Hong Kong (香港 — literally “Fragrant Harbour” or “Incense Harbour”) is situated on the Pearl River Delta of East Asia. Macau lies across the delta to the west, and the Chinese province of Guangdong borders the territory to the north. British Hong Kong (英屬香港) was the period during which Hong Kong was under British Crown rule from 1841 to 1997 (excluding the Japanese occupation from 1941 to 1945). It was established as a Crown colony and later designated a British Dependent Territory in 1981. Hong Kong Island was ceded to Great Britain by the Qing dynasty of China after the First Anglo-Chinese War (1839–42). The Kowloon Peninsula was added to the colony after the Second Anglo-Chinese War (1856–60). Finally, in 1898, the New Territories were added under a 99-year lease. In 1848, Hong Kong comprised 31 square miles (80.4 km²) of territory; this had expanded to 402 square miles (1,042 km²) by 1901.Although Hong Kong Island and Kowloon were ceded to Britain in perpetuity, the New Territories – which comprised over 90 per cent of Hong Kong’s land – had such a vital role in the economy that the British government agreed to transfer sovereignty of the entirety of Hong Kong to China upon the expiration of the lease in 1997. Currently, the area is a special administrative region (SAR) of China with a high degree of autonomy.
In 1836, the Manchu Qing government undertook a major policy review of the opium trade. Lin Zexu volunteered to take on the task of suppressing opium. In March 1839, he became Special Imperial Commissioner in Canton, where he ordered the foreign traders to surrender their opium stock. He confined the British to the Canton Factories and cut off their supplies. Chief Superintendent of Trade, Charles Elliot, complied with Lin’s demands to secure a safe exit for the British, with the costs involved to be resolved between the two governments. When Elliot promised that the British government would pay for their opium stock, the merchants surrendered their 20,283 chests of opium, which were destroyed in public.
In September 1839, the British Cabinet decided that the Chinese should be made to pay for the destruction of British property, either by threat or use of force. An expeditionary force was placed under Elliot and his cousin, Rear Admiral George Elliot, as joint plenipotentiaries in 1840. Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston stressed to the Chinese Imperial Government that the British Government did not question China’s right to prohibit opium, but it objected to the way this was handled. He viewed the sudden strict enforcement as laying a trap for the foreign traders, and the confinement of the British with supplies cut off was tantamount to starving them into submission or death. He instructed the Elliot cousins to occupy one of the Chusan islands, to present a letter from himself to a Chinese official for the Emperor, then to proceed to the Gulf of Bohai for a treaty, and if the Chinese resisted, blockade the key ports of the Yangtze and Yellow rivers. Palmerston demanded a territorial base in Chusan for trade so that British merchants “may not be subject to the arbitrary caprice either of the Government of Peking, or its local Authorities at the Sea-Ports of the Empire”.
In 1841, Elliot negotiated with Lin’s successor, Qishan, in the Convention of Chuenpi during the First Opium War. On January 20, Elliot announced “the conclusion of preliminary arrangements”, which included the cession of Hong Kong Island and its harbor to the British Crown. When Elliot declared Hong Kong’s cession to Britain, he proclaimed that the government shall devolve upon the office of Chief Superintendent of British Trade in China. On January 26, 1841, the Union Jack was raised on Hong Kong and Commodore James Bremer, commander-in-chief of British forces in China, took formal possession of the island at Possession Point. Elliot chose Hong Kong instead of Chusan because he believed a settlement further east would cause an “indefinite protraction of hostilities”, whereas Hong Kong’s harbor was a valuable base for the British trading community in Canton.
Elliot issued a proclamation with Commodore Bremer to the inhabitants on February 1, declaring that they “are hereby promised protection, in her majesty’s gracious name, against all enemies whatever; and they are further secured in the free exercise of their religious rites, ceremonies, and social customs; and in the enjoyment of their lawful private property and interests.” Elliot declared that Chinese natives would be governed under Chinese laws (excluding torture), and that British subjects and foreigners would fall under British law. However, London decided that English law should prevail. On August 29, 1842, the cession was formally ratified in the Treaty of Nanking, which ceded Hong Kong “in perpetuity” to Britain.
