The name Hong Kong came from the Cantonese heung gawng (‘fragrant harbour’), which was inspired by the sandalwood piled at what is now Aberdeen. In the long scale of history, Hong Kong as we know it today has existed for a mere blink of an eye. But there was a lot going on in the region before that morning in 1841 when British marines clambered ashore and planted the Union flag on the western part of Hong Kong Island.

Early Inhabitants

Hong Kong has supported human life since at least the Middle Neolithic Period (c 4000–2500 BC). Artefacts uncovered at almost 100 archaeological sites in the territory suggest that the inhabitants of these settlements shared similar cultural characteristics to the people who lived in the Pearl River delta. The remnants of Bronze Age habitations (c 1500–220 BC) unearthed on Lamma and Lantau Islands, among other places – as well as the eight extant geometric rock carvings along Hong Kong’s coastline – also indicate that these early peoples practised some form of folk religion involving animal worship.

The Five Great Clans

The first of Hong Kong’s mighty ‘Five Clans’ – Han Chinese, whose descendants hold political and economic clout to this day – began settling the area around the 11th century. The first and most powerful of the arrivals was the Tang, who initially settled around Yuen Long (the walled village of Kat Hing Wai is part of this cluster).

The Tang clan was followed by the Hau and the Pang, who spread around present-day Sheung Shui and Fanling. These three clans were followed by the Liu in the 14th century and the Man a century later.

The Cantonese-speaking newcomers called themselves bun day (Punti), meaning ‘indigenous’ or ‘local’ – something they clearly were not. They looked down on the original inhabitants, the Tanka, many of whom had been shunted off the land and had moved onto the sea to live on boats.

An Imperial Outpost

Clinging to the southern edge of the Chinese province of Canton (now Guǎngdōng), the peninsula and islands that became the territory of Hong Kong counted only as a remote pocket in a neglected corner of the Chinese empire.

The Punti flourished until the struggle that saw the moribund Ming dynasty (1368–1644) overthrown. The victorious Qing (1644–1911), angered by the resistance put up by southerners loyal to the old order, enforced evacuation inland of all the inhabitants of China’s southeastern coastal area, including Hong Kong, in the 1660s.

More than four generations passed before the population was able to recover to its mid-17th-century level, boosted in part by the influx of the Hakka (Cantonese for ‘guest people’), who moved here in the 18th century and up to the mid-19th century. A few vestiges of their language, songs, folklore and cooking survive, most visibly in the wide-brimmed, black-fringed bamboo hats sported by Hakka women in the New Territories.

Arrival of the Outer Barbarians

For centuries the Pearl River estuary had been an important trading artery centred on the port of Canton (now Guǎngzhōu). Some of the first foreign traders (or ‘outer barbarians’) were Arab traders who entered – and sacked – the settlement as early as the 8th century AD. Similarly, the Ming emperors regarded their subjects to the south as an utterly uncivilised bunch. It was therefore fitting that the Cantonese should trade with the ‘outer barbarians’.

Regular trade between China and Europe began in 1557 when Portuguese navigators set up a base in Macau, 65km west of Hong Kong. Dutch traders came in the wake of the Portuguese, followed by the French. British ships appeared as early as 1683 from the East India Company concessions along the coast of India, and by 1711 the company had established offices and warehouses in Guǎngzhōu to trade for tea, silk and porcelain.

The First Opium War & British Hong Kong

China did not reciprocate Europe’s voracious demand for its products, for the most part shunning foreign-manufactured goods. The foreigners’ ensuing trade deficit was soon reversed, however, after the British discovered a commodity that the Chinese did want: opium.

The British, with a virtually inexhaustible supply of the drug from the poppy fields of India, developed the trade aggressively. Consequently, opium addiction spread out of control in China, and the country’s silver reserves became perilously drained.

In late 1838 Emperor Dao Guang (r 1820–50) appointed Lin Zexu, governor of Húnán and Húběi and a Mandarin of great integrity, to stamp out the opium trade. His rather successful campaign would ultimately lead to the First Opium War (or First Anglo-Chinese War) of 1839–42.

In January 1841 a naval landing party hoisted the British flag at Possession Point (now Possession St) on Hong Kong Island. Subsequently, the Treaty of Nanking abolished the monopoly system of trade, opened five ‘treaty ports’ to British residents and foreign trade, exempted British nationals from all Chinese laws and ceded the strategically useful island of Hong Kong to the British ‘in perpetuity’.

