What’s So Special About This Asian Gem Destination?

by Shelli Stein

With its colonial history and blend of eastern and western cultures, Hong Kong is a fascinating destination. Before you visit,  why not learn more about this unique land and its history.

Where, Exactly, is Hong Kong?

Hong Kong is located on the south coast of China, near the Pearl River Delta. It’s about 37 miles east of Macau and is surrounded by the South China Sea on the east, south, and west. On the north, it shares a border with Shenzhen in China’s Guangdong province.

Hong Kong (426 square miles) consists of Hong Kong Island, as well as the Kowloon Peninsula and the New Territories. The archipelago of Hong Kong is made up of over 200 islands.

About 7,276,588 people live in Hong Kong, making it one of the densest populations in the world. In fact, it’s the fourth most densely populated region on earth after Macao, Monaco, and Singapore.

People in Hong Kong speak Cantonese. While there is no official religion in the country, more people identify with Buddhism (about 30%), and visitors can still see ancient Buddhist temples and statues in and around the city.

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Hong Kong’s Contentious History

When we look at photographs of the bustling metropolis of Hong Kong today, it’s hard to imagine that human civilization in the area goes back more than 35,000 years.

The early settlers may have been Austronesians (migrants from other Asian areas) who lived along the coast. By the Neolithic Age (6,000 or so years ago), these humans were cultivating rice and using stone tools. From early on China controlled Hong Kong. The Qin dynasty (214 BCE) was the first of a succession of governments that ruled the area.

Why was the small point of land so appealing and valuable?

For one, the Hong Kong harbor was a lucrative trading port. In fact, the Chinese word means “fragrant harbor” (this was especially useful for China’s opium trade). Hong Kong was also a source of human labor and some natural resources, including fishing and agriculture.

The region became a part of the Nanyue Kingdom in 206 B.C.E. after the Qin Dynasty collapsed. In 111 BCE, the Nanyue Kingdom was conquered by Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty. The region then eventually became a part of the Tang Dynasty and in 736 CE, a military town was built to protect the land.

In 1276, the Mongols invaded the region and many of the settlements were forced to relocate. The next major chapter in Hong Kong’s history was the Ming conquest, which continued from 1300-1600s.

Enter: European Influence On Hong Kong

European traders arrived in the 1500s. The Portuguese were the first explorers to arrive on the land and establish trading posts. This was the beginning of the exchange of ideas between east and west—but it also marked the ongoing conflict between eastern and western control over Hong Kong.

Hong Kong harbor was the port of entry for European vessels, and traders soon discovered the value of Chinese goods like silk, tea, and porcelain. The Chinese took advantage of consumer demand.

The Chinese weren’t very interested in European goods, however, so there wasn’t much of an ongoing trade balance. Europeans could only buy Chinese imports paying with precious metals. To counter this imbalance, the British began to sell the Chinese opium from India.

This is important because it explains the increase in restrictions on foreign trade. The Chinese responded by trying to limit trade, especially to control the opium problem.

The British first established their presence in the area in 1839. As they were profiting from the opium trade’s route through Hong Kong, they fought for control. The First Opium War occurred in 1839, and in 1842 the Treaty of Nanking was signed, ceding Hong Kong to the British.

British Control of Hong Kong

The British pushed for total control of the area. After the second Opium War in 1860, Britain expanded its rule over the Kowloon Peninsula and Stonecutters Island. In the Convention of 1898, the area called the New Territories, along with 235 small islands, were leased to Britain for 99 years, until 1997. An interesting arrangement, to say the least!

This was a time of radical growth in Hong Kong. The population grew from 120,000 in 1861, to 300,000 by 1899. Under British rule, there was economic improvement as well as development of infrastructure. The first university was founded in 1911, and the first airport opened in 1924.

Hong Kong was attacked by the Japanese during World War II (the same morning as Pearl Harbor, 1941). The Japanese took control from the British until 1945.

After the war, conflict spread as a result of the Chinese Civil War. To escape the Chinese Communist Party, many refugees fled to Hong Kong. The area became the first of the four Asian “Tiger” economies of the 1950s. The other three were South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore. These East Asian countries experienced rapid industrialization. In Hong Kong, examples of industrialization include the boom in manufacturing and finance.

While the economy prospered, the political situation remained contentious. From the 1950s to the 1980s, Hong Kong was the site of protests between the Republic of China and the Communist Party.

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Chinese Rule…..Sort Of

As Britain’s 1997 lease expiration of Hong Kong approached, residents became frightened. Mass emigration occurred. Over half a million people left the territory between 1987 and 1996.

According to the CIA’s website:

Pursuant to an agreement signed by China and the UK on 19 December 1984, Hong Kong became the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) of the People’s Republic of China on 1 July 1997. In this agreement, China promised that, under its “one country, two systems” formula, China’s socialist economic and strict political system would not be imposed on Hong Kong and that Hong Kong would enjoy a “high degree of autonomy” in all matters except foreign and defense affairs for the subsequent 50 years.

Hong Kong’s transition to a semi-autonomous “HKSAR” hasn’t been smooth. Hong Kong and Beijing faced much conflict, even debating over the final wording of the document by which Hong Kong would be governed under Chinese sovereignty.

Political unrest has continued in Hong Kong, as citizens protested against Chinese rule, desiring a democratic government and greater autonomy. In 2019 the country held numerous protests.

Demonstrations broke out when a proposed bill was introduced that would permit the extradition of Hong Kong citizens to mainland China. The bill, which many feared would be used to intimidate those who were critical of the mainland government, prompted months of rallies and marches. Initially peaceful, the nature of the demonstrations became violent as police and protestors clashed.

