Asia, Hong Kong, SAR China

A long view from Kowloon

No Comments 28 November 2010

A long view from Kowloon

In this post, the Monkey explores Hong Kong’s history from a rooftop in Kowloon and the waterfront of the city’s magnificent harbor. Great views and a bit of learning guaranteed…

View over rooftops of Kowloon, Hong Kong, SAR China
Delirious after two long flights, a layover in Tokyo, and a late-night arrival, the Monkey’s first act in Hong Kong was a bit dull: he went to bed. The next morning, he awoke and climbed to the roof of his Kowloon hotel, where he surveyed the landscape and took in this impressive view. And in a way, it was a fitting introduction to Hong Kong: The low ceiling of clouds were a foreboding hint at the city’s tempestuous weather—which often involves wilting heat, heavy humidity, and the threat of typhoons, but also occasionally approaches subtropical perfection. The vantage point gave him a geographical primer, from the cozy atmosphere of Knutsford Terrace and Observatory Hill where his hotel was located, across the rooftops of Tsim Sha Tsui toward Hong Kong Island itself, where you can just see the skyscrapers reaching the clouds. In those names—a mixture of the British and the Chinese—lies a whole back story, summarized below. And even from this spot high on a roof, the city’s bustle was inescapable: Hong Kongers were busy hanging laundry to dry on surrounding rooftops, traffic rumbled on the streets below, and the cranes on that green-clad construction site were hauling materials towards the heavens. Though he only learned it later, even the emerging building’s name provided a hint at the city’s bombast: The soaring residential/hotel project was modestly titled The Masterpiece.

Junk on Victoria Harbor, Hong Kong, SAR China
Here, the Monkey has moved down to the waterfront by Victoria Harbor. Behind him is the continuously narrowing (thanks to land reclamation projects) Victoria Harbor, and across the water, the continuously expanding (ditto) Hong Kong Island. Between them is a traditional Chinese junk, a local type of ship that would have plied these waters at the time that British merchants and officials—cast out of the city of Canton (or Guangzhou), not so far up the Pearl River from this spot—chose the sparsely inhabited Hong Kong Island as a new base of operations for their trade with imperial China. It was 1841, and Hong Kong Island looked very different than the view the Monkey is enjoying here. The local population were traditional farmers and fisher folk, and offered no resistance to the British who claimed the mountainous island and its deep natural harbor for Queen Victoria. The seizure of Hong Kong Island came as a result of the great imperial showdown between Britain and China—a confrontation which saw the Chinese outmaneuvered by the modern warcraft, trade tactics, and shrewd “diplomacy” of the ascendant imperial power of that age, Britain.

European and Middle Eastern civilizations had traded overland with China for centuries before the first permanent Western settlement—the Portuguese colony of Macau—was founded in 1557 on a small peninsula at the mouth of the Pearl River. As seaborne navigation improved and European imperial tentacles spread to encompass the globe, naval powers including the Dutch, French, Portuguese, and British began sailing the short distance up the Pearl to the ancient city of Canton (Guangzhou), which had become the chief trade center of the Chinese Empire. While the Europeans bought China’s tea, silk, and porcelain, the Chinese had little interest in Western goods—that is, until officials from the British East India Company brought opium from their colony in India to the port of Canton in 1773. With endless supplies of the narcotic at its disposal, the EIC flooded China with opium, and addiction spread rapidly. While the British had found a lucrative new trade (notably, just as their grip on their American colonies began to slip), the Chinese Imperial Court in distant Peking (today’s Beijing) grew alarmed by the heavy outflow of silver to support this new drug habit. The Qing emperor banned the opium trade in 1799, but it persisted and even grew once the EIC’s monopoly on China trade was revoked and other firms joined in the drug running. In 1829 the Court sent the crafty governor Lin Tse-Hsu to end the opium trade once and for all, but his hardline approach of capturing the British merchants and burning their (illegal) opium only ruffled the more hawkish members of the British contingent in China. The First Opium War thus ensued in 1840, with British gunships attacking Canton and other key cities, and the Chinese forces proving woefully unprepared for the speed and firepower of this new foe. The war temporarily halted under the Chuenpi Convention, which saw China agree to formally cede control of Hong Kong Island and pay reparations to the British. But the terms of the deal proved unsatisfactory to both sides, and the war reignited. With the arrival of additional forces and gunships, the British marauded even further into the heart of China, threatening cities as far off as Shanghai and Nanking.

