The British Colony of Hong Kong

Hong Kong - Scott #173 (1941)
Hong Kong – Scott #173 (1941)

On January 20, 1841, Hong Kong Island was occupied by the British during the First Opium War. The island was ceded by Qing China in the aftermath of the war in 1842 and established as a Crown colony in 1843. The colony expanded to the Kowloon Peninsula in 1860 after the Second Opium War and was further extended when Britain obtained a 99-year lease of the New Territories in 1898. Although Hong Kong Island and Kowloon were ceded in perpetuity, the leased area, which comprised 92 per cent of the territory, was vital to the integrity of Hong Kong that Britain agreed to transfer the entire colony to China upon the expiration of that lease in 1997. The transfer has been considered by many as marking the end of the British Empire.

Hong Kong Island (香港島 — Hēunggóng dóu in Cantonese) is an island in the southern part of Hong Kong. It has a population of 1,289,500 and its population density is 16,390/km², as of 2008. The island had a population of about 3,000 inhabitants scattered in a dozen fishing villages when it was occupied by the United Kingdom in 1841. In 1842, the island was formally ceded in perpetuity to the United Kingdom under the Treaty of Nanking and the City of Victoria was then established on the island by the British Force in honor of Queen Victoria. The Central area on the island is the historical, political and economic center of Hong Kong. The northern coast of the island forms the southern shore of the Victoria Harbour, which is largely responsible for the development of Hong Kong due to its deep waters favored by large trade ships.

China was the main supplier of its native tea to the British, whose annual domestic consumption reached 30,050,000 pounds (13,600,000 kg) in 1830, an average of 1.04 pounds (0.47 kg) per head of population. From the British economic standpoint, Chinese tea was a crucial item since it provided massive wealth for the taipans — foreign (especially British) businessmen in China — while the duty on tea accounted for 10% of the government’s income.

Possibly the earliest oil painting of Hong Kong Island, showing the path along the north shore (right) as it approaches the early waterfront settlement which became the town of Victoria. Dating from the mid-19th century and published in An Illustrated History of Hong Kong by Nigel Cameron. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press (1991). p. 102.
Possibly the earliest oil painting of Hong Kong Island, showing the path along the north shore (right) as it approaches the early waterfront settlement which became the town of Victoria. Dating from the mid-19th century and published in An Illustrated History of Hong Kong by Nigel Cameron. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press (1991). p. 102.
View of Spring Gardens, Hong Kong, 20 August 1846. Painted by Murdoch Bruce (fl. 1840–1854), lithograph by Andrew Maclure (1812–1885).
View of Spring Gardens, Hong Kong, 20 August 1846. Painted by Murdoch Bruce (fl. 1840–1854), lithograph by Andrew Maclure (1812–1885).

Since the ill-fated Macartney Mission of 1793, British diplomats resented performing kowtow as a form of obsequience to the Emperor of China. Many considered it a religious rite and although they insisted on being treated as equals, the British and other foreign nationals were seen by the Qing Emperor and court officials as uncivilized foreigners only there to acquire tea, silk and other Chinese goods. At the time, China’s social structure, as dictated by Confucian tradition, looked down on merchants, ranking them below farmers and above slaves, since they were considered citizens who only enriched themselves.

Some of the earliest items sold to China in exchange for tea were British clocks, watches and musical boxes known as “sing-songs”. These were not enough to compensate for the trade imbalance caused by the massive quantities of tea exported and the insistence by the Chinese that it be paid for in silver. After the 1757 territorial conquest of Bengal in India, the British had access to opium, which when mixed with water was used in western society as an analgesic tincture. The Chinese, on the other hand, smoked opium in an addictive narcotic manner. Since a large fiscal deficit existed in Bengal, opium exports became a British government means to raise tax, even though it meant an increase in the number of Chinese people addicted to the drug. Lin Zexu, a special Chinese commissioner appointed by the Qing Daoguang Emperor, wrote a letter to Queen Victoria in 1839 taking a stance against the acceptance of opium in trade. He confiscated more than 20,000 chests of opium already in Hong Kong and supervised their destruction.

