The Hong Kong Story is an hour-long documentary made in 1997 to coincide with the territory’s return to Chinese sovereignty. Produced by Elaine Forsgate Marden, it is also a memorial to a city, both in the story it tells and in style. A city that became home to a diverse community of people.

It was the first televised documentary I saw on the history of Hong Kong. When it first aired I was a teenager, preparing to go abroad for university. I was also, like everyone I knew, acutely aware that we lived on the cusp of a historic moment: 1997 represented to Britain the end of its empire, and to China the end of its century of humiliation.

hong kong story
Photo: Hong Kong Story screenshot.

But this Hong Kong was also a home. To those of us for whom Hong Kong was all we knew, The Hong Kong Story helped us to reflect on a distinct history, culture, and way of life that was uniquely our own.

The Hong Kong Story features interviews with several members of Hong Kong’s most prominent families. These include the Lis and Choas; the Hotungs and Lobos; the Kadoories and Harilelas; and the Forsgates and Jardines — all families that have helped shape Hong Kong’s history, and names that still resonate today.

These families are representatives of a genuinely international community. This Hong Kong was dominated by Scots, Jews, Parsees and Indians, as well as the Chinese. Americans and Europeans were well-represented from the colony’s beginnings, as were other Asians within a generation of the city’s establishment.

It was through co-operation, often across cultural and racial lines, that many of Hong Kong’s most important social and educational institutions were founded.

The foundation of the University of Hong Kong depended on the close friendship of Fiona Shaw, the wife of governor Frederick Lugard, and the Parsee financier and businessman Sir Hormusjee Modi.

Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences
Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences. Photo: GovHK.

Equally significant was the founding in 1870 of the Tung Wah Group, the oldest and largest charitable organisation in Hong Kong. A permanent exhibition at the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Science charts the history of the organisation, with a particular focus on the Chinese magnates who have supported it over the years. What is sadly not mentioned is its roots: it was founded with government as well as community support to be a distinctly Chinese organisation, represent a distinctive community within a multi-racial and multi-cultural city.

Our museums today, and the political discussion in both establishment and localist circles, take a Chinese-centric view of Hong Kong. This is a shame, as a more complete and honest picture would also be one of tolerance and inclusion, that embraces diversity of a truly multi-cultural society.

Hong Kong was a city built on immigration, and by immigrants. The values of the immigrant pervade each first generation, driven more by opportunity than by any sense of connection with the land or community. The ethics of the China trade were set by profit, and many a family fortune was spirited away from the city to a distant homeland.

What is less often remembered is that such immigrant motivations and practice applied equally to the majority of Chinese families who were themselves new to this city. For many, the promise of work was not as alluring as the hope of a stable and orderly society, that British administration was perceived to represent.

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A few years ago an old Hong Kong Chinese family shared with me photographs of their family shrine in Shandong Province. The ornately decorated shrine was part of a large complex of courtyard dwellings built on ancestral land. It was clearly built to make a statement.

“When we left we were peasant farmers,” I was told by the family patriarch. “This was all built with Hong Kong money.”

What he did not say was that the money was made through the distribution or sale of opium, which was left in Chinese hands.

The old man continued. “The Communists destroyed everything. They killed my cousins. All our family were killed,” he said, with barely a sign of emotion. “We survived because we came to Hong Kong.”

Today the family has spread further, to North America. This is their security. “Never trust the Communists,” I am told. “But never say I told you that.”

Some of the family have also returned to the Mainland. Much of their ancestral land has been returned to family ownership, and their ancestral shrine is being reconstructed. Not only did Hong Kong money help to build, and now rebuild China; but also it has been the Hong Kong Chinese who in many important ways have re-seeded the barren cultural soils of a People’s Republic, reconnecting modern China with its Chinese roots.

Indeed, it was in the streets and settlements of Hong Kong that the true diversity of what it meant to be Chinese could be seen: between the Cantonese speaking Punti, with their deep sense of pride in