By JUDY LU KESTELL and HAROLD MEINHEIT
Hong Kong is a unique melding of Eastern and Western influences, whose history has made it a meeting point for China and the outside world. In this environment, Hong Kong's Chinese population, more than 95 percent of the former colony's residents, has developed a distinctive culture.
As one of the world's great cities, Hong Kong has many faces. To scholars and journalists, it was long the best place to play "China-watcher." To the business and financial community, Hong Kong remains one of the best places in the world to make money. To artists, writers and filmmakers, the city's colorful history and dramatic beauty have provided inspiration and vivid settings for art, books and movies. To tourists, it is a shopper's paradise with great restaurants and magnificent harbor views.
Hong Kong consists of Hong Kong Island (ceded by China to Britain in 1842), the southern part of the Kowloon Peninsula and Stonecutters Island (ceded in 1860) and the New Territories, which include the mainland area lying to the north and 235 offshore islands. The New Territories were leased from China for 99 years beginning in 1898.
At midnight on June 30, China took the territory back from Great Britain as a "Special Administrative Region" that, the Chinese government has promised, will retain its present economic and social system for the next 50 years.
How did this unique city emerge from a sparsely populated coastal area to become one of the world's most vibrant international centers of commerce? A Library exhibition, "Hong Kong: From Fishing Village to Financial Center," tries to answer this question by tracing Hong Kong's development from the mid-19th century to the present, through materials from the Library of Congress collections.
Merchants, Men of War and Missionaries, 1840s-1860s
Archaeological evidence of human settlement in the area of modern-day Hong Kong goes back to the fourth millennium B.C., although the identity of these early inhabitants is uncertain. Since the southern expansion of the Qin (221-207 B.C.) and the Han (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) dynasties, there have been Chinese settlements in the Hong Kong region; however, the area was never heavily populated.
When the British started using the excellent harbor on the northern side of Hong Kong Island in the early 1840s, they found more than 3,000 inhabitants in villages and 2,000 fishermen living in their boats in the harbor. The British started referring to the small, hilly, rocky island sheltering the harbor as "Hong Kong," which comes from a local Cantonese dialect and means "fragrant harbor."
The British colony of Hong Kong was born from the clash between two great empires. The ostensible reason for the outbreak of war between China and Great Britain in 1839 was opium, which the British and other Western traders were importing illegally into China.
The roots of the conflict, however, went much deeper, growing out of two fundamentally different concepts of international relations and trade. In the face of Western pressures to open China to trade, the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) clung to the old tributary system and struggled to keep the West at bay. Resenting the Qing dynasty's disdain of foreigners, Britain and other Western traders demanded equal treatment and commercial access to the Chinese market.
Britain acquired Hong Kong Island under the Treaty of Nanking (Nanjing) in 1842 at the end of its first war with China. Friction between China and the West, however, increased in 1850 when a new emperor assumed the throne in Beijing, and it became clear the treaties were not being observed. Another war, fought between 1856 and 1860, resulted in Britain's obtaining the tip of the Kowloon Peninsula (on the mainland across the harbor from Hong Kong Island) and Stonecutters Island.
The commercial development of Hong Kong's fine natural harbor, which had attracted the British in the first place, began slowly, and Hong Kong lagged behind Shanghai as a port. With the discovery of gold in California in 1849, however, Hong Kong became a center for Chinese emigration from Guangdong Province to the United States, helping to build Hong Kong's economy, as many of the Chinese who went to California returned with their new-found riches.
Coming of Age, 1870s-1900
By the last quarter of the 19th century, Hong Kong had developed as a British Crown Colony. The 1880s and 1890s were the heyday of colonialism in Asia, and colonial society in Hong Kong reflected the temper of the times. During this period, Hong Kong became an increasingly popular destination for western travelers in Asia. In 1879 Ulysses S. Grant visited Hong Kong during his two-year voyage around the world. Grant's official welcome united the former commander of the Union army with Col. John Mosby, the former Confederate guerrilla leader (who was representing the United States in Hong Kong), and Hong Kong Gov. Sir John Pope-Hennessy, in full imperial regalia. Hong Kong's elite society loved it.
One of the key developments of the 1890s was the construction of the Peak Tramway, an inclined-rail carrier that provided easy access to the top of Victoria Peak, the hill that dominates Hong Kong Island. Before the tram, the only way up was by sedan chair, carried by footmen. With easier access, "the Peak" became the most prestigious residential area of the colony, remaining so to this day. Hong Kong also gained in importance to the United States Navy when Adm. George Dewey used Mirs Bay, located on the eastern shores of the New Territories, as a staging area for his fleet during the Spanish-American War of 1898.
