When a small island near the Pearl River estuary was added to the British Crown’s possessions in 1842, Lord Palmerston, in one of history’s more spectacular misjudgements, dismissed it as “a barren island which will never be a mart of trade.” Today that barren island, with its rented hinterland and a population smaller than London’s, ranks among the top ten world economies. It is the very paradigm of a mart of trade; but its future is still in doubt, for at midnight on 30th June 1997 the Union Jack will drop from its flagstaff, to be replaced by China’s starred red banner. Britain’s 156 year rule of the “Fragrant Harbour” will be over.
In 1841 British merchants lost patience with the grudging toehold allowed them at Canton by the Qing emperors. Attempts to negotiate better trading facilities had repeatedly failed, and merchants eager for China’s tea and silk were illegally exchanging Indian opium for them. Conflict was inevitable; when it came, British frigates crushed China’s junks, and the 1843 Treaty of Nanking ceded Hong Kong to Britain in perpetuity. China thought it had escaped lightly; its emperor had never heard of the place-it was a dot among scores of islands around the Pearl River mouth, known to the Portuguese as Ladrones (“Thieves”) in honour of the inhabitants’ profession.
In 1860, after further conflict, Peking ceded Britain five square miles of Kowloon peninsula across Victoria Harbour’s narrow waters. In 1898 Britain took a 99 year lease on a further 376 square miles of Kowloon and adjoining islands. In retrospect this made inevitable the return to China of the original ceded territories, which cannot now survive without the rented lands.
One of the best recent accounts of Hong Kong’s adventurous story is Frank Welsh’s History of Hong Kong (1993). Like other fine depictions, such as GB Endacott’s History of Hong Kong (1958), it owes much to EJ Eitel’s classic Europe in China (1895), written by a scholar and longtime Hong Kong resident who was an eye witness to many of the colony’s early excitements. If Eitel is an indispensable source, so is GR Sayer’s two volume record, Hong Kong 1841-1862 and Hong Kong 1862-1919 (1975), for Sayer was an official with minute knowledge of Government House documents.
These histories are written from the colonists’ point of view. For the Chinese perspective on the years to 1913 one must read Jung-Fang Tsai’s Hong Kong in Chinese History (1993), which details resistance to British rule in strikes and civil disobedience, sometimes brutally suppressed. The book treats “not just of the wealthy Chinese merchants surrounded by their concubines, but also the sweating sedan chair coolie bitten by a dog owned by a European.” KC Fok’s Lectures in Hong Kong History (1990) and Wai Kwan Chu’s The Making of Hong Kong Society (1991) add to that perspective.
Nothing surpasses HJ Lethbridge’s wittily perceptive introduction to the colony’s mentalit? in his Hong Kong: Stability and Change (1978). But fiction, as usual, offers equally good introductions. James Clavell’s blockbusters Tai-Pan (1966) and Noble House (1981) retell Hong Kong’s creation by the rumbustious characters who founded Jardine Matheson, Dent, and the other great trading houses. Their fierce rivalries and dirty tricks make gripping tales. Timothy Mo’s elegant prose exposes Hong Kong family life in The Monkey King (1978) and gives his own fictionalised history of the colony in An Insular Possession (1986), his title drawn from James Matheson’s 1831 petition to parliament for a British-held trading base in the South China seas. If fictionalised doings of tai-pans-“Big Bosses”-seem improbable, consult Colin Crisswell’s The Tai-Pans, Hong Kong’s Merchant Princes (1981) for the facts. Other fictions offer other perceptions: Richard Mason’s The World of Suzie Wong (1957) and Han Suyin’s A Many Splendoured Thing (1952) are best known as films.
Horse-racing in Happy Valley is celebrated in Austin Coates’s China Races (1983); Pearson and Leung edit essays on Women in Hong Kong (1995); FH King gets just as close to the colony’s heart in History of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (1988-90); Oliver Lindsay records wartime Japanese occupation in The Lasting Honour (1978); and Edward Stokes’s Hong Kong’s Wild Places (1996) celebrates the colony’s natural beauty.
The recent concern is the reversion to China. Mark Roberti’s The Fall of Hong Kong (1994) accuses Margaret Thatcher’s government of betrayal. The argument finds various expressions: Robert Cottrell’s The End of Hong Kong (1993), Liam Fitzpatrick’s Rats Liked It Well Enough: The 1997 Story (1993), Kwok Nai Wang’s Hong Kong Braves 1997 (1994), and Dick Wilson’s Hong Kong’s Future, Realistic Grounds for Optimism? (1990) are examples. Steve Shipp’s The Political History of Hong Kong’s Transfer to China (1992) is more studied.
For me the most poignant recent titles are T Wing Lo’s Corruption and Politics in Hong Kong and China (1993) and Raymond Wacks (ed) Human Rights in Hong Kong (1992), for they address Hong Kong’s two most imminent problems.