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Farewell to British Hong Kong: History

by Walter Glaser

Lord Palmerston, the British Foreign Secretary, was far from happy about the decision, believing that "this barren island with hardly a house upon it" would never be suitable for a trading base. Poor Palmerston! He couldn't have got it more wrong!

Subsequently, Elliot was punished by being sent to Texas as Britain's Consul General, and Britain leased Kowloon Point under the Treaties of Tientsin in perpetuity, and the 350 square miles of the Mainland and outlying islands known as the New Territories were an additional area that Britain leased in 1898 for a period of 99 years.

With the knowledge that Victoria Island and Kowloon were now permanently a British Crown Colony, commerce flourished even after the notorious opium trade was rightfully abandoned and then banned. In the meantime, a large number of British trading empires supplying China with Western technology-oriented goods kept the wheels of Hong Kong's commerce turning, and Hong Kong grew in both population and importance. During W.W.II the Japanese over-ran Hong Kong, but Britain again took over after the defeat of Japan, and when the Communists gained power in China, Hong Kong became a rare island of free enterprise and trade in a sea of communism. Many Chinese industrialists from Beijing and Shanghai fled to Hong Kong bringing their money, machinery and expertise with them. The Colony's British Law, use of English as the business language and most importantly Western education system allowed the middle and upper income Hong Kong Chinese to send their children to Britain, USA and Australia for their secondary education. This gave them a unique opportunity to act as a natural bridge to link China, still somewhat uncomfortable and distrusting of Western ways, with Europe and the New World whose executives and politicians were still somewhat reluctant to deal directly with the "Inscrutable East."

When I first visited Hong Kong in the 1950's, it had not yet appeared on the tourist map. In those days there were only two major hotels that classed themselves as top standard -- the even-then-magnificent Peninsula Hotel on the Kowloon waterfront which had been staff headquarters for the Japanese Army during the occupation, and the venerable old Gloucester Hotel, now long gone but at that time the Island's finest. My most vivid recollection is of arriving in the large dining room for breakfast. The only other guest was a white-suited, pith-helmeted Englishman reading the newspaper through a monocle. In that empty room he could have been straight off the cast of a Humphrey Bogart movie.

It was not until the advent of the Boeing 747 in 1970 that mass-tourism hit Hong Kong, bringing new 5-star hotels and a standard of service unbeaten anywhere in the world. In the meantime, migrants from the Mainland had swelled the population to 4 million, providing the workforce for the industrial explosion that was to hit Hong Kong.

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