The Queen saw the destruction of British products as an insult and sent the first expeditionary force to the region. The First Opium War (1839–1842) began at the hands of Captain Charles Elliot of the Royal Navy and Captain Anthony Blaxland Stransham of the Royal Marines. After a series of Chinese defeats, Hong Kong Island was occupied by the British on January 20, 1841. Sir Edward Belcher, aboard HMS Sulphur, landed in Hong Kong on January 25; Possession Street still exists to mark the event. Commodore Sir Gordon Bremer raised the Union Jack and claimed Hong Kong as a colony on January 26. He erected naval store sheds there in April 1841.

Hong Kong harbour from a hill above Causeway Bay. Drawn by Thomas Bernard Collinson, 1845.
Hong Kong harbour from a hill above Causeway Bay. Drawn by Thomas Bernard Collinson, 1845.
Map of Bao'an (Po'On) County created by Italian missionary Simeon Volonteri in 1866. It shows that Hong Kong used to be a part of Bao'an (Po'On) County in ancient China. This is now Shenzhen (in Kwangtung Province, present-day Guangdong).
Map of Bao’an (Po’On) County created by Italian missionary Simeon Volonteri in 1866. It shows that Hong Kong used to be a part of Bao’an (Po’On) County in ancient China. This is now Shenzhen (in Kwangtung Province, present-day Guangdong).
Great Britain acquired Hong Kong Island in 1842, Kowloon Peninsula in 1860, and leased the New Territories rent-free[4] in 1898.
Great Britain acquired Hong Kong Island in 1842, Kowloon Peninsula in 1860, and leased the New Territories rent-free[4] in 1898.

The island was first used by the British as a staging post during the war, and while the East India Company intended to establish a permanent base on the island of Zhoushan, Elliot took it upon himself to claim the island on a permanent basis. The ostensible authority for the occupation was negotiated between Captain Eliot and the Viceroy of Liangguang, the Manchu official Qishan. The Convention of Chuenpi was concluded but had not been recognised by the Qing Dynasty court at Beijing. Subsequently, Hong Kong Island was ceded to Britain in 1842 under the Treaty of Nanking, when the territory became a Crown colony.

When the union flag was raised over Possession Point on 26 January 1841, the population of Hong Kong island was about 7,450, mostly Tanka fishermen and Hakka charcoal burners living in a number of coastal villages. In the 1850s, large numbers of Chinese would emigrate from China to Hong Kong due to the Taiping Rebellion. Other events such as floods, typhoons and famine in mainland China would also play a role in establishing Hong Kong as a place to escape the mayhem.

Government House and grounds at Hong Kong, photographed in 1873.
Government House and grounds at Hong Kong, photographed in 1873.

The Opium War was ostensibly fought to liberalize trade with China. With a base in Hong Kong, British traders, opium dealers, and merchants including Jardine Matheson & Co. and Dent & Co. launched the city which would become the ‘free trade’ nexus of the East. American opium traders and merchant bankers such as the Russell, Perkins and Forbes families would soon join the trade. On signature of the 1860 Convention of Peking, which marked the end of formal ended hostilities in the Second Opium War (1856–1858), Britain acquired the area south of Boundary Street on the Kowloon Peninsula rent-free under a perpetual lease. Later, in 1898, the Qing government reluctantly agreed to the Convention between Great Britain and China Respecting an Extension of Hong Kong Territory (also known as the Second Convention of Peking) that compelled China to cede a further area north of Boundary Street to the Sham Chun River along with more than two hundred nearby islands. Seen by the British government as vital to safeguard the defensive capabilities of Hong Kong, these areas became collectively known as the New Territories. The 99-year lease would expire at midnight on June 30, 1997.

