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CHINA / Hong Kong
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The West’s Window Into China

Central, Hong KongThe Special Administrative Region (SAR) of Hong Kong has a population of around 7 million. The SAR is comprised of the island of Hong Kong, the Kowloon Peninsula, the New Territories, which abut China proper, and more than 200 islands, ranging from Lantau Island which is bigger than the island of Hong Kong, to small outcrops in the surrounding seas; the total area is a little over a thousand square kilometers, so it would fit neatly into the city of Los Angeles. Centuries ago, this small parcel of land in the tropics, on the distant margins of the great Chinese empire, was little more than a rocky outcrop. Were it not for the incursions of foreigners, Hong Kong today could be but one of many sleepy fishing villages on the edge of the South China Sea . Instead, first the Mongols and then especially the British, have ensured Hong Kong ’s place in history. For the better part of two centuries it has served as the gateway to China , and to this day remains a looking glass through which westerners can catch a glimpse of China , and Chinese a glimpse of the west.


The first, thirteenth-century, irruption was short indeed. At that time the rump of the Southern Song dynasty court had fled south, away from the advancing Mongol armies. Initially they decamped to Silvermine Bay , a part of the old fishing village of Mui Wo , on Lantau Island , before making the Kowloon Peninsula their base. The Southern Song was soon defeated by the Mongols, and Hong Kong ’s first brush with empire-wide politics was forgotten. History, however, was not finished with the settlement. In the early nineteenth-century, around the time of the first Opium War, Hong Kong appeared in a substantial way on the historical horizon. The protagonist was Charles Elliot, the British Superintendent of Trade. In response to British merchants being expelled from Macao , Elliot made the island of Hong Kong their base. The Opium War broke out, the Chinese side soon sued for peace and the island was ceded, in perpetuity to the British according to the terms of the Treaty of Nanking in 1842. The Second Opium War also ended in Chinese defeat, and this time the lower end of the Kowloon Peninsula became British territory. Finally, in 1898, the adjacent lands of the New Territories were leased by Britain for 99 years.

Hong Kong muddled along, sometimes serving as a base for revolutionaries such as Sun Yat-sen. Ironically it was the Communist victory on the mainland in 1949 and UN-backed trade embargo that gave Hong Kong the spur it needed to develop as a capitalist haven with a strong manufacturing base specializing initially in textiles. But you’ll be hard pressed to find all those manufacturing sweat shops these days - manufacturing now accounts for less than 5% of Hong Kong ’s GDP, while the service industry accounts for more than 85%. The entrepreneurial spirit in Hong Kong remains a common thread stringing together the nineteenth-century small business ventures to the early manufacturing enterprises to the present-day service industries. Hong Kong ’s foremost Western commentator, Jan Morris described it thus:


"They are opportunists of genius. When communal lavatories were first installed in Hong Kong, Chinese entrepreneurs took to sitting on them for so long that people were obliged to bribe them to come off. When during the plague of 1900 the Government offered two cents for every dead rat delivered to the authorities, there was a brisk flow of imported rodents from the mainland. Marine Department employees posted to the signal station on the otherwise uninhabited Green Island took to breeding goats as a sideline. "(1)


The Communist victory also saw many cultural figures arrive in Hong Kong and they augmented the natural cultural growth that accompanied the economic rise of the colony. Perhaps it is the Hong Kong film industry that is best known in the West and Jackie Chan is now a household name; but other figures not known outside Chinese cultural circles also made the move south, including everyone from martial arts masters to calligraphers. This ensured that Hong Kong developed an organic cultural world together with the cosmopolitan profile left by its colonial past. While 95% of the population is listed as being of Chinese descent, one in fourteen people holds a foreign passport. This latter fact is testament to the international character of much of the population, as well as to the flurry of uncertainty that gripped the population before the handover back to mainland Chinese control, when many citizens felt safer having an alternative in case the new regime turned sour.


These days Hong Kong is no longer the shopping paradise it once was - though some electronics remain good buys. An interesting spectacle if you’re browsing is to watch the high end sales. Many of the shoppers for brand-name products are the nouveau riche from mainland China - tired of the perpetual concerns over authenticity in China they believe that purchases in Hong Kong are much less likely to be fake. Funnily enough, even the quality of Hong Kong ’s fakes is acknowledged, and street sellers may try to convince you by advertising ’genuine copies’. If you want to spend time on local favourites, then head for the Racetrack at Happy Valley , surrounded by high-rise buildings, and enjoy the night races in the comfort of the Hong Kong Jockey Club.


(1).Jan Morris, Hong Kong: Epilogue to an Empire (London: Penguin, 1997), p.180.


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