Hong Kong, with its deep, well-sheltered harbour, formally became a British possession on 26 June 1843, and its first governor, Sir Henry Pottinger, took charge. A primitive, chaotic and lawless settlement soon sprang up.

Growing Pains

What would later be called the Second Opium War (or Second Anglo-Chinese War) broke out in October 1856. The victorious British forced the Chinese to sign the Convention of Peking in 1860, which ceded Kowloon Peninsula and Stonecutters Island to Britain. Britain was now in complete control of Victoria Harbour and its approaches.

As the Qing dynasty slid into major chaos towards the end of the 19th century, the British government petitioned China to extend the colony into the New Territories. The June 1898 Convention of Peking handed Britain a larger-than-expected slice of territory that included 235 islands and ran north to the Shumchun (Shēnzhèn) River, increasing the colony’s size by 90%.

Build up to WWII

While Hong Kong’s major trading houses, including Jardine Matheson and Swire, prospered from their trade with China, the colony hardly thrived in its first few decades. Fever, bubonic plague and typhoons threatened life and property, and at first the colony attracted a fair number of criminals and vice merchants.

Gradually Hong Kong began to shape itself into a more substantial community. Nonetheless, from the late-19th century right up to WWII, Hong Kong lived in the shadow of the treaty port of Shànghǎi, which had become Asia’s premier trade and financial centre – not to mention its style capital.

The colony’s population continued to grow thanks to the waves of immigrants fleeing the Chinese Revolution of 1911, which ousted the decaying Qing dynasty and ushered in several decades of strife, rampaging warlords and famine. The Japanese invasion of China in 1937 sparked another major exodus to Hong Kong's shores.

Hong Kong’s status as a British colony would offer the refugees only a temporary haven. The day after Japan attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, its military machine swept down from Guǎngzhōu and into Hong Kong.

Conditions under Japanese rule were harsh, with indiscriminate killings of mostly Chinese civilians; western civilians were incarcerated at Stanley Prison on Hong Kong Island. Many Hong Kong Chinese fled to Macau, administered by neutral Portugal.

The Road To Boomtown

After Japan’s withdrawal from Hong Kong, and subsequent surrender in August 1945, the colony looked set to resume its hibernation. But events both at home and on the mainland forced the colony in a new direction.

The Chinese Civil War (1945–49) and the subsequent communist takeover of China caused a huge number of refugees – both rich and poor – to flee to Hong Kong. The refugees brought along capital and cheap labour, which would prove vital to Hong Kong’s economic take-off. On a paltry, war-torn foundation, local and foreign businesses built a huge manufacturing (notably textiles and garments) and financial services centre that transformed Hong Kong into one of the world’s great economic miracles.

Hong Kong’s stability received a hard battering at the height of the Cultural Revolution in 1967, as local pro-communist groups instigated a series of anti-colonial demonstrations, strikes and riots. The violence soon mushroomed into bombings and arson attacks, and the colony’s economy was paralysed for months. The riot came to an end in December 1967, when Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai ordered the pro-communist groups to stop.

A Society In Transition

After the 1967 crisis the colonial government initiated a series of reforms to alleviate social discontent and to foster a sense of belonging to Hong Kong. In the next decade the government introduced more labour laws, and invested heavily in public housing, medical services, education and recreational activities for youth.

Although Hong Kong’s stock market collapsed in 1973, its economy resumed its upward trend later in the decade. The ‘Open Door’ policy of Deng Xiaoping, who took control of China in the confusion after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, revived Hong Kong’s role as the gateway to the mainland and it boomed. By the end of the 1980s, Hong Kong was one of the richest places in Asia, second only to Japan in terms of GDP per capita.

The 1997 Question

Few people gave much thought to Hong Kong’s future until 1979, when the governor of Hong Kong, Murray MacLehose, raised the issue with Deng Xiaoping on his first official visit to Běijīng. Britain was legally bound to hand back only the New Territories – not Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, which had been ceded to it forever. However, the fact that nearly half of Hong Kong’s population lived in the New Territories by that time made it an untenable division.

