Over a hundred archaeological finds, including pottery and stone tools, in the islands of Hong Kong have revealed the presence of human beings dating back 30,000 years. A number of stone circles and carvings are testament to recurrent occupation during the Neolithic period. The remains of several buildings dated to the Bronze Age show signs of opulence.  


Hong Kong was incorporated into Imperial China during the Qin Dynasty (221 BC-207 BC), but was not a prominent territory, does not feature greatly in Chinese records and was host to fishing and farming communities. 

The first recorded reference to Hong Kong in the official Chinese chronology occurs in 1276 AD, describing an attempt to rescue Duan Zong, the boy Emperor of the Song Dynasty (960 AD-1279 AD) from the invading Mongol forces that were then sweeping across China. He was taken out of China via the outlying district, but the rescue party were caught by Mongol ships, who sunk what remained of the imperial fleet during a battle on the Pearl River. Rather than surrender, the young Emperor and his protectors chose suicide by drowning. 

In 1644, the Ming Dynasty was overthrown by the Qing (1644-1911), and as revenge for their support of the Ming, almost all the communities of the Hong Kong area were forced to re-settle on the mainland, and their crops and buildings destroyed. 


The history of trade that would have such a profound effect on the future of Hong Kong began with Arab traders and dates back to the eighth century AD, at the nearby port of Canton (Guangzhou), situated in the Pearl River delta. In 1557, Portuguese mariners were granted a base across the estuary in Macau, and were soon followed by the Dutch and French, with the British arriving in 1685. 

The principal products sought by Europeans were tea, porcelain and silks, but the Chinese had little interest in European produce, preferring payment in silver. Tea was to prove highly addictive to the British in particular, who by 1830 were annually consuming 30 million pounds (13.6 million kilograms) of Chinese tea.  

British rule in India and its fields, would soon lead to a monopoly of trade in another crop, opium, which was ruthlessly ‘pushed’ to the Chinese, who had hitherto only bought European time-pieces and musical boxes, and resulted in an explosion in serious drug addiction among the Chinese population. 

Angered by this pernicious trade and goaded by the spiralling loss of silver used to pay for it, Emperor Chia Ch’ing (1796-1820) attempted to ban the trading of opium in China, but the vast wealth to be gained and the temptation to corruption ensured its ineffectuality, with shipments of opium entering China rising to almost 3 million kilograms annually by 1834. 

In 1839, Lin Zexu, Governor of Hunan, under orders from Beijing, surrounded the British garrison and demanded the handover of its opium stocks, which were publicly burnt in Taiping. 

Whilst, in the modern era, we hear endless, if duplicitous, moral condemnation by the British and others of the drug trade and its links to violence and gun crime, it is of no surprise that the British reaction to the burning was to dispatch four thousand armed troops to protect their drug-dealing interests. 

From 1840-1842, during what would become known as the First Opium War, British troops besieged Guangzhou and blockaded a number of Chinese ports, including Shanghai, and later threatened Beijing itself. Forced into concessions, the Chinese capitulated, allowing British citizens exemption from Chinese laws and, fatefully, ceded the island of Hong Kong to the British. 


Initially regarded as a useless rock, with value only as a sheltered harbour for the British fleet, Heung Gawng (‘Fragrant Harbour’) island, already occupied by the British since April 1841, was officially handed over to the British on June 26th, 1843, with its name anglicised to Hong Kong. 

The Second Opium War erupted in October 1856, following an incident during which Chinese soldiers, searching for pirates, boarded a British merchant ship. Aided by French troops and Russian and American naval forces, the British would eventually lead an invasion of China to the very gates of its capital.  

In the resultant settlement treaty, Kowloon peninsula and Stonecutters Island were handed to the British, and later, a further 235 islands and a portion of the mainland to the Shenzhen River, known collectively as the ‘New Territories’ were acquired on a 99 year lease, and bestowed the established shape of the Hong Kong we know today. 

The export of British ‘culture’ to Hong Kong would see, within the space of a year, a proliferation gambling houses, opium dens and brothels, with the population expanding rapidly. The introduction of Gas and electricity began a trend that would see Hong Kong begin the modern expansion for which it is known today.  

The Chinese revolution of 1911, and the consequent disarray, would lead to an influx of Chinese refugees to the colony, which would later turn to a flood during the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, with a quarter of a million refugees seeking protection in Hong Kong. 


On the very day that Japan attacked Pearl harbour, as part of a coordinated movement the Japanese also launched an assault on Hong Kong, British Malaya and the American Philippines. Within two weeks, the British colony of Hong Kong surrendered to the invaders. 

The imperial ambitions of Japan were already well underway before the arrival of World War II, but in spite of the misery inflicted during the attempt, much of China would prove unconquerable and, as was also the case in Malaysia, the Japanese took revenge my singling out for enhanced brutality those ethnic Chinese they could get their hands on. 

The occupation was also characterised by acute food shortages and forced evacuations to the mainland, which would see Hong Kong’s population shrink by around one million. As the tide of war turned, Chinese and British forces launched a united effort culminating in the Japanese surrender of August, 1945, though the eventual military collapse owed more to the atomic destruction of two Japanese cities by the USA. 


The Communist revolution of 1949 in Mainland China, and the consequent flood of refugees, would again swell Hong Kong’s population, which by 1950 had surpassed its previous level to 2.3 million inhabitants, but despite the fact that Communist China would have had little difficulty in absorbing Hong Kong, it nevertheless resisted the temptation. 

During the 1960’s, western economies had grown used to cheap imports from the colony, and the label ‘made in Hong Kong’ was widely considered, somewhat disparagingly, as synonymous with low quality goods. This impression would quickly undergo radical transformation as the Asian economies began to develop into today’s reality, characterised by the abundance of cutting-edge and high quality consumer products now produced by the East, and China in particular. 


The lease agreement for the New Territories, acquired by Britain following the second Opium War, was due to expire on June 30th, 1997, and negotiations between mainland China and Britain concluded in an agreement for Britain to hand back all Hong Kong Territories accompanied by guarantees from the Chinese government to preserve much of the freedoms enjoyed by Hong Kong residents. 

The relative harmony of this agreement was aided by China’s experiment, albeit under strict control, with western models of trade, most notably in Shanghai. Nevertheless, for those living under the ever-encroaching shadows of change, trepidation over the future was widespread.

It is a testament to both China and Britain that the transition was more a cause for celebration than anxiety. Coinciding with modern China’s measured embrace of international trade and a growing sense of comfort with the international community, China has shown wisdom in benefiting from its largely restrained tolerance of capitalist Hong Kong.

Whilst in rural mainland China, and particularly Tibet, there are profound issues of humanitarian concern, it is possible that the influence of Hong Kong both past and present will go a long way yet to bring harmony between East and West, though differences between the cultures occasionally lead to civil unrest in the former colony.