• Tahuhu Korero

Pearl of the Orient: Hong Kong’s Colonial Past

Updated: Sep 6, 2019

The 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty has raised an interesting issue. The dramatic storming of the Legislative Council, and the draping of Hong Kong’s colonial-era flag over the President’s Podium, shows that the region’s colonial past still plays an active part in the events of the modern day. Indeed, the era of British rule is not universally reviled by the local population, as in many other former Crown colonies. One might say that Hong Kong’s relationship with its colonial past is but a case of rose-tinted glasses, greatly influenced by China’s looming shadow. The author and lawyer Amy Lai goes as far as to say that there is still a “yearning for Hong Kong’s days under British rule” amongst the current crop of protestors [1]. One could do worse than to cast an eye over the brief yet eventful era of British Hong Kong.


The cessation of Hong Kong by the Imperial China to Great Britain in the Treaty of Nanking marked the first step in the total subjugation of China to Western imperialism; soon, countries such as Great Britain and France were able to secure concessions in the country at will. Even the historically inferior Empire of Japan took advantage, such was the weakness of China at the time. The region was initially occupied by the Royal Navy for use as a staging post during the Opium Wars. However, traders afterwards seized on the opportunity to establish lucrative trade networks with China and other parts of the East.

Over the next 100 years, enterprising “boxwallahs”, as merchants and traders were referred to, turned the bare and largely untouched coastal plain into a thriving port city, the centre of trade in the Far East.

It was companies like the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (more commonly known as HSBC), that drove this economic development, in the process establishing themselves as regional and global powerhouses. The many Edwardian and neoclassical buildings that remain today, hidden amongst the urban landscape, bear testament to the great wealth and prestige that Hong Kong generated for the British Empire.

As with most colonial societies, racial segregation existed, and local Chinese were forbidden from inhabiting exclusively European reserves such as Victoria Peak [2]. The hundreds of thousands of migrants that sought a piece of the prosperity Hong Kong had come to represent found themselves subordinate to a colonial elite that they could not penetrate. Indeed, racial tensions borne of the period between mainland Chinese, locals, Europeans and other immigrants still pervade Hong Kong society today [3].

Black Christmas

The Second World War brought a temporary halt to British colonial rule in Hong Kong. On Christmas Day, 1941, the relentless Japanese advance that would only be halted over a year later with the American victory at Guadalcanal finally overwhelmed Hong Kong. The day would come to be known as “Black Christmas”, and not without reason.

Though the occupation only lasted 3 years, it left an indelible impression Hong Kong’s people and history. Japanese occupation would see an estimated 10,000 Hong Kong locals killed or executed under martial law [4]. King’s Park, the home of Kowloon Cricket Club and a hub for British expatriates, became an execution ground [5]. Hong Kong remained a colony, but under a far more brutal regime.

Though the temporary suspension of British colonial rule would produce much collaboration from the local middle and upper classes, and though the terror never reached the levels experienced by the likes of Nanjing and Shanghai, the occupation represents perhaps the darkest period in the region’s history. Like many of the protestors who stormed the Legislative Council, Hong Kong harked for days when they did not live in the shadow of fear and repression.

The sun never sets

The post-war era brought about a wave of decolonisation; the French lost Indochina, and the British lost Singapore. Hong Kong was to remain a British colony for some time yet. During the Cold War, it once again became a refuge for those fleeing the mainland, this time from the Communist Chinese government.

Just as it had before the occupation, Hong Kong thrived firstly as an industrial hub, and then a financial and economic one. Britain’s renewed focus on Hong Kong after her cessation of Singapore and the closing down of foreign concessions on the Chinese mainland re-established Hong Kong as an economically and strategically crucial outpost for the British in Asia. By the end of the 20th century, Hong Kong’s economy was a whopping 11% the size of the United Kingdom’s [6].

But the end of the practice of colonialism, and the détente between China and the west that gradually took place during the late 20th century raised inevitable questions over the future of Hong Kong.

Once thought of as a lease that would never end, negotiations between the People’s Republic of China and the UK that began during the Thatcher era culminated in the return of Hong Kong’s sovereignty to China in 1997.

For many, the handover marked the end of British imperialism. Britain had lost her last major colony. All that was left were a handful of island protectorates scattered around the globe. The sun had finally set on the British Empire.

Or had it?

The English language is still widely spoken in Hong Kong, alongside Cantonese and other dialects. Street signs bear the name of British kings, queens and former governors. Cricket and rugby clubs nestle amongst the skyscrapers.

Prior to the handover, great efforts had been undertaken to democratise the region. Indeed, the handover was predicated on a “one country, two systems” policy that would preserve Hong Kong’s democratic and capitalist features. Recent events may even attest to the success of such efforts.

Whether those who flew the flag of British Hong Kong during recent protests genuinely desire the return of British sovereignty, or whether it is simply a reaction to increasing mainland Chinese control is difficult to deduce. What is clear is that within Hong Kong’s identity survives some element of her colonial past, for better or for worse.


[1] The Globe and Mail, ‘In Hong Kong, colonialism isn’t a bad word – it’s a legacy worth fighting for’, retrieved from https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-in-hong-kong-colonialism-isnt-a-bad-word-its-a-legacy-worth/

[2] Lai, L.C., Li, W and Fong, K., Town Planning Practice: Context, Procedures and Statistics for Hong Kong, Hong Kong University Press, 2000.

[3] South China Morning Post, ‘Blame the British colonial legacy for Hong Kong's racial intolerance’, retrieved from https://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/1252679/blame-british-colonial-legacy-hong-kongs-racial-intolerance

[4] Carroll, J.M., A Concise History of Hong Kong, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007.

[5] Carroll, J.M., A Concise History of Hong Kong, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007.

[6] World Bank, ‘United Kingdom’, retrieved from https://data.worldbank.org/country/united-kingdom


Andrew Fu is a law and arts undergraduate at the University of Auckland, majoring in French and History. All posts by contributing authors reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of the University of Auckland History Society.

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