It was Deng Xiaoping who decided that the time was ripe to recover Hong Kong, forcing the British to the negotiating table. The views of Hong Kong people were not sought. The inevitable conclusion laid to rest the political jitters and commercial concerns that in 1983 had seen the Hong Kong dollar collapse and subsequently be pegged to the US dollar.

Despite soothing words from the Chinese, British and Hong Kong governments, over the next 13 years the population of Hong Kong was to suffer considerable anxiety over the possible political and economic consequences of the handover due in 1997.

One Country, Two Systems

Under the Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong of December 1984, Hong Kong would be reborn as a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China. This meant its capitalist system would be permitted to continue, while across the border China’s version of socialism would continue. The Chinese catchphrase for this was ‘One Country, Two Systems’.

The Basic Law for Hong Kong, the future SAR’s constitution, preserved Hong Kong’s English common-law judicial system and guaranteed the right of property and ownership, as well as other key civil liberties. The SAR would enjoy a high degree of autonomy with the exception of foreign affairs and matters of defence.

Despite these assurances, many families and individuals had little faith in a future Hong Kong under Chinese rule, and a so-called brain drain ensued when tens of thousands left the colony for the US, Canada, Australia and NZ towards the end of the 1980s.

Tiān’ānmén & Its Aftermath

The concern of many Hong Kong people over their future turned to out-and-out fear on 4 June 1989, when the Chinese army killed pro-democracy demonstrators in Běijīng's Tiān’ānmén Square.

Tiān’ānmén was a watershed for Hong Kong. Sino-British relations deteriorated, the stock market fell 22% in one day and a great deal of capital left the territory for destinations overseas.

The Hong Kong government sought to rebuild confidence by announcing plans for a new airport and shipping port in what was the world’s most expensive (HK$160 billion or US$20.6 billion) infrastructure project of the day.

The Tiān’ānmén protests had strengthened the resolve of those people who either could not or would not leave, giving rise to the territory’s first official political parties. In a bid to restore credibility, the government introduced a Bill of Rights in 1990 and the following year gave Hong Kong citizens the right to choose 18 of the 60 members of the Legislative Council (LegCo), which until then had essentially been a rubber-stamp body chosen by the government and special-interest groups.

To this day, Hong Kong is the only place in China where the crackdown on the Tiān’ānmén pro-democracy uprising of 4 June 1989 can be openly commemorated.

Democracy & The Last Governor

One of the first parties to emerge was the United Democrats of Hong Kong, led by outspoken democrats Martin Lee and Szeto Wah. The pair, initially courted by China for their anti-colonial positions and appointed to the committee that drafted the Basic Law, subsequently infuriated Běijīng by publicly burning copies of the proto-constitution in protest over Tiān’ānmén. China denounced them as subversives.

Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s 28th – and last – British governor, arrived in 1992, pledging that democracy reforms would be sped up. China reacted by levelling verbal attacks at Patten and threatening the post-1997 careers of any pro-democracy politicians or officials. When these tactics failed, China targeted Hong Kong’s economy. Talks on certain business contracts and infrastructure projects straddling 1997 suddenly came to a halt, including the new airport program.

Sensing that it had alienated even its supporters in Hong Kong, China backed down and in 1994 gave its blessing to the new airport at Chek Lap Kok. It remained hostile to direct elections, however, and vowed to disband the democratically elected legislature after 1997. It eventually did what it promised by installing an interim rubber-stamp body which would serve until June 1998.

As for the executive branch of power, China organised an ‘election’ in December 1996 to select Hong Kong’s first post-colonial leader. But Tung Chee Hwa (1937–), the Shànghǎi-born shipping magnate handpicked to be the SAR’s first chief executive, won approval by retaining Patten’s right-hand woman, Anson Chan, as his chief secretary and Donald Tsang as financial secretary. In a media briefing given to reporters when he accepted the post, Tung ushered the curtain call to a century and a half of British rule and summed up Chinese feelings about the upcoming handover with the words: ‘Now we are finally masters of our own house’.

On the night of 30 June 1997, the handover celebrations held in the purpose-built extension of the Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai were watched by millions of people around the world. Chris Patten shed a tear while Chinese President Jiang Zemin beamed and Prince Charles was outwardly stoic.

Post-1997: Hong Kong Under Tung

Almost as soon as the euphoria of the 1997 handover faded, things started going badly in Hong Kong. The financial crisis that had rocked other parts of Asia began to be felt in Hong Kong at the end of 1997. A strain of deadly avian flu saw the city slaughter more than one million chickens.

