Although some people might erroneously believe that Hong Kong's history began after the British took control of the island in 1842, it actually began millennia before that. Stone, bronze, and iron artifacts indicate that Hong Kong Island has been inhabited for at least 6,000 years, and more than 100 Neolithic and Bronze Age sites have been identified throughout the territory, including a 5,000-year-old kiln unearthed on Lantau Island, 4,000-year-old burial grounds, a 2,000-year-old brick tomb, and Neolithic rock carvings.
Although the area now called Hong Kong became part of the Chinese empire some 2,230 years ago during the Qin dynasty, it was not until after the 12th century that the area became widely settled. Foremost were settler families, known as the Five Great Clans, who built walled cities complete with moats and gatehouses to protect their homes against roving pirates. First to arrive was the Tang clan, who built at least five walled villages and maintained imperial connections with Beijing for 800 years, until the end of the 19th century. Several of these walled villages remain, along with study halls where members of the Tang clan studied for exams that would gain them coveted entrance into the Imperial Civil Service; you can visit these and other historic buildings built by the Tang clan by walking the Lung Yeuk Tau and the Ping Shan heritage trails. The other four clans were the Hau, Pang, Liu, and Man.
The clans were joined by the Tanka people, who lived their whole lives on boats anchored in sheltered bays throughout the territory and were employed as pearl divers in Tolo Harbour; and by the Hoklos, another seafaring people who established coastal fishing villages. They were followed by the Hakka, primarily farmers who cultivated rice, pineapples, and tea. Garrison troops were stationed at Tuen Mun and Tai Po (now major satellite towns in the New Territories) to guard the pearls harvested from Tolo Harbour by Tanka divers, while forts to guard against invasion were constructed at Tung Chung and other coastal regions. By the end of the 19th century, as many as 100,000 people resided in what is now the New Territories.
Tea & Opium
Hong Kong's modern history, however, begins a mere 170 years ago, under conditions that were far less than honorable. During the 1800s, the British were extremely eager to obtain Chinese silk and tea. Tea had become Britain's national drink, but the only place it was grown was China, from which it was being imported to England in huge quantities. The British tried to engage the Chinese in trade, but the Chinese were not interested in anything offered -- only silver bullion would do. The Chinese also forbade the British to enter their kingdom, with the exception of a small trading depot in Canton.
But then the British hit upon a commodity that proved irresistible -- opium. Grown in India and exported by the British East India Company, this powerful drug enslaved everyone from poor peasants to the nobility, and before long, China was being drained of silver, traded to support a drug habit. The Chinese emperor, fearful of the damage being wreaked on Chinese society and alarmed by his country's loss of silver, declared a ban on opium imports in the 1830s. The British simply ignored the ban, smuggling their illegal cargo up the Pearl River. In 1839, with opium now India's largest export, the Chinese confiscated the British opium stockpiles in Canton and destroyed them. The British responded by declaring war and then winning the struggle. As a result of this first Opium War, waged until 1842, China was forced to open new ports for trade, agree to an exorbitant cash indemnity for the loss of the destroyed opium, and cede Hong Kong Island in perpetuity to the British in a treaty China never recognized. Not only was this Treaty of Nanking demoralizing to the Chinese, but it also ensured that their country would remain open to the curse of opium. And although opium was the cause of the war, it was never even mentioned in the Treaty of Nanking.
Following the second Opium War, waged from 1856 to 1858 as the British sought more trading ports and pushed for the legalization of the opium trade, the tip of Kowloon Peninsula and Stonecutters Island were added to the colony in 1860. In 1898, Britain decided it needed more land for defense and dictated a lease for the New Territories (despite the 100,000 Chinese living there) and more than 200 outlying islands, for 99 years, until 1997. The only piece of land the British didn't acquire was a Chinese fort, constructed in 1847 to defend Kowloon after the British takeover of Hong Kong Island (today the site is the Kowloon Walled City Park).
Please Don't Pass the Bread -- In 1857, a popular but disgruntled Chinese baker, Cheong Ah Lum, was accused of adding arsenic to his bread, poisoning nearly 300 Europeans in retaliation for the Opium Wars. He was acquitted but was deported to China.