The Hong Kong Post Office was established in October 1841 when much of the business previously transacted through the Macau postal agency was transferred to the island. The earliest cancellation known dates from April 1842, but local control of the posts was short-lived as the Hong Kong Post Office became a branch of the British General Post Office on April 15, 1843.
The Letters Patent of 5 April 1843 defined the constitutional structure of Hong Kong as a Crown colony and the Royal Instructions detailed how the territory should be governed and organized. The Letters Patent prescribed a Governor as head of government, and both the Executive Council and Legislative Council being advisors to the Governor. The administrative civil service of the colony was led by a Colonial Secretary (later Chief Secretary), who was deputy to the Governor.
For almost all of its history under British rule, executive power in Hong Kong was concentrated in the hands of the colony governor, a position appointed by the British crown without any democratic input from Hong Kong citizens. The introduction of elected representatives determined by local elections, even limited to the role of “advisory councils”, did not begin until after the 1984 agreements by the British to hand Hong Kong over to China.
The treaty failed to satisfy British expectations of a major expansion of trade and profit, which led to increasing pressure for a revision of the terms. In October 1856, Chinese authorities in Canton detained the Arrow, a Chinese-owned ship registered in Hong Kong to enjoy protection of the British flag. The Consul in Canton, Harry Parkes, claimed the hauling down of the flag and arrest of the crew were “an insult of very grave character”. Parkes and Sir John Bowring, the 4th Governor of Hong Kong, seized the incident to pursue a forward policy. In March 1857, Palmerston appointed Lord Elgin as Plenipotentiary with the aim of securing a new and satisfactory treaty. A French expeditionary force joined the British to avenge the execution of a French missionary in 1856. In 1860, the capture of the Taku Forts and occupation of Beijing led to the Treaty of Tientsin and Convention of Peking. In the Treaty of Tientsin, the Chinese accepted British demands to open more ports, navigate the Yangtze River, legalize the opium trade and have diplomatic representation in Beijing. During the conflict, the British occupied the Kowloon Peninsula, where the flat land was valuable training and resting ground. The area in what is now south of Boundary Street and Stonecutters Island was ceded in the Convention of Peking.
The colonial authorities of Hong Kong resumed control of the postal services on May 1, 1860, although previously-established postal agencies in the Chinese Treaty Ports remained part of the British G.P.O. system until May 1, 1868. On December 8, 1862, the Post Office issued the first set of Hong Kong postage stamp. seven stamps bearing the portrait of Queen Victoria. Before that, only British soldiers in Hong Kong could use British stamps while other local residents did not have any. All definitive stamp issues up until 1962 would be typographed by De La Rue & Company, except for some printings between 1941 and 1945.
In 1898, the British sought to extend Hong Kong for defense. After negotiations began in April 1898, with the British Minister in Beijing, Sir Claude MacDonald, representing Britain, and diplomat Li Hongzhang leading the Chinese, the Second Convention of Peking was signed on June 9. Since the foreign powers had agreed by the late nineteenth century that it was no longer permissible to acquire outright sovereignty over any parcel of Chinese territory, and in keeping with the other territorial cessions China made to Russia, Germany and France that same year, the extension of Hong Kong took the form of a 99-year lease. The lease consisted of the rest of Kowloon south of the Shenzhen River and 230 islands, which became known as the New Territories. The British formally took possession on April 16, 1899.
Following bomb damage to the printing works of Thomas De la Rue & Company in London on the night of December 29, 1940, emergency arrangements were made to complete current requisitions for Hong Kong stamps. Printings were made by three different printers using De la Rue plates. With the exception of the 8-cent denomination, it is believed that none of these stamps arrived in Hong Kong before its occupation by the Japanese on December 25, 1941, although examples could be obtained in London from late 1941.