In the first few years after the handover, the mainland government largely chose to tread lightly in Hong Kong, honouring the spirit of the handover agreement to a great extent. Tung Chee Hwa’s first term is remembered as much for his confusing housing policy, which many blamed for a sustained fall in property prices, as for such vacuous infrastructure proposals as a Chinese medicine port. Despite his poor standing in the polls, Tung was returned for a second five-year term in March 2002.

Controversy continued to dog his time in office, however, most notably in March 2003, when the government’s failure to contain the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic at an early stage, provoked a torrent of blame. The outbreak killed 299 people, infected 1755 and all but closed Hong Kong down for weeks.

In July 2003 the government caused further controversy when it tried to turn Article 23 of the Basic Law into legislation; the National Security Bill raised fears that Hong Kong’s press freedom and civil liberties would be undermined. In the face of massive public protests – of 500,000 people or more – the government shelved the bill indefinitely, but the incident changed Běijīng’s stance on Hong Kong.

The Clamour for Democracy

In March 2005 Tung announced his resignation as chief executive. His replacement was the bow-tie-wearing chief secretary Sir Donald Tsang, who had continuously served as Hong Kong’s financial secretary from before the handover up to 2001, when he became the city’s number-two public official.

Compared to Tung, Tsang was a welcome replacement for both the Běijīng powerbrokers and the Hong Kong public. In 2007 Tsang was easily re-elected with Běijīng's blessing. However, he soon suffered an erosion of public confidence when he was seen to renege on a series of promises, including delaying a highly anticipated consultation on reforming the electoral process for the chief executive and legislature to make the 2012 polls more democratic.

The clamour for democracy reached a crescendo in 2010 as two landmark political events took place in successive months. In May five pro-democracy lawmakers were re-elected to LegCo after they collectively resigned four months earlier in the hope that the resulting by-elections would serve as a de-facto referendum on universal suffrage. The pro-Běijīng parties boycotted the contests, however, and the quintet’s campaign came unstuck, even though they could claim to have been returned to the chamber by a respectable vote.

The pro-democracy parties had in fact been divided over the political strategy behind the forced by-elections, and the long-running differences among the key players imploded the following month when the biggest of them all, the Democratic Party, sided with the government in a new political reform package that would see LegCo earn a slightly increased percentage of popularly elected seats at the expense of delayed universal suffrage for the entire legislature and for the election of Hong Kong’s chief executive.

The calls for democracy have continued since, most notably around the election – by a 1200-member body of predominantly pro-Běijīng notables – of the SAR’s fourth chief executive in March 2012. Leung Chun-ying, a stalwart in Hong Kong politics with impeccably close links to Běijīng, defeated the long-time hopeful and former civil-service chief Henry Tang.

In June 2014 an unofficial referendum on making the election of the city's chief executive more democratic garnered votes from more than 787,000 Hong Kong residents – the equivalent of more than 22% of the city's 3.5 million registered voters. Following this, on 1 July 2014, thousands of people turned out for a pro-democracy protest march on the anniversary of the handover. The protest organisers claimed 510,000 attendees, though the police put the figure at 98,600. Discontent continued to bubble beneath the surface and in September 2014 it erupted into a larger pro-democracy campaign that became known as the Umbrella Movement.

A Changed City?

Apart from ever more glitzy skyscrapers, visitors returning to Hong Kong since July 1997 would see and feel little material difference walking around the city. Perhaps the most striking thing they might notice is the influx of a new breed of visitor: mainland Chinese, who in the past two decades have grown to make up nearly 70% of the territory’s visitor numbers.

In many ways Hong Kong has benefited from closer ties with the mainland. The growth in Hong Kong’s tourism would have been impossible without the influx of mainland tourists, and the Closer Economic Partnership Agreement signed with the mainland government in 2003 provided favourable business opportunities to Hong Kong’s investors and industries.

While closer ties with the mainland have often been met with uneasy feelings, might history one day identify an equal and opposite reaction going on? Hong Kong’s dazzling success and core values arguably exert ‘soft’ power that influences thinking on the mainland. It might be hard to measure, but in the enclave that sheltered and inspired the fathers of powerful mainland movements (Sun Yatsen and Zhou Enlai), it should not be dismissed.