How has Hong Kong maintained or lost its identity during and after the colonial times?

Home sweet home: where do we belong?  

A controversial question: should Hong Kong return to its colonial past or embrace its more traditional Chinese past?  [1]

Following on from my last article about mainly about French identity mainly in Québec with some references to French colonialism in Nouvelle France and Louisiane, as its sub-Canadian and American counterparts, I will now turn the attention to the British colonial history in Hong Kong. This is a frequently debated topic among countless Hong Kong people, regardless of their generation or age. Throughout this article, the battle for the Fragant Harbour (Hong Kong’s Cantonese name) during the First and Second Opium Wars in 1839 to 1842 and 1856 to 1860 respectively, the effectiveness of the colonial rule under the British administration, the effectiveness of Chinese rule during the return to the mainland in 1997, the comparison of many Chief Executives through British and Chinese-Hong Kong administration in general, will be thoroughly discussed. Again, thank you for your support by reading my article!


1) First and Second Opium Wars 

During their expeditions to extend their colonial outposts in the world, the British landed in Hong Kong in the late 18th century. Certainly, as any colonists would find is, the importance of trade between one resource for another – whether it were the British, French, Germans, Russians, Japanese or even the Dutch, within the geopolitical region in the Scramble for China. This was done through the opium found in India, plus the silver found in Britain, exchanged mainly for the prized porcelain works and tea leaves in Hong Kong. This was significant, as many Hong Kong locals grew increasingly livid with appearing to be gaining a meagre herb with supposed curing properties, in exchange for valuable pieces of art.


Consequently, there were more restrictions imposed on the trade allowance and trade routes that the European powers were permitted. In doing so, this was key, as this created the First and Second Opium Wars, where the Franco-British alliance eventually swept the Chinese forces aside with their technologically advanced military and naval expertise. However and more importantly, this was key because what the Franco-British alliance did not realise, was that they were about to do was to change the course of history, particularly by installing the British administration. Thus, this was fundamental, as it greatly altered and influenced many political pessimists in contemporary Hong Kong politics, questioning the effectiveness of the current local Chinese government.

2) Colonial rule under the British

After the First Opium War, the British gained control of Hong Kong in 1842. It must be considered that before this time, Hong Kong was a hard-working fishing port, ruled principally by the Qing Dynasty, the last set of Chinese Emperors to govern the country with a monarchy.  Despite commenting on a sour note, the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, at that time believed Hong Kong was futile for proper trade or commercial use to the British Empire at its height. [2] However, the great magnitude of being ruled by the British asserted many benefits to mould the city into what it is nowadays.


It must be noted that Hong Kong became renowned as a economically prosperous port city, and attracted many Chinese merchants southwards for business and work. However, the local Cantonese people and the Europeans found it hard to integrate properly, with lack of understanding in terms of common language becoming a major factor. The Boxer Rebellion in 1911 was fundamental, because this was to some extent, a detrimental ideal that affected many Chinese locals of having to try and expel foreign influence within their country. Nevertheless, the tiny Chinese population had now to succumb itself into the British influence and by learning English, fuse into the British colonial culture, as the English colonists were gaining more status and prestige within the city. [3] This was key again, as this was where Hong Kong started to find its special colonial identity. For example, this language fusion was further emphasised in different simple words borrowed from the English vocabulary in Cantonese spoken language, such as dik si for taxi, tsi si for cheese, dor si for toast…


Another way in which Hong Kong found its identity was the fact that it was similar to many British colonies, where the names of former governors, British cities or important people were utilised in Hong Kong as street names. For instance, Des Voeux Road was named after one of its former governors: William Des Voeux (a British administrator of French descent), Edinburgh Road after one significant city of the colonial motherland, or Victoria Harbour after Queen Victoria like in myriad other appellations in Canada, Australia or Tanzania.  


As many pessimists nowadays would suggest, one of the key benefits that the British brought with them was the style of administration, which again helped Hong Kong find its colonial and political identity today. This will be discussed further in the comparison of the British Governors and Chief Executives of Hong Kong below in section 4 of this article.


3) Post-colonial times/Chinese return 

Being the latest British colony to have its colonial past brushed away only by administration and not by general sentiment, the return to mainland China in 1997 was hugely controversial to the benefit of the Hong Kong as a city and with its population. Hong Kong, was, however, now fully recognised as a special administrative region (SAR) like Macau, also in the Canton region. The benefits of being back in Chinese, rather than British hands will be compared in the next section.