In 1941, during the Second World War, the British reached an agreement with the Chinese government under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek that if Japan attacked Hong Kong, the Chinese National Army would attack the Japanese from the rear to relieve pressure on the British garrison. On December 8, the Battle of Hong Kong began when Japanese air bombers effectively destroyed British air power in one attack. Two days later, the Japanese breached the Gin Drinkers Line in the New Territories. The British commander, Major-General Christopher Maltby, concluded that the island could not be defended for long unless he withdrew his brigade from the mainland. On December 18, the Japanese crossed Victoria Harbour. By December 25, organized defense was reduced into pockets of resistance. Maltby recommended a surrender to Governor Sir Mark Young, who accepted his advice to reduce further losses. A day after the invasion, Generalissimo Chiang ordered three corps under General Yu Hanmou to march towards Hong Kong. The plan was to launch a New Year’s Day attack on the Japanese in the Canton region, but before the Chinese infantry could attack, the Japanese had broken Hong Kong’s defenses. The British casualties were 2,232 killed or missing and 2,300 wounded. The Japanese reported 1,996 killed and 6,000 wounded.
The Japanese soldiers committed atrocities, including rape, on many locals. The population fell in half, from 1.6 million in 1941 to 750,000 at war’s end because of fleeing refugees; they returned in 1945. The Japanese imprisoned the ruling British colonial élite and sought to win over the local merchant gentry by appointments to advisory councils and neighborhood watch groups. The policy worked well for Japan and produced extensive collaboration from both the élite and the middle class, with far less terror than in other Chinese cities. Hong Kong was transformed into a Japanese colony, with Japanese businesses replacing the British. However, the Japanese Empire had severe logistical difficulties and by 1943 the food supply for Hong Kong was problematic. The overlords became more brutal and corrupt, and the Chinese gentry became disenchanted. With the surrender of Japan, the transition back to British rule was smooth, for on the mainland the Nationalist and Communist forces were preparing for a civil war and ignored Hong Kong. In the long run the occupation strengthened the pre-war social and economic order among the Chinese business community by eliminating some conflicts of interests and reducing the prestige and power of the British.
On August 14, 1945, when Japan announced its unconditional surrender, the British formed a naval task group to sail towards Hong Kong. The Japanese post offices in the colony were closed from August 31 and mail was carried free, marked with cachets reading HONG KONG / 1945 / POSTAGE PAID, On September 1,, Rear Admiral Cecil Harcourt proclaimed a military administration with himself as its head. He formally accepted the Japanese surrender on September 16 in Government House. Military administration lasted until May 1, 1946. Sir Mark Young, upon his return as Governor in early May 1946, pursued political reform known as the “Young Plan”, believing that, to counter the Chinese government’s determination to recover Hong Kong, it was necessary to give local inhabitants a greater stake in the territory by widening the political franchise to include them.
Hong Kong stamps were reintroduced in the colony on September 28, 1946.
As the Communists drew near to a victory in early 1949, there were fears that Hong Kong was going to be invaded by the Communists. The British Government was determined to keep Hong Kong as a capitalist outpost within a communist sphere of influence, though the memories of the Berlin Blockade and the perceived antagonism of communist governments was still fresh in their mind. The garrison was reinforced and plans of emergency evacuation to Australia were made. However, the People’s Liberation Army were ordered to stop advancing at the Shenzhen-Hong Kong border, and Hong Kong remained a British colony.
Hong Kong was a valuable trade center at the mouth of China, and hoped that by retaining this connection doing business with the new government in Beijing would be easier. To give up Hong Kong to the Communists without a fight would be seen as a national weakness in the face of the growing communist threat in Europe and Asia, especially the Emergency in Malaya. Debates did take place during the 1950s at the British Parliament in Westminster in which it was discussed that Hong Kong would have to be handed back to China if the colony’s entrepôt trade could not be maintained. The people were outraged at any suggestion of this, so the Government of Hong Kong became committed to turning Hong Kong into a manufacturing center.
The 1950s began with a large number of impoverished people without jobs and natural resources. The problem was further compounded with a flood of refugees from mainland China who were able to cross due to the lack of border controls until June 1951. The People’s Republic of China was established in 1949 under a reorganized Communist Party. As many as 100,000 people fled to Hong Kong each month under the new regime, many of whom were rich farmers and capitalists who brought with them management experience, though even more were criminals who established the influential triad society in Hong Kong. By the mid-1950s, Hong Kong had increased its population to a staggering 2.2 million. By 1956, Hong Kong’s population density became one of the highest in the world.
