Hong Kong: Where the East meets the West.
Hong Kong is one of the largest and most economically powerful cities in the world. Due to its unique historical circumstances it is also one of the most interesting. From 1842 to 1997 the region was a colony of Great Britain, and under the terms of 1984’s Sino-British Joint Declaration it was allowed to maintain some autonomy upon its return to China. Today Hong Kong is a spectacular place where you can find forests of skyscrapers, verdant mountains, brilliant white beaches, and more. While most of the region’s inhabitants are native born, it is also home to a large population of British expats. For them Hong Kong is an exciting place, one with limitless avenues for work and play.
The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is composed of three areas: the New Territories, which take up most of the region, the Kowloon Peninsula, and Hong Kong Island. These divisions were a result of the process by which the British colonized the area. From 1839 to 1842 the Chinese Qing Dynasty unsuccessfully tried to defend itself from the United Kingdom’s efforts to smuggle opium into the country and undermine Chinese sovereignty in the First Opium War. After the war Britain annexed Hong Kong Island; further treaties in 1860 and 1898 would lead to the annexation of both Kowloon and the surrounding New Territories. The latter treaty is notable in that it was temporary—the United Kingdom leased the New Territories from China for 99 years.
Under British rule Hong Kong saw much in the way of development and industrialization. Kowloon and the northern half of Hong Kong Island in particular became home to one of the largest metropolises in the Pacific. The area was ravaged by the Japanese during World War II, but following the war Hong Kong boomed once more. Around this time mainland China also began its evolution into a global superpower. The latter half of the century saw European colonies the world over achieve independence, and while the United Kingdom was at first loath to give up Hong Kong, China wished to regain the lands that the United Kingdom had taken from them. In 1984 the Chinese and British governments reached a compromise: with the expiration of the United Kingdom’s lease, all of Hong Kong would be returned to China. However Hong Kong would be allowed to keep its prior economic systems, rather than be governed under Chinese state socialism. Today Hong Kong remains an economic powerhouse, one which attracts travelers and expats from all over the world.
Although no longer a British colony, Hong Kong is home to many expats from the United Kingdom. Many have been there since before decolonization, but many more have come since. Lesley Croft and her family moved to Hong Kong in 2001 due to her ex-husband’s job. She still lives there to this day, and Lesley has much to say about her experiences.
“My favourite part of life in Hong Kong is the vastly different landscapes and ease of travelling around,” she explains.
“One day I can be hiking in the green hills of a Country Park or on a relaxing boat trip to an outlying island, the next I can be amongst the high rise cityscape with every possible cuisine available.” To Lesley, Hong Kong is a place full of opportunities.
Other expats have similar stories. Stewart McKay, who runs a blog entitled “What I Did in Hong Kong”, came to the city to live with his native-born partner. Seven years on they still enjoy a happy life together. He is enraptured by how convenient life in Hong Kong can be—restaurants, cinemas, stores and more are all only a short walk away. And that’s only one of the myriad differences between Hong Kong and the United Kingdom that Stewart notes. “For me, Hong Kong is a 24-hour place, whereas the UK is a 9-5 place,” he says. “That’s the best way I can put it. In Hong Kong, of course, you can shop, eat and drink to the small hours, as in any big city, but you can also get a foot massage or do your laundry at midnight.” Leslie’s account of the city is similar. “Hong Kong is ‘open’ all the time. The idea of not being able to buy something because the shops are closed just doesn’t happen. That’s very different from the UK.”
Despite the fact that Britain ruled over Hong Kong for over a century and a half, not much physically remains of the city’s colonial legacy. However if you take a close look at Hong Kong you’ll see many traces of Britain’s empire embedded within the city’s psyche. Stewart notes that there are a lot of “superficial remnants” of the past; these include streets with names such as Queen Victoria Street. Leslie meanwhile observes that a lot of cultural mores and practices also continue into the present. Surprisingly though, Hong Kong seems to have had a larger cultural influence on the United Kingdom than vice versa. According to Leslie, immigrants from Hong Kong opened up many Cantonese restaurants during the 70s. Stewart distinctly recounts visiting one named “The Nine Dragons” as a child; Kowloon’s name literally translates to “nine dragons.” This cultural back and forth between Hong Kong, China, and the United Kingdom continues to this day, with Hong Kong at the center of it all. In all likelihood this is the reason why British expats like Stewart and Leslie have had such an easy time in the city—the people of Hong Kong are used to Westerners.
“I would say they don’t give us a second glance,” says Stewart.
Hong Kong may have been heavily influenced by Britain during its years as a colony, but at its core it is still a Chinese city. That being said, Hong Kong’s history has placed it in a unique situation. Over the last two centuries the area has found itself torn between two radically different societies and cultures. Today’s Hong Kong is a juncture where east and west meet and join as one. For the Brits who live there it is a place that is simultaneously familiar and exotic. They, like all the other groups I have written about over the course of this series, are a symbol of the strands that bind each and every society and culture on this Earth. For no matter where we are, whether we’re with people who share our culture and language or in a place radically different from what we know, we are all united by the same experiences. And it is my dearest hope that as our world shrinks and we grow closer to one another we welcome one another with open arms and share our stories.