Until the British claimed Hong Kong, the area was a neglected spot of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) Chinese Empire, inhabited by a few farmers, fishermen and pirates. The British took control of Hong Kong in 1841 following the Opium Wars.
The cause of the Opium Wars resides in the nature of European trade with China, which had been taking place since the 16th century. But as European demand for tea and silk grew, the balance of trade became more and more unfavorable to Europeans. The Europeans were expected to pay for the tea and silk in silver rather than in other trade goods. However, in 1773, the British unloaded 155,000 pounds of Bengal opium in China in exchange for silver, solving their balance of trade problems but creating more problems for the Chinese. Alarmed at the drain of silver from the country and the increasing number of opium addicts, the Emperor banned the drug trade. The Europeans, with the help of corrupt Chinese officials, managed to keep the trade in opium going until 1839 when the Emperor again issued orders to stamp it out. British merchants were compelled to surrender their supplies of raw opium, which was then publicly burned.
The British sent an expeditionary force to China to exact reprisals, secure favorable trade arrangements and obtain use of some islands as a British base. The force blockaded Canton (now called Guangzhou) and a number of other ports, ultimately threatening Beijing. The British pressured the Chinese into ceding Hong Kong Island to them in perpetuity. Both sides ultimately repudiated the agreement, but Commodore Gordon Bremmer led a force of sailors and Marines ashore on 26 January 1841 and claimed the island for Britain. While Hong Kong became a center of trade, conflict between China and the Europeans continued. A combined British and French force invaded China in 1859, forcing the Chinese to agree to the Convention of Peking, which ceded the Kowloon Peninsula and nearby Stonecutters Island to the British. In 1898, the British also gained a 99-year lease on the New Territories, which they felt essential to protect their interests on Hong Kong Island.
In the early 20th century Hong Kong began a gradual shift away from trade to manufacturing. This move was hastened by the civil war in China during the 1920s and by the Japanese invasion in the 1930s, when Chinese capitalists fled to the safer confines of the colony. When the US embargo on Chinese goods during the Korean War threatened to strangle the colony, it increased its manufacturing capacity and developed service industries, such as banking and insurance. Although the Chinese could have seized Hong Kong with ease, a precarious peace prevailed.
In December 1984, the British agreed to hand over the entire colony when the lease on the New Territories ran out in 1997, rather than hang on to a truncated territory consisting of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. The agreement theoretically allows Hong Kong to retain its pre-1997 social, economic and legal systems for at least 50 years after 1997. As the handover approached, controversies raged over the building of Hong Kong’s expensive new airport and the amount of democracy the Chinese were willing to accept.
Hong Kong has suffered from Asia’s economic crises in the late 1990s, and has experienced rising unemployment, falling property prices and close to zero growth. However, although not as robust as it has been, Hong Kong is still a vibrant financial center and is one of the world’s great cities. China’s official policy with regard to Hong Kong is articulated in the slogan, “one country, two systems”, and the common view is that as long as Hong Kong continues to make money – and little trouble – its autonomy is assured. But a number of crucial interventions by Chinese authorities in Hong Kong’s affairs have made it evident that there is not quite as much autonomy going on as the slogan suggests.
Hong Kong remains, however, a shopping and tourist destination that is peerless in Asia. A visitor is recommended to ride the Star Ferry across the harbor, take the Peak tram to the top of Victoria Peak, ride one of the rickety old trams on Hong Kong Island, and take a ferry to one of the outlying islands. Nothing can beat the thrill of these four experiences, or give one a better insight into the essence of Hong Kong and its people. What’s more, they’re all incredibly inexpensive.
For shopping, there is nothing like the Temple Street Night Market. It is named after the street on which it’s located. Some stalls are open from 4pm but are busiest from 7 to 10pm. The Market is a wonderful place to spend an evening, with its countless stalls that sell clothing, watches, lighters, imitation designer handbags, sunglasses, sweaters, cassettes, and just about every good imaginable. Bargaining is expected and, with the right attitude, can be lots of fun. There are also seafood stalls, where one can eat inexpensive meals of clams, shrimp, mussels, and crab. Be sure to follow Temple Street to its northern end past the overpass; in the vicinity of the Tin Hau Temple, one will find palm readers, musicians, and street singers (who favor Cantonese operas and pop songs). Several of the palm readers speak English.
