, comprised of islands, farms and fishing villages until the First Opium War.
As a result of the war, Hong Kong was ceded to the British under the 1841 Convention of Chuen Pi, although this wasn’t legally binding since it was never signed. Still, the British raised their flag at Possession Point on Hong Kong Island and Henry Pottinger was appointed as the first governor.
The 1842 Treaty of Nanjing officially ceded the island to the British and also entailed the opening up of five other strategic ports around China to international trade. Thereafter, this small island, formerly known as Heung Gong (Fragrant Harbor), became British Hong Kong. From humble beginnings, this little harbor, less than a mile from the Chinese mainland, embarked on a colonial voyage that lasted over 150 years and saw the colony grow to become one of the most successful trading ports the world has ever known.
Early Days of British Rule
Traders from Canton and Macau moved to Hong Kong Island and land sales were held which resulted in the development of Central as a trading hub, while government and military buildings were erected nearby. The Second Opium War gave the British further concessions in Kowloon on the mainland, although it was the Portuguese who took the lead in colonizing the area.
As the increasing economic potential of Kowloon was recognized, more businesses were established there. Meanwhile, over on Hong Kong Island, as the heat of the sticky summers took its toll, the Brits were retreating for the hills and Victoria Peak became the place to escape.
In 1888 the Peak Tram funicular railway opened to ease the journey up to the hillside residences and it remains in use today. However, while coolies carried government officials and foreign traders around, the lot of the everyday Chinese was far less luxurious and in the humid lowlands disease was rife.
By the end of the 19th century, British administrators had begun to learn Cantonese and include the local community in government affairs – attempting to bridge the gap between themselves and the Chinese. But relations were still frosty and this lack of cultural interaction bred misunderstanding and fear on both sides.
With the rise in Chinese Nationalism, the British feared that Hong Kong was indefensible from the mainland, so they acquired a 400-square-mile plot of land north of Kowloon. The aptly named New Territories were secured under a 99-year lease in 1898. That deal ultimately led to the return of the entire colony to China in 1997.