Cornered, China conceded to the British in the Treaty of Nanking, the terms of which ended China’s preferred guild-based trade system and threw open five Chinese cities to “free” trade, gave British citizens immunity from Chinese laws, and granted Hong Kong Island to the British “in perpetuity”. Thus, in 1843 Hong Kong Island became a British Crown Colony. In honor of the monarch who wore that crown, the settlement and the harbor it faced were named Victoria.

View from Harbor City, Hong Kong, SAR China
The initial British possession of Hong Kong was intrinsically linked to the opium trade. And since the 1842 Treaty of Nanking made no explicit mention of opium, it didn’t take long for some of the merchants based at the new British colony of Hong Kong to reconnect with the corrupt port officials in Canton and revamp the lucrative opium trade. Among these were two Scots, Jardine and Matheson, whose Hong, or family firm, is still a major player in Hong Kong today (their headquarters, Jardine House, is the prominent white building to the left of the tallest building in this shot). Jardine Matheson now sticks to licit business, the Monkey is pleased to report.

Along with this continued importation of opium, another unresolved issue from the first Opium War had been the issue of diplomatic relations between the Chinese Court and foreign powers. The Court had insisted on Canton as the Empire’s sole port of trade in part because it did not wish to engage directly with “barbarians”, but the Treaty of Nanking had changed the rules of the game, and Western powers increasingly sought diplomatic representation in Peking itself. After an 1856 incident when Chinese troops boarded a British trade vessel in an alleged search for pirates, the tensions boiled over and Britain—assisted by France, Russia, and the United States—once again went to war with China. The British soon seized control of the southern tip of the Kowloon peninsula—the extension of the Chinese mainland where the Monkey is sitting in this photo, both as a defensive posture and to ward off other allies/would-be colonists. This initial flare-up of what became the Second Opium War soon concluded in a grudging agreement to allow diplomats to enter Peking, but when the British sent an armada toward Peking to deliver their ambassador, it was attacked by the Chinese and the conflict exploded once again. Within a year, China was again roundly defeated.

The Second Opium War was resolved with the 1860 Peking Convention, which again saw China humbled into making territorial concessions. In this manner, the seized part of the Kowloon peninsula as well as a second island were granted to Britain. In the three decades that followed, voices in the growing colony of Hong Kong and Kowloon began calling for a second expansion of the territory. Some argued on security grounds, but the prime motivators were a combination of land speculation and imperial hubris. The late Qing dynasty was immeasurably weakened by the Opium Wars, and faced repeated demands for concessions from Western powers as well as the newly expansionist Japan. Faced with the continued threat of conflict, China made several territorial concessions in the late 19th Century—to Germany, Russia, France, Japan. Alarmed by this perceived carve-up of China among its rivals, in 1898 Britain and China negotiated the Second Convention of Peking. This resulted in an tenfold expansion of the territory, with much more of the Kowloon peninsula as well as scores of islands. Crucially, these New Territories were offered on a 99-year lease from China.

The Chinese—understandably humiliated—later began referring to the arrangements that ended the two Opium Wars as the Unequal Treaties. But the Chinese negotiators had managed to build in two important, if largely overlooked, concessions of their own: a nominal recognition of continued Chinese sovereignty in the territories conceded, and the use of leases with fixed end dates. Thus, while Hong Kong was British “in perpetuity”, the New Territories would theoretically revert to Chinese control in 1997.

