Today, Hong Kong is one of the world’s great cities, but it had inauspicious beginnings.
A need to supply her own population with tea, and a perceived imperative to ‘open up’ the markets of the east to European manufacturers, saw Britain and China involved in the ‘Opium Wars’, a series of skirmishes and pitched battles that lasted from 1839 to 1842 and then re-erupted between 1856 and 1860.
During the first Opium War, China was in disarray. The ruling Manchu emperor in Beijing was out of touch with the far-flung reaches of his empire. Communication was slow and his Generals found it better not to displease him, so many ‘facts’ of the initial conflicts were fabricated to save both face, and their lives. The English forces were well armed and well disciplined, and with the assistance of a new type of warship, the steam powered and iron-clad HMS Nemesis, were able to rout the Chinese defences.
China was happy to sell the British tea, but did not desire their manufactured goods in trade—what they wanted was silver. The British, realising that this was not a sustainable proposition, began smuggling opium into China to offset the price of the tea. The opium was grown in Bengal, India, on farms controlled by the British East India Company. The Chinese government wanted to stop the illegal opium imports, but through the use of force, Britain coerced the China to accept the opium.
British forces first occupied Hong Kong Island in 1841, and with the end of hostilities in 1842, the Treaty of Nanking ceded Hong Kong to the British Empire. By 1898, with Hong Kong flourishing as a trading port, Britain signed a 99 year lease on the territory. The lease ran out in 1997, and with much fanfare and trepidation, Hong Kong was handed back to China. Since then it has been a ‘Special Administrative Region’, allowed by the government in Beijing to continue its capitalistic direction at least until 2047, when decisions about the future of Hong Kong will be made.
The area known as ‘Hong Kong’ is really a combination of a mainland peninsula (Kowloon and the New Territories) and more than 200 islands. The total area is a little over 1100 sq km, and with a population of over 7,000,000 makes it the 4th most densely population of all the world’s countries and territories.
In today’s Hong Kong there are patches of history, and it may takes a little searching to find it, but it is still there. The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, once a major landmark in the Mid-Levels, is now lost amongst a forest of new high-rise apartment buildings. The Jamia Mosque, along the Mid-Levels escalator and built in 1907, remains in shadow for most of the day. This is common on Hong Kong Island, and much of the old city is lost amongst overbearing skyscrapers. A great deal more has been demolished to make way for them.
What may not be evident from a cursory glance at this modern metropolis is the underlying level of superstition amongst its people. Numerology and feng shui are commonplace, and architects and designers will consult occult practitioners before finalising steel and glass skyscrapers. But it should not be so surprising—old ideas and new coexist happily in Hong Kong. Along the main thoroughfares in Tsim Tsa Shui, crowds of perfectly dressed twenty-somethings line up outside shops selling Prada, Lacoste and Gucci; a few streets away men stripped to the waist push rickety wooden carts loaded with melons and durian into fruit markets.
Text and Images © Stuart Peel 2015