In 1953, two land reclamation projects added 3,000,000 square feet (280,000 m²) to Hong Kong. The first project would specifically add runway space to the Kai Tak Airport. Additional land would turn Kwun Tong and Tsuen Wan into industrial towns. The early industrial centers churned out anything that could be produced in a small space, like buttons, artificial flowers, umbrellas, textiles, enamelware, footwear and plastics.
In 1953, the Shek Kip Mei fire left 53,000 homeless. This prompted major change: Sir Alexander Grantham, the 22nd Governor of Hong Kong, drew up an emergency housing program that introduced the ‘multi-story building’ as a common building form. His structures were capable of housing 2,500 people in a fire/flood-proof structure. The idea was to house as many and as fast as possible to deal with the homeless shelter crisis. Every floor in the building included a communal room, washroom, and toilet facility. Each person was granted 24 square meters of space. The high rise buildings would become the norm, as skyscrapers have a small footprint compared to their overall volume.
The Hong Kong 1956 riots was one of the first full-scale riots in the territory. It awoke the Government to the dangers of low wages, long working hours, and overcrowded conditions. Tighter law control would diminish the triads in the period. Most of the social problems in the 1950s dealt with Nationalist and Communist factions on Hong Kong soil. The British Government in Whitehall, London, feared the Communists would promote anti-British sentiments in the colony. Thus, the Colonial Office in Whitehall encouraged the Government of Hong Kong to follow anti-Communist policies within the colony.
The first disturbance in the 1960s was the Hong Kong 1966 riots over the rising fares of the Star Ferry. A petition was created with 20,000 signatures in protest against any increases in transportation costs. The result led to the arrest of 1,800 people, but the end came swiftly. Other riots include the Hong Kong 1967 riots which began when internal conflict within the Communist party in China resulted in the Cultural Revolution. Pro-communist leftists in Hong Kong challenged British rule. Demonstrations were held, the red guards would take shape in Hong Kong carrying Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong in their left hands shouting communist slogans. The People’s Daily in Beijing ran editorials supporting the leftist struggle. Rumors spread that China was preparing to take over the colony. Political tension soared. The riots only came to an end in December 1967 when Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai ordered the leftist groups in Hong Kong to stop. After the riot, the government made an effort to clean up any existing communist networks.
Under Murray MacLehose, 25th Governor of Hong Kong (1971–82), a series of reforms improved the public services, environment, housing, welfare, education and infrastructure of Hong Kong. MacLehose was the longest-serving governor and, by the end of his tenure, had become one of the most popular and well-known figures in the Crown Colony. MacLehose laid the foundation for Hong Kong to establish itself as a global city in the 1980s and early 1990s.
The Hong Kong government introduced six-year free compulsory education in 1971, and expanded it to nine years in 1978. Companies were also seeking highly educated employees for complex projects. 72% of overseas graduates between 1962 and 1976 would come back to Hong Kong to take on highly skilled domestic positions.
The Cross-Harbour Tunnel, the first underwater tunnel in Hong Kong, opened in 1972. For the first time in the region’s history, people could travel between Hong Kong and Kowloon without taking ferries. As a result, small electrical boats like sampans (小電船) were gradually eliminated.
In the 1970s, corruption was a way of life in Hong Kong, being the norm in all government departments. Policemen would often extract bribes (popularly called “tea fee”) before they investigated a crime, as did firemen before they rescued people and put out fires. Many Chinese detective superintendents amassed incredible wealth from their corrupt dealings with triads and corporations. Their names have been seared into the memories of the older generations, their stories adapted into several popular movies such as To be Number One (跛豪) in 1991. That is not to say British officers were entirely clean in their dealings.
In 1974, Hong Kong Governor Murray MacLehose, realizing the seriousness of the problem, founded the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). The investigations and arrests of many police officers created a furore among the police, who protested against the ICAC and even tried to overrun the headquarters in one protest. The Governor, concerned to avoid a possible police strike or even rebellion, at last issued a pardon, preventing arrests in cases committed before 1977. However, the pardon did not extend to higher-level detective superintendents. These high-level Chinese officers, famous for their riches, left for exile to Taiwan, which had no extradition treaty with Hong Kong. In time, the efforts of the ICAC changed the habits of an entire population and turned Hong Kong into one of the least corrupt cities in the world.