4) Comparison between the British Governors and Chief Executives of Hong Kong  

Perhaps this should be called the nucleus of this article, as it is the most important part that I want to bring out to the reader, especially if they were from Hong Kong, as the above should be familiar to some relative extent. It must be said that instead of simply jotting down some historical facts here and there, the main idea of recognising Hong Kong’s identity nowadays is mainly political, despite its historical elements, is necessary. This will be done by a comparison and contrasting of the British and Hong Kong administration before and after the return of the SAR.


1) British administration in general 

Ultimately, the British created an apt civil service by using a bureaucratic system. This was significant, as this created stability rather than corruption in Hong Kong, and more importantly, respect for the conduct of law from the civilians. It must be noted that the ex-British colony had competent policy-makers from London and others across Britain whether it were Sir Chris Patten or Lord Wilson, who instilled a democratic system and despite being seen as arrogant sometimes, were considerate and “sensitive” to the colonial population when necessary. [4]


This, however, was and is heavily contrasted since the handover of Hong Kong back to China  in 1997. This is because many protestors have increasingly took to the streets, especially under the reign of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. With Leung believed to have lied about his estate and its size, this was significant, as this disgruntled the Hong Kong people by believing that Leung was a dishonest and incompetent ruler for the region. [5] This unpopularity is further emphasised in the anti-Beijing protests, where many people took to the streets British colonial flags with them, sentiments of toppling Leung before the election in 2017 and the corrupt politics of being supported and voted by the Communist cadres for Leung’s rule in Hong Kong.  [6]


2) Hong Kong administration in general 

This stable and democratic governance under the British colonial administration quickly dissipated since Tung chee-wah’s rule as Chief Executive in 1998. Hong Kong was and is still under the watchful eye of China’s authoritarian and totalitarian Communist state party. [4] The government is essentially a puppet state, a replica of China’s social, political and economic interests. One major way of economic flow is mainly by reclamation (the creation of land from mountains, hills or sea) and the manufacture of numerous residential buildings across Hong Kong.


With the connection back with China, Hong Kong is dependent on trade and free market with the mainland. However, with this interconnection among the two parts of China, this essentially means that a lot of immigration and cross-border goods, particularly milk powder, to and from Hong Kong have been exploited, much to the displeasure of the Hong Kong locals at Lo Wu. [7]


Shedding light from my previous article about Québec’s contested identity, Hong Kong is also a territory of “one country, two systems”. For example, under the Basic Law, Hong Kong must provide protection of citizens’ civil rights and maintain democratic features within the region. [7] However, it is generally perceived that Hong Kong is to become fully Communist, half a century after the handover in 2047. Subsequently, the level of personal freedom politically and economically in Hong Kong will not be fully guaranteed.


Another main socio-political Hong Kong that has raised major eyebrows across China, is the level of Chinese identity. Many people would prefer being called Hong Kongese, with a fetish for its illustrious 20th century film industry with many renowned action actors across the world, namely Bruce Lee, Jacky Chan, Jet Li, Chow yun-fat and Stephen Chow. In education and commerce, there has been more appreciation for the Mandarin language, rather than the Cantonese one, thus creating apprehension for the Cantonese-speaking population in Hong Kong. [7]


Effectively, Hong Kong had a colonial past under British administration and a increasingly more Communist-influenced outlook after its approximate 16 years of Chinese return. Under each patriarchal power, Hong Kong has flourished well, particularly in an economic sense. However, the more important question to raise is whether Hong Kong flourished more under the British or Chinese rule.
In my opinion, I believe in terms of social success and civil satisfaction, the British have proven to be more considerate and sensitive to the Hong Kong population, leaving with them an effective code of law still practised and similar in Hong Kong to this very date. Conversely, in terms of economic success, Hong Kong has blossomed, despite being controversial and heavily disputed, with its open market and dependence with China, allowing many job opportunities for a wide range of international audience to work in its society properly. Finally, politically, this is perhaps the purpose of the article: to assess the level of identity in the Hong Kong region. Does it have a British or Chinese identity, or at least willing to link itself up with its predecessors colonially or culturally? It is a very hard point to decide, as many people are left undecided: Britain had the more politically ‘correct’ way of administration under bureaucracy, and under China, the Cantonese population, although it is again contested, feel more Chinese than they were before, being a post-colonial population. Alright, that is it from me now, exams and revision mode on, I cannot guarantee the next article, but I hope you enjoyed your read and until then! 🙂











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