Clock Tower, Hong Kong, SAR China
With British rule firmly established by the late 19th Century, the colonial authorities went about implementing their program. Infrastructure improvements such as trams and ferries were paralleled by an increase in vice, with the opium trade remaining an aspect of the territory’s economy into the mid 20th Century. By 1900, the newly expanded Hong Kong territory boasted 250,000 residents—the vast majority of whom were ethnic Chinese. In its early years, Hong Kong’s laws had been quite discriminatory against the local majority. As historian Steve Tsang notes, an attempt to allow certain Chinese customs and laws to persist often resulted in Chinese residents being subjected to punishments far harsher, and laws much more restrictive, than those faced by Europeans. Laws forbade Chinese from living in certain areas, and limited their movements and economic activities.

Despite these measures, Hong Kong remained an attractive destination for “mainlanders” fleeing the chaos of China’s 20th Century calamities, from the Chinese revolution and collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911, the outbreak of the Chinese Civil War between the Communist and Nationalist forces in 1927, the wars with Japan in the 1930s and 1940s, the postwar intensification of the civil war in China, the tumult of the victorious Chinese Communists’ Great Leap Forward and the appalling famine it induced, and later the mania of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. In each of these episodes, vast numbers of Chinese mainlanders sought refuge—as refugees, and as temporary or permanent exiles—in the relative stability of Hong Kong. In the 1970s, tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees fleeing the aftermath of the war in their homeland also found their way to Hong Kong’s relative security. Together, these millions of migrants brought aspects of their culture and their dynamism, and in a gradually reforming Hong Kong, they found a place where success on their own terms—though never a given—was a possibility.

While the Vietnamese refugees arrived in flotillas of boats, many of the migrants from mainland China arrived by train at the spot the Monkey is visiting in this photo. The red brick clock tower, dating from 1915-1921, is the last remnant of the original Kowloon-Canton rail terminus—a station that linked Hong Kong with Canton and Beijing, through Russia, to Europe. The original station was demolished and moved elsewhere in the 1970s, by which time air travel had replaced rail and sea as the preferred link between London and its Chinese possession. It was also at this time that the first commercial mortgage renewals in the territory began to span the 1997 expiration date enshrined in the Second Convention of Peking, raising the issue of what would happen when Britain’s Kowloon lease eventually ran out.

Peninsula Hotel, Hong Kong, SAR China
Along the Kowloon Waterfront, the Monkey encountered this interesting pair of buildings—at left is the classic chic of Peninsula Hotel, and at right, the Sheraton Hotel sporting a massive advertising hoarding for Sinopec, the Chinese state’s largest petrochemical company. Interesting, you say? Well, bear with the Monkey…

The Peninsula Hotel is Hong Kong’s landmark hotel, dating back to 1928. Originally a waterfront hotel consisting of only the lower tier peaking out above the trees, the Peninsula became one of the most iconic establishments of its type—the address for status-minded visitors. Its high tea became an institution among the local elites and well-heeled travelers. Although there are many other five-star hotels on the Hong Kong scene today, few can approximate the Peninsula’s unique character and historic opulence.

The somewhat less glamorous Sheraton (at right) dates from 1974, an era when Hong Kong—a one-time colonial backwater—had become a success in its own right. Its small-scale manufacturers produced a good portion of the world’s textiles, watches, plastic toys, and other consumer items (including films—see below). With its stable political institutions and courts, English-speaking population, established banking sector, and nexus of networks to the mainland, Hong Kong positioned itself as the “East-meets-West” entry point to Asia and became the locus of many foreign business ventures seeking to operate in (or near) China while based in a reliable environment governed by familiar laws and customs. As Hong Kong’s wealth rose, so too did the expectations of its inhabitants. In an epoch when colonialism was derided worldwide, the late colonial authorities responded with a slew of reforms and improvements—from improving government accountability via professionalizing and localizing the administration, to transport development, to a massive expansion in health services and educational offerings. In particular, the government’s New Town program saw Hong Kong house some 4 million people in several new satellite cities spread across the New Territories.

As the British lease on the New Territories neared its end, the question of Hong Kong’s future loomed large. Hong Kong Island itself was British “in perpetuity” but the other parts of the territory had time-delimited leases. While some felt Hong Kong could retreat to its original island borders and remain a colony, most observers realized the island could not survive without food, water, and other supplies from the mainland—let alone the good graces of China with regard to the colony’s business interests. There was also the question of the status of some 5 million Hong Kongers—should these British subjects receive British passports and thus have the right to reside in Britain, or should they too be included in the handover to China? Entering into discussions over the territory in 1982, the Chinese were no longer the depleted, defeated power of the 19th Century. Newly resurgent and confident, China was determined to put an end to the last colonial concessions and held a firm line. The resulting agreement, the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, determined that the entire Hong Kong territory would revert to Chinese control with the expiration of the New Territories lease in 1997. The Declaration also enshrined the so-called “One Country, Two Systems” doctrine, which held that Hong Kong would become a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China while preserving most tenets of its legal, political, and economic system for the next 50 years (until 2046). Beijing had conceived of this “special” strategy with Taiwan in mind, but found it suitable for the post-colonial administration of both Hong Kong and Macau.

The 1984 Joint Declaration had left a small window of opportunity for the British to influence the future of Hong Kong. Particularly in the aftermath of the 1989 Tienanmen Square Massacre in Beijing, Hong Kong’s government felt a responsibility to respond to the calls for democracy emanating from a portion of the Hong Kong populace. The late British governors—particularly the very last one, Chris Patten—sought to implement political reforms including wider suffrage, but found their efforts increasingly stymied by pro-Beijing forces within Hong Kong, the Chinese government, and, much to the reformists’ chagrin, influential figures in the British government. Britain also sidestepped the citizenship issue, granting passports to only a small portion of the total Hong Kong population and generally accepting the Chinese position that the territory included its people. In the lead-up to the handover, some nervous Hong Kongers acquired passports of whatever nationality and fled to other countries. But many others viewed the reunification of their city with the mainland as a logical next step—after all, the population always had been, and remained, predominantly ethnic Chinese.

Statue of Bruce Lee, Hong Kong, SAR China
The Monkey concludes his overview of Hong Kong’s history with another photo of the always engaging Hong Kong waterfront. Beside him is a statue of one of the territory’s most famous sons, the martial arts film star Bruce Lee. Postwar Hong Kong’s economic boom and relative openness enabled this small city to build up one of the largest film industries in the world (third only to Hollywood and Bollywood for much of the 1960s-1990s). Hong Kong stars like Lee, Jackie Chan, and Chow Yun Fat became international icons, while directors like John Woo and Wong Kar Wai influenced global cinema in countless ways.

The Monkey also chose this photo because, off in the background behind Bruce Lee, you can see the sloping roofline of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. It was there that British rule in Hong Kong formally came to an end at midnight on 30 June 1997, as the last colonial governor retreated to a royal yacht and the sun finally set on the British Empire. China assumed control of Hong Kong and its people on 1 July 1997, and the world waited to see what would happen next.

By and large, Chinese control of Hong Kong has stuck to the 1984 Joint Declaration and the principle of “One Country, Two Systems”. Indeed, it appears that so far the Beijing government has been too clever to risk seriously upsetting this Hong Kong golden goose. Business activities between the mainland and the SAR remain intrinsically interconnected, and even in the recent rise of Shanghai and other mainland cities one can see tricks of the trade learned from the Hong Kong laboratory. Mainland businesspeople and tourists are now a mainstay of the Hong Kong economy, and many locals are learning to speak Mandarin alongside their traditional Cantonese. Whether Hong Kong’s proto-democracy, civil rights protections, and comparative freedoms may yet influence China from the inside remains to be seen.

This Monkey adventure has been viewed 1529 times since the 2010 website relaunch.

Hong Kong, SAR China


View Larger Map


7,018,636 (2008)

Land area:

1,042 sq. km.


As a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong retains significant autonomy and self-rule, but is answerable to Beijing.


In 2006, Hong Kong ranked 22nd in the UNDP Human Development Index and 34th in total GDP, with a per capita GDP of $27,071.62. Public debt accounts for 12.5 percent of total GDP, while no figure for the number of Hong Kongers beneath the poverty line is available..

Main language(s):

Chinese (Cantonese), English

Monkey's name:

猴子 Hou2 zi5 (Cantonese, with intonation marks). The Monkey (English).

Fun fact:

While Hong Kong Island itself is the most famous, few people know the Hong Kong territory contains 263 islands.

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Recommended reading

East and West: The Last Governor of Hong Kong on Power, Freedom and the Future
Chris Patten (London: Macmillan, 1998)
Written shortly after he oversaw the end of British rule in Hong Kong, Patten’s book offers his personal insights on his time as governor, and also his views on such themes as “Asian values”, freedom and markets, and the rise of China.

Fragrant Harbour
John Lanchester (London: Faber and Faber, 2002)
A lovely novel full of local details and color, with a set of interlocking narratives that span nearly a century of Hong Kong history.

Hong Kong
Jan Morris (London: Penguin, 1988 and 1997)
Morris provides a vivid portrait of the city and its people, history, and culture.  A new concluding chapter was added just in time for the handover.

Hong Kong: In the Mouth of the Dragon
Pierre Cayrol (Rutland, VT: Tuttle, 1998)
As a French journalist based in Hong Kong, Cayrol is critical of the British and Chinese in his short book about the handover of Hong Kong. He divides the book into sections on the shameful and respectable faces of Hong Kong, as well as a short exploration of the immediate aftermath of the handover.

The Honourable Schoolboy
John le Carré (London: Pan, 1977)
Part two of a trilogy of excellent spy novels, the action here is primarily set in 1970s Hong Kong, when just about anything goes.

Kowloon Tong
Paul Theroux (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1997)
An enjoyable tale of the handover period, detailing a very British businessman’s attempts to maintain his Hong Kong roots in the face of what he calls the “Chinese take-away”.

The Last Governor: Chris Patten & the Handover of Hong Kong
Jonathan Dimbleby (Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 1997)
Journalist Dimbleby enjoyed special access to Governor Chris Patten as he struggled to push through democratic reforms in Hong Kong before the territory’s handover to China in 1997. The book offers ample evidence that Patten’s reforms were undercut not only by Beijing but also by business interests and other pro-Beijing forces in Hong Kong and London.

A Modern History of Hong Kong
Steve Tsang (Hong Kong: University of Hong Kong Press, 2004)
An authoritative yet accessible account of Hong Kong’s history, from its roots in tiny fishing villages through its colonization, growth into a metropolis, and handover from Britain to China.

The Monkey King
Timothy Mo (New York: William Morrow and Co, 1978)
An unconventional family drama emerges from the marriage of Wallace Nolasco to the daughter of a wealthy and miserly Hong Kong merchant. Full of cultural insights and tasty conflicts.

Myself a Mandarin: Memoirs of a Special Magistrate
Austin Coates (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968)
This amusing memoir captures a unique perspective on colonialism: that of a transplanted civil servant tasked with adjudicating the disputes of his subjects, who have a very different concept of law. Many insights into Hong Kong’s traditional ways are to be gained.

North Wind: What the Hong Kong Media Doesn’t Want You to Know
Nury Vittachi (Hong Kong: Chameleon Press, 2001)
As a humorist and veteran of Hong Kong’s media scene, Vittachi offers an insider’s perspective on the shifts in Hong Kong’s free-wheeling press as the handover to China sets in. Revealing and punctuated with humor, a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the subtleties of journalistic self-censorship.

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