Hong Kong - Scott #168-173 (1941) - [NIMC2019] - image sourced from active eBay auction
Hong Kong – Scott #168-173 (1941) – [NIMC2019] – image sourced from active eBay auction
Hong Kong - Scott #168-173 (1941) first day cover [NIMC2019] - image sourced from active eBay auction
Hong Kong – Scott #168-173 (1941) first day cover [NIMC2019] – image sourced from active eBay auction

On February 26, 1941, the postal authorities at Hong Kong released a set of six stamps marking the centenary of British rule (Scott #168-173). These would prove to be the last stamps issued by the colony for more than five and a half years. The stamps were designed by W.E. Jones and recess-printed by Bradbury Wilkinson & Company Ltd. with various perforation gauges and both horizontal and vertical formats. The stamps portrayed a Hong Kong street scene (2-cent sepia and chocolate, Scott #168); the liner S.S. Empress of Japan and a traditional Chinese junk (4-cent rose carmine and violet, Scott #169); the University of Hong Kong (5-cent yellow green and black, Scott #170); Hong Kong Harbour (15-cent red and black, Scott #171); Hong Kong Bank (25-cent deep blue and dark brown, Scott #172); and a China Clipper and a seaplane (1-dollar brown orange and bright blue, Scott #173). All bore a multi-script CA watermark; Scott #173 is perforated 13 x 13½.

During the Imperial Japanese military’s full-scale invasion of China in 1937, Hong Kong as part of the British empire was not under attack. Nevertheless, its situation was influenced by the war in China due to proximity to the mainland China. In early March 1939, during an Imperial Japanese bombing raid on Shenzhen, a few bombs fell accidentally on Hong Kong territory, destroying a bridge and a train station. In 1941, 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. The United States also supported China in its fight against Imperial Japan’s invasion. It imposed a 100% embargo on the sale of oil to Japan after less aggressive forms of economic sanctions failed to halt Japanese advances.

On December 7, 1941 (Honolulu time), Japan suddenly launched a broad offensive across the Pacific and Southeast Asia including attacking the U.S. naval bases at Pearl Harbor and in American-ruled Philippines, as well as invading Thailand and British Malaya.

Japanese Army crossing the border between Hong Kong and the mainland on December 8, 1941. Photo from the booklet of
Japanese Army crossing the border between Hong Kong and the mainland on December 8, 1941. Photo from the booklet of “The Battle of Hong Kong- Hong Kong under the camera of the Japanese Army” Exhibition, Hong Kong Museum of History, 2002.
Cover posted locally in 1944 during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong. [NIMC2019] - image sourced from active eBay auction.
Cover posted locally in 1944 during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong. [NIMC2019] – image sourced from active eBay auction.

As part of a general Pacific campaign, the Imperial Japanese launched an assault on Hong Kong on the morning of December 8, 1941. British, Canadian, and Indian forces, supported by the Hong Kong Volunteer Defense Forces attempted to resist the rapidly advancing Imperial Japanese but were heavily outnumbered. After racing down the New Territories and Kowloon, Imperial Japanese forces crossed Victoria Harbour on December 18. After fierce fighting continued on Hong Kong Island, the only reservoir was lost. Canadian Winnipeg Grenadiers fought at the crucial Wong Nai Chung Gap that secured the passage between Victoria, Hong Kong and secluded southern sections of the island. Finally defeated, on December 25, 1941, British colonial officials headed by the Governor of Hong Kong Mark Aitchison Young surrendered at the Japanese headquarters. To the local people, the day was known as “Black Christmas”.

The capitulation of Hong Kong was signed on the 26th at The Peninsula Hotel. On February 20, 1942, General Rensuke Isogai became the first Imperial Japanese governor of Hong Kong. The occupation lasted for three years and eight months until Japan surrendered at the end of Second World War. The length of this period (三年零八個月) later became a metonym of the occupation.

The Japanese occupation of Hong Kong ended in 1945, after the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Another one was dropped on Nagasaki three days later, on the same day that the USSR began its Manchurian Strategic Offensive Operation, which crippled the last grand Japanese army in China. Japan finally surrendered on August 15, 1945. Hong Kong was handed over by the Imperial Japanese Army to the Royal Navy on August 30; British control over Hong Kong was thus restored. August 30 was declared as Liberation Day (重光紀念日) and was a public holiday in Hong Kong until 1997.