Although the bill was formally withdrawn in October, by that time protestors had expanded their demands to include an independent investigation of police brutality experienced in the months of demonstrations, amnesty for those demonstrators who had been arrested while protesting against the bill, and universal suffrage, which was provided for by Hong Kong’s Basic Law but had yet to be implemented. Their remaining demands went unmet.

Protests have continued, though today there is relative peace between Hong Kong and Beijing.

As a special administrative region of China, Hong Kong has executive, legislative, and judicial powers that form a national government. There are 22 political parties that comprise the Legislative Council. Currently these parties divide into three groups: the current government’s pro-Beijing campus, a pro-democracy group, and a localist group. While Chinese presence is notable, there is not a Chinese Communist party in the government and Chinese national law doesn’t apply in Hong Kong, which is treated as a separate jurisdiction.

Macau and Kowloon

No article on Hong Kong would be complete without mentioning two important regions, Macau and Kowloon.

Hong Kong and Macau have a close relationship. Like Hong Kong, Macau is considered to be a special administrative region of China. Hong Kong and Macau are located on the west and east sides of the Pearl River Delta (a distance of about 40 miles). In fact, since 2018 the two sites are connected by the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge. Macau is Hong Kong’s second largest export destination. It exports jewelry, broadcasting equipment and precious metals. Hong Kong is also Macau’s largest export destination.

In contrast, Kowloon is an enclave of Hong Kong. It’s located across from Victoria Island. More than 2 million people live there, making it one of the most populous areas of the city.

Kowloon has been the site of a territorial tug of war between China and Britain. Back in the 1600s (before English occupation) it was a military fort. The Chinese built a huge giant granite wall around it (which is why it was considered a walled city). Around 1898 when China leased land to Britain, the Kowloon Peninsula was part of the bargain. The only part that was not leased was the Walled City. China was allowed to control the fort as long as they didn’t interfere with British troops.

In the 1900s Kowloon was a rough place, with unregulated growth and unsanitary conditions. Some 2,000 people lived with the walled city, which had an unusual stacked style of housing. Squatters and ruffians lived in the area. The drug trade grew here, as did prostitution. It took decades, but by 1991 the Walled City was knocked down and cleaned out. Improved housing was constructed. Today Kowloon is a thriving area and popular tourist destination.

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Hong Kong Today

Hong Kong today is one of the most powerful cities in the world (ranking #9). This is largely because it is one of the world’s largest international financial centers. It has a strong economy with low taxes and free trade.

The economy is considered a free market, and is highly dependent on international trade. Hong Kong’s stock market is the sixth largest in the world, and attracts both foreign and domestic investors.

Hong Kong is considered an ideal place to start a company because of these low taxes as well as little government intervention. It has no public debt and a strong banking system.

Another feature of its economy is its vast supply of labor from nearby countries, both service workers and a skilled labor force.

The main industries, other than finance and banking, are textiles, clothing, tourism, shipping, electronics, plastics, toys, watches, and clocks. The main agricultural products from Hong Kong are fresh vegetables, poultry, pork and fish.

Tourism is one of Hong Kong’s greatest resources, and it is one of the most popular destinations on earth! In 2019 it was the world’s most visited city receiving 26,716,800 visitors.

Nine Fun Facts About Hong Kong

#1 Hong Kong is the city with the highest number of skyscrapers in the world. There are currently 552 buildings over 150m high.

#2 Hong Kong’s tallest building is the 484m International Commerce Centre. It is the world’s 12th tallest building.

#3 Hong Kong is home to the world’s longest outdoor escalator system. The Central-Mid-Levels Escalator is an 800m-long series of 16 reversible escalators and three travelators that crosses 13 streets. It’s covered throughout to protect against the elements.

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#4 Hong Kong’s flag can only be displayed together with the Chinese flag and secondary to it – i.e. lower and/or smaller.

#5 Hong Kong is connected to Macau and the mainland Chinese city of Zhuhai via the world’s longest sea bridge. The bridge spans 55km and includes 6.7km of undersea tunnel to allow ships to pass.

#6 As of 2022, Hong Kong has 68 billionaires – only the cities of New York and Shanghai have more. As a country, it has 8.83 billionaires per million people – the sixth highest country in the world.

#7 At 84.9 years at birth, Hong Kong has the world’s highest life expectancy.

#8 Behind South Korea, Hong Kong has the world’s second-lowest fertility rate at just 0.9 births per woman.

#9 Hong Kong has the tallest seated bronze Buddha statue in the world. Built in 1993, the Big Buddha at Po Lin Monastery is 23m high, or 26.4m if you include the lotus it sits on, or almost 34m if you include the podium it’s placed on.

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What To Do On Your Trip To Hong Kong?

Visitors to this Asian destination have many options for site-seeing. Here are a few of the most popular activities.

The Tian Tan Buddha Stature (Big Buddha)
This 100 feet high Buddha is one of the biggest of its kind. It took 12 years to build!

There are many temples in the area, but the Wong Tai Sin Temple in Kowloon is particularly unique. It’s home to three religions: Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism.

Star Ferry takes visitors across Victoria Harbor. The Ferry dates back to 1880.

Hong Kong is known for its many street markets. Temple Street Night Market is famous for its food stalls and bargains on all types of goods.

Disneyland on Lantau Island is an Asian version of the Disney franchise. There are seven different fantasy lands to explore, including Main Street U.S.A.

A short bus ride from the city center takes travelers to Big Back Bay, where they can take the beautiful Dragon’s Back Hike, which overlooks the ocean as well as the skyline of Hong Kong.

Also outside of the city is the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery. It is not actually a monastery, but it contains a collection (more than 10,000) of gold Buddha statues.

Final Thoughts

With this knowledge of Hong Kong’s past, it’s even more fascinating to explore how the city has evolved today. This towering city, once a fishing village, stands as a pinnacle of transformation and success in the Asian world.

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