The Chinese Community: 1870s and Onward
While British colonial society was flowering, important developments were taking place in the Chinese community. One of the most significant was the establishment of the Tung Wah Hospital in 1872. Beyond running a hospital for local Chinese, Tung Wah's Board of Governors soon started to play a broader leadership role in the Chinese community and functioned as an effective link to the British administration.
In 1887 the Hong Kong College of Medicine opened, and it provided an opportunity for the Chinese to obtain medical degrees. It also paved the way for another landmark event -- the opening of the University of Hong Kong in 1912. A second major university, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, opened in 1963.
Revolution and War in Asia, 1900-1949
The first half of the 20th century in Asia saw the birth of the Chinese revolution, growing anticolonial movements in the Southeast, and the rise of Japanese militarism, leading to the outbreak of World War II on the continent. Although not a major player, Hong Kong participated in the drama.
During the 1920s, increasing turmoil in China spread to Hong Kong in the form of a general strike in 1925 and a boycott of British goods that lasted until the fall of 1926. Hong Kong also provided a temporary base for Vietnamese revolutionaries such as Ho Chi Minh in early 1930.
By 1937, the Sino-Japanese War broke out and thousands of Chinese fled to Hong Kong, swelling the population to more than 1.6 million four years later. In December 1941, as it attacked Pearl Harbor, Japan attacked and occupied Hong Kong. Many citizens of the colony were imprisoned, and most had limited access to food and other resources. By the time the British returned at war's end in August 1945, the population had been reduced to approximately 600,000 residents.
The Birth of Modern Hong Kong: 1950s-1980s
During the 1950s, Hong Kong began its transformation to the modern economic success story of today. An influx of capital and entrepreneurial talent from Shanghai in the late 1940s and the Korean War trade embargo of China in 1950 spurred the colony's industrial development.
The 1950s also saw a worsening of Hong Kong's most serious social problem, a severe housing shortage caused by the influx of refugees fleeing the mainland. The development of public housing has been one of the Hong Kong government's major programs since that period, and today the squatter areas have largely disappeared.
With the formation of the People's Republic of China in 1949, much of the West was cut off from contact with the communist country. Diplomats, scholars and journalists based in Hong Kong used access to China's press, radio broadcasts, refugees and local contacts in the arcane art of "China-watching." For its part, China could maintain some contacts with the West through its unofficial representatives in Hong Kong at the New China (Xinhua) News Agency and the Bank of China.
Hong Kong was not isolated from Chinese domestic politics, however, especially during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. The Chinese government incited citizens of Hong Kong to protest British rule. The result was large-scale demonstrations against the colonial government, sometimes violent, during the spring and summer of 1967. The police handled the eruptions with firmness but restraint. Moreover, China did not force a confrontation with Britain and order was restored by that fall.
With President Richard Nixon's trip to China in 1972 and the establishment of full U.S. diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1979, Hong Kong's role as a "China-watching" post declined. However, its economic role grew dramatically as Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms began to take hold in the early 1980s.
As Hong Kong grew into an international financial center, its culture became a mixture of the East and the West. The local Chinese absorbed elements of Western art, fashion, food, music, entertainment, and consumer behavior, thus creating a colorful, modern culture unique in Asia.
Traditional Chinese arts have comfortably coexisted with Western-influenced ones. Writers in the local Chinese community have clung to the ancient history of China as a source of literary inspiration. Moreover, traditional Chinese opera, which portrays heroes and heroines from the ancient Chinese dynasties, continues to attract a large local Cantonese audience.
Although martial arts did not originate in Hong Kong, they became popular with large numbers of Chinese and were featured in novels and films. Hong Kong's vibrant film industry produces large numbers of movies that are popular there and in many overseas Chinese communities.
Hong Kong and China: 'One Country, Two Systems'
For much of the 20th century, Hong Kong has been "a borrowed place living on borrowed time." Worry about the future surfaced again in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Hong Kong's business community started to express unease about the New Territories lease, set to expire in 1997.
Legally, commercial leases in the New Territories could not be extended beyond June 30, 1997. As the date approached, therefore, shorter and shorter leases would be necessary, providing less time for investors to realize profits. This would, many feared, begin to damage investor confidence in Hong Kong.
Under pressure from the business community, during Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's visit to Beijing in 1982, Britain raised the issue of extending the New Territories lease. China, however, had long taken the position that all the 19th century treaties and agreements on Hong Kong were "unequal" and as such were not binding. Extending the New Territories lease was not an option, and Britain's discussions with China became serious negotiations over the terms of Hong Kong's return to China. These negotiations concluded in 1984 with the signing of the Joint Declaration. Drafting of the Basic Law was completed in 1990, setting the stage for the formal transformation of Hong Kong into a Special Administrative Region of China on July 1, 1997.
Ms. Kestell is an area specialist in the Asian Division, and Mr. Meinheit is a consultant on the Hong Kong exhibit.