The Royal Navy cruiser HMS Swiftsure (08), entering Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong, through North Point on August 30, 1945.
The Royal Navy cruiser HMS Swiftsure (08), entering Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong, through North Point on August 30, 1945.
Japanese document of surrender, signed in Hong Kong on September 16, 1945.
Japanese document of surrender, signed in Hong Kong on September 16, 1945.
Hong Kong - Scott #174-175 (1946) first day cover [NIMC2019] - image sourced from active eBay auction
Hong Kong – Scott #174-175 (1946) first day cover [NIMC2019] – image sourced from active eBay auction

Japanese post offices in the colony were closed from August 30, 1945, and all mail was carried free, marked with cachets reading HONG KONG/1945/POSTAGE PAID. Military administration lasted until May 1, 1946. Hong Kong stamps were re-introduced on September 28 although a Peace issue, two stamps depicting a Phoenix rising from the flames (Scott #174-175), was issued on August 29. 1946. For more about that stamp as well as colonial postal history, please see my previous article about the colony of Hong Kong.

General Takashi Sakai, who led the invasion of Hong Kong and subsequently served as governor-general during the Japanese occupation, was tried as a war criminal, convicted and executed on the afternoon of September 30, 1946.

The surrender of Japan in 1945 brought with it a new question of who should rule Hong Kong. The Kuomintang’s Chiang Kai-shek assumed he would resume the role of controlling the whole of China. Several years earlier, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt insisted that colonialism would have to end, and promised Soong Mei-ling that Hong Kong would be restored to Chinese control. However, the British moved quickly to regain control of Hong Kong. As soon as he heard word of the Japanese surrender, Franklin Gimson, Hong Kong’s colonial secretary, left his prison camp and declared himself the territory’s acting governor. A government office was set up at the Former French Mission Building in Victoria on September 1, 1945. British Rear Admiral Sir Cecil Halliday Jepson Harcourt sailed into Hong Kong on board the cruiser HMS Swiftsure to re-establish the British government’s control over the colony. On September 16, he formally accepted the Japanese surrender from Major-General Umekichi Okada and Vice Admiral Ruitaro Fujita at Government House.

Hong Kong’s post-war recovery was astonishingly swift. By November 1945, the economy had recovered so well that government controls were lifted and free markets restored. The population returned to around one million by early 1946 due to immigration from China. Colonial taboos also broke down in the post-war years as European colonial powers realised that they could not administer their colonies as they did before the war. Chinese people were no longer restricted from certain beaches, or from living on Victoria Peak.

British passport issued to Hong Kong people prior to the colony's return to China in 1997.
British passport issued to Hong Kong people prior to the colony’s return to China in 1997.
Hong Kong Island as seen from North Point. Photo taken on August 5, 2011.
Hong Kong Island as seen from North Point. Photo taken on August 5, 2011.

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 that date. In the document, the People’s Republic of China Government also declared its basic policies regarding Hong Kong.

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, Chief of the Defence Staff of the United Kingdom, Field Marshal Sir Charles Guthrie, 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.

View of Middle Island, off Hong Kong Island (left) between Deep Water Bay and Repulse Bay (background, left). Viewed from the Ocean Park cable car ride. Repulse Bay is in the southern part of Hong Kong Island, located in the Southern District. It is one of the most expensive residential areas in Hong Kong. Photo taken on August 16, 2006.
View of Middle Island, off Hong Kong Island (left) between Deep Water Bay and Repulse Bay (background, left). Viewed from the Ocean Park cable car ride. Repulse Bay is in the southern part of Hong Kong Island, located in the Southern District. It is one of the most expensive residential areas in Hong Kong. Photo taken on August 16, 2006.
Hong Kong flag (1910-1955)
Hong Kong flag (1910-1955)
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