Chi Lin Nunnery
Just one subway stop away from Wong Tai Sin is the newly renovated Chi Lin Buddhist Nunnery. It was founded in the 1930s to provide religious, cultural, educational, and elderly care services to the Hong Kong community. It was reconstructed in the 1990s in the style of Tang dynasty monastic architecture (A.D. 618-907). The nunnery is a successful amalgamation of ancient building techniques and modern technology. Imported yellow cedar from Canada was carved in China by skilled artisans and craftsmen and then reconstructed here like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. No nails were used, but rather a system of wooden doweling and brackets. The main hall was modeled after the Foguang Monastery in Shanxi Province, while the double-eaved Hall of Celestial Kings is designed after the 11th-century Phoenix Hall outside Kyoto, Japan. A lotus pond, sculpted bushes and bonsai, and statues of the Goddess of Mercy, God of Medicine, and other deities reside on the grounds of the Nunnery.
Man Mo Temple
Hong Kong Island’s oldest and most important temple was built in the 1840s. It is named after its two principal deities: Man, the god of literature, who is dressed in red and holds a calligraphy brush; and Mo, the god of war, wearing a green robe and holding a sword. Ironically, Mo finds patronage in both the police force and the infamous triad secret criminal societies. Two ornately carved sedan chairs in the temple were once used to carry the statues of the gods around the neighborhood during religious festivals. But what makes the temple particularly fascinating are the giant incense coils hanging from the ceiling, imparting a fragrant, smoky haze that permeates the air. These are purchased by patrons seeking fulfillment of their wishes, such as good health or a successful business deal.
Wong Tai Sin
Located six subway stops northeast of Yau Ma Tei in the far north end of Kowloon Peninsula, Wong Tai Sin is Hong Kong’s most popular Taoist temple. Although the temple itself dates only from 1973, it adheres to traditional Chinese architectural principles with its red pillars, two-tiered golden roof, blue friezes, yellow latticework, and multicolored carvings. The temple is very popular. Everyone who comes here is seeking information about their fortunes – from advice about business or horse racing to determining which day is most auspicious for a wedding. Most worshippers make use of a bamboo container holding numbered sticks. After lighting a joss stick and kneeling before the main altar, the worshipper gently shakes the container until one of the sticks falls out. The number corresponds to a certain fortune, which is then interpreted by a soothsayer at the temple.
One can wander around the temple grounds and visit halls dedicated to the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy and to Confucius, the Nine Dragon Garden, a Chinese garden with a pond, waterfall, and a replica of the famous Nine Dragons mural, the Good Wish Garden, a replica of the Yi He Garden in Beijing with circular, square, octagonal, and fan-shaped pavilions, ponds, an artificial waterfall, and rocks and concrete fashioned to resemble animals; and a clinic with both Western medical services and traditional Chinese herbal treatments. Wong Tai Sin takes its name from a legendary shepherd who learned the art of healing
Miu Fat Monastery
The Miu Fat Monastery in Lam Tei, due north of Tuen Mun town center, is one of the most well-kept and attractive Buddhist complexes in the Hong Kong area. Guarding the entrance to the main temple are two stone lions and two stone elephants, and there are attractive gardens outside to the south.
This is an active monastery that preserves more of a traditional character than many smaller temples. One will see Buddhist nuns in droves wearing brown robes. There’s a golden likeness of Buddha in a glass case on the ground floor. On the 2nd floor are three larger statues of Lord Gautama. The 1st floor is a vegetarian restaurant serving set meals and open to all.
Hong Kong Museum of Art
The Museum of Art has an excellent collection of classical Chinese art, showcasing paintings and lithographs of old Hong Kong, and a Xubaizhi collection of painting and calligraphy. Also note the ceramics, bronzes, jade, cloisonné, lacquerware, bamboo carvings, women’s costumes, and textiles, as well as wall hangings, scrolls, and calligraphy dating from the 16th century to the present. The works are arranged in five permanent galleries on three floors of exhibit space, plus two galleries devoted to temporary exhibits. The Historical Pictures Gallery is especially good, with a thousand works in oils, watercolors, pencil drawings, and prints that provide a visual account of life in Hong Kong, Macau, and Guangzhou (Canton) in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Another gallery displays contemporary Hong Kong works by local artists.
Hong Kong Museum of History
This museum takes visitors through the area’s history, from 6000 years ago to the present. Landform, flora and fauna are covered before the human stories are displayed with replicas of village homes, traditional Chinese costumes and a realistic re-creation of an entire street block from 1881. One can peer inside a fishing junk, see what the Kowloon Walled City looked like before it became a park, see the backstage of a Chinese opera, read about the arrival of European traders and the Opium Wars, study a map showing land reclamation since the 1840s, and see how Hong Kong suffered under Japanese occupation. There are tiny movie theaters spread throughout, though showings in English are limited.