Hong Kong’s first modern rapid transit, the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) was opened in October 1979. The first line served eastern Kowloon from Shek Kip Mei to Kwun Tong. In December, services were extended to Tsim Sha Tsui, and by 1980, it was possible to ride from Kwun Tong to the central business district in Central on the other side of the harbor on Hong Kong Island.
After being a Crown Colony since 1843, the status of Hong Kong was changed effectively under the British Nationality Act 1981, which came into force on January 1, 1983. The Act renamed all existing British colonies to dependent territories. The renaming did not change how the government operated but it affected the nationality status of Hong Kong’s then over 5 million inhabitants, most of whom were to become British Dependent Territory citizens — a status that could no longer be transmitted by descent.
Regardless of the competing claims for sovereignty, China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping recognized that Hong Kong, with its free market economy, could not be assimilated into the People’s Republic overnight and that any attempt to do so would not be in the interests of either. He advocated a more pragmatic approach known as the one country, two systems policy, in which Hong Kong (as well as Macau, and potentially also Taiwan) would be able to retain their economic systems within the PRC.
The Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed by both the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and the Premier of the People’s Republic of China on December 19, 1984, in Beijing. The Declaration entered into force with the exchange of instruments of ratification on May 27, 1985, and was registered by the People’s Republic of China and United Kingdom governments at the United Nations on June 12, 1985. In the Joint Declaration, the People’s Republic of China Government stated that it had decided to resume the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong (including Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and the New Territories) with effect from July 1, 1997, and the United Kingdom Government declared that it would relinquish Hong Kong to the PRC with effect from July 1, 1997. In the document, the People’s Republic of China Government also declared its basic policies regarding Hong Kong.
In July 1992, Chris Patten was appointed as the last British Governor of Hong Kong. By contrast with his predecessors, Sir Edward Youde and Sir David Wilson, Patten had little experience with Hong Kong or China, and spoke neither Mandarin nor Cantonese. The decade was essentially dominated by the political backdrop of the handover.
In accordance with the One Country, Two Systems principle agreed between the United Kingdom and the People’s Republic of China, the socialist system of People’s Republic of China would not be practiced in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), and Hong Kong’s previous capitalist system and its way of life would remain unchanged for a period of 50 years. The Joint Declaration provides that these basic policies shall be stipulated in the Hong Kong Basic Law.
The handover ceremony was held at the new wing of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai on the night of June 30, 1997. The principal British guest was Charles, Prince of Wales who read a farewell speech on behalf of the Queen. The newly appointed Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Tony Blair, the British Foreign Minister Robin Cook, the departing Hong Kong governor Chris Patten, General Sir Charles Guthrie, Chief of the Defence Staff of the United Kingdom also attended. Representing China were the President of the People’s Republic of China, Jiang Zemin, Premier of the People’s Republic of China, Li Peng, and Tung Chee-hwa, the first Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. This event was broadcast on television and radio stations across the world.
In 1998, the Kai Tak Airport was closed. The new US$20 billion Hong Kong International Airport opened for commercial use. The initial years of operation were challenging as it utilized state-of-the-art computer systems, in just about every function imaginable. The scale and size of the airport also required many innovative solutions from the Airport Authority. Over time, it became the central connecting point for many flights in the far east. The Tsing Ma Bridge, part of the Lantau Link connecting the remote airport site to the city, was the world’s second largest suspension bridge when it opened on April 27, 1997. Spanning 4,518 feet (1,377 meters), it is also the largest of all bridges in the world carrying rail traffic.
Scott #175 was released on August 29, 1946, denominated $1 — the high value in a set of two (the lower denomination was 30 cents) commemorating the victory over Japan following World War II. Recess-printed by De la Rue & Company with a multi-script CA watermark and perforated 13×12½, the brown and red stamp was designed by W. E. Jones from a sketch originally made by Hong Kong Postmaster E. I. Wynne-Jones while interred at Stanley Camp during the Japanese occupation. The stamps feature a Phoenix rising from the flames, a striking departure from the omnibus Victory Issue stamps released by most of the British Commonwealth nations in 1946. Wynne-Jones’ original sketch and a letter detailing his reasoning for the design were offered in an eBay auction which completed on February 18, 2015, with a winning bid of £590 (US $786). These appear below.