The Promised Land
When the British took control of Hong Kong Island in 1842, some 7,000 Chinese lived on the island in farming and fishing communities. Although Hong Kong had a deep and protected harbor, no one, including the Chinese, was much interested in the island itself, and many in the British government considered its acquisition an embarrassing mistake. No sooner had the island been settled than a typhoon tore through the settlement. Repairs were demolished only 5 days later by another tropical storm. Fever and fire followed, and the weather grew so oppressive and humid that the colony seemed to be enveloped in a giant steam bath.
Yet, while the number of headstones in the hillside cemetery multiplied, so too did the number of the living, especially as word spread of the fortunes being made by merchants who had established trading houses for the booming trade in silk, tea, spices, and opium. Soon after the turn of the 20th century, the population had swelled to 300,000. British families lived along the waterfront and called it Victoria (now the Central District), slowly moving up toward the cooler temperatures of Victoria Peak (still home of stately mansions, Victoria Peak is one of Hong Kong's main attractions). The Chinese, barred from occupying the Peak and other European-only neighborhoods, resided in a shantytown farther west, now called the Western District. Conditions were so appalling that when the bubonic plague struck in 1894, it raged for almost 30 years, claiming more than 20,000 lives (the Pathological Institute, established to combat the plague, now houses the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences).
Hong Kong's growth in the 20th century was no less astonishing in terms of both trade and population. In 1900, approximately 11,000 ships pulled into Hong Kong harbor; just a decade later, the number had doubled. In 1911, the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty in China sent a flood of refugees into Hong Kong, followed, in 1938, by an additional 500,000 immigrants. Another mass influx of Chinese refugees arrived after the fall of Shanghai to the Communists in 1950. From this last wave of immigrants, including many Shanghai industrialists, emerged the beginnings of Hong Kong's now-famous textile industry. Throughout the 1950s, Hong Kong grew as a manufacturing and industrial center for electronics, watches, and other low-priced goods. By 1956, Hong Kong's population stood at 2.5 million.
Change, Unrest & the Last of the British
As a British colony, Hong Kong was administered by a governor appointed by the queen. There were no free elections, and the Legislative Council, Hong Kong's main governing body (popularly referred to as LegCo), was also appointed. As 1997 drew nearer, marking the end of the 99-year lease on the New Territories, it soon became clear that China had no intention of renewing the lease or renegotiating a treaty it had never recognized in the first place.
Finally, after more than 20 rounds of talks and meetings, Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, agreeing to transfer all of Hong Kong to Chinese Communist rule on June 30, 1997. China declared Hong Kong a Special Administrative Region, granting it special privileges under a "one country, two systems" policy that guaranteed Hong Kong's capitalist lifestyle and social system for at least 50 years after 1997. Under provisions set forth in the Sino-British Joint Declaration and in Hong Kong's constitution, the Basic Law, Hong Kong would remain largely self-governing, and its people would retain rights to their property, to freedom of speech, and to travel freely in and out of Hong Kong. Throughout the negotiations, however, Hong Kong's residents were never consulted.
Then came the events of June 1989 in Tiananmen Square, in which hundreds of students and demonstrators were attacked by Chinese authorities in a brutal move to quash the pro-democracy movement. China's response to the uprising sent shock waves through Hong Kong and led to rounds of angry protest.
Those who could emigrate did so, primarily to Australia, Canada, and the United States; at its height, more than 1,000 people were emigrating each week. After all, nearly half of Hong Kong's Chinese are refugees from the mainland, and as one Hong Kong Chinese told me, his family fled to escape Communist rule, so why should he stay after 1997? Most of Hong Kong's Chinese, however, remained confident (or at least hopeful) that China realized it had more to gain by keeping Hong Kong as it was. In a move that angered Communist China, Hong Kong Chinese were granted more political autonomy during the last few years of the colony's existence than in all the preceding 150 years, including various democratic reforms such as elections for the Legislative Council. Some early emigrants began returning to Hong Kong, confident they could do better in their native country and willing to wait to see how life might change under the Chinese. Except now they had a safety net: foreign passports.
On June 30, 1997, the last British governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, sailed out of Hong Kong, 4,000 Chinese troops marched in, and Tung Chee-hwa, appointed by the Chinese government, became the new chief executive of the Special Administrative Region (SAR). Mainland China celebrated the event as the end of more than 100 years of shame. On July 1, it dissolved Hong Kong's elected Legislative Council and replaced it with a handpicked Provisional Legislature until a new Legislative Council, with both elected and appointed members, could be formed.
After the Handover
Hong Kong's first elections under Chinese rule, in 1998, allowed for one-third of the 60-member legislature to be elected by direct popular vote, with the Democrats -- Hong Kong's largest party -- winning the most seats (although full suffrage, with a fully elected legislature and chief executive, is declared a goal in the Basic Law, it has no timetable). Meanwhile, like the rest of Asia, Hong Kong was hit hard by economic recession, made worse by manufacturers moving across the Chinese border into Shenzhen to take advantage of cheaper land prices and cheaper wages.
After the handover, the SAR began allowing 150 mainland Chinese to migrate to Hong Kong every day -- more than 54,000 a year. In January 1999, Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal ruled that the Basic Law also granted automatic Hong Kong residency to any mainland Chinese with one Hong Kong parent, even if that parent gained residency after the child was born. However, fearing an explosion of unplanned population growth, with an estimated 1.6 million additional qualified immigrants potentially pouring in from the mainland, coupled with increased unemployment, Tung Chee-hwa asked Beijing to review the immigration ruling, a move interpreted by critics as a threat to the judicial independence of the SAR. China responded by overturning the immigration judgment issued by Hong Kong's highest court and providing a narrower interpretation of the Basic Law, thereby cutting the number of potential new immigrants over the next decade from 1.6 million to about 200,000. Only mainland children who were born after a parent received legal resident status were given a "right of abode." In January 2002, Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal affirmed the Chinese government's reversal of its earlier ruling and ordered 7,300 "unlawful migrants" to leave the SAR. Only 3,000 complied; the remaining 4,300 were forcibly removed to the mainland by police.
A bigger rift in Hong Kong-Beijing relations came in 2003, when an anti-subversion bill was introduced by Tung Chee-hwa's Beijing-backed administration. The measure -- meant to outlaw subversion, sedition, treason, the theft of state secrets, and other crimes against the state -- brought more than 500,000 protesters to Hong Kong's streets on July 1, 2003, making it the SAR's largest protest since the Tiananmen Square massacre. Tung Chee-hwa withdrew the bill, but another blow to Hong Kong democracy came in 2004, when Beijing ruled against a public election for Hong Kong's chief executive in 2007 and declared that there would be no universal suffrage for the Legislative Council election slated for 2008. Hong Kong's pro-democracy leaders responded that Hong Kong's autonomy had been violated, with the core principals of the Basic Law and the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration -- that Hong Kong would be ruled by the people of Hong Kong -- replaced by a Beijing dictatorship. In September 2004, elections for the 60-member Legislative Council allowed an increase in the number of elected members from 24 to 30; the remaining 50% were elected by functional constituencies, consisting mostly of special-interest groups with ties to Beijing.
The biggest news to garner international attention during this time, however, was not Hong Kong's long struggle for autonomy, but rather its role in the eruption of a mysterious, flulike illness in 2003. Spreading from a Hong Kong hotel, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) infected more than 8,000 people in 29 countries over the next few months, killing more than 700 of them. In Hong Kong, which together with China suffered the most, the illness sickened 1,775 people and claimed almost 300 lives. Needless to say, SARS was a major blow to Hong Kong's economy, reducing the city to a tourist ghost town and costing it $4 to $6 billion in retail trade and business. Unemployment hit 8.7%, the highest since the statistic was first recorded in 1981. To encourage tourism and boost the local economy, Hong Kong turned to action film star Jackie Chan as its international spokesperson.
In March 2005, Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong's only leader since the handover, unexpectedly announced his resignation, citing ill health and igniting rumors that Beijing had forced his exit in an effort to curb Hong Kong's growing discontent and resultant push for greater democracy. Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, a career civil servant educated at Harvard and backed by Beijing, was chosen to finish out Tung's remaining 2 years of office and in 2007 was selected for an additional 5-year term. In 2007, China finally announced it would allow Hong Kong to directly elect its own leader in 2017 and all its lawmakers by 2020 (but gave no road map for elections in 2012 and 2016). More than 20 years after the handover, Hong Kong would finally be a democracy.
SARS & Avian Flu
While no one can be certain that new outbreaks of SARS and avian flu will never happen (the last outbreaks for both in Hong Kong occurred in 2003), Hong Kong is ready. The temperatures of all passengers passing through border controls -- at the Hong Kong airport, the border checkpoint between Hong Kong and mainland China, and ferry terminals serving Macau and beyond -- are thermally scanned for fever, and hand sanitizers are strategically placed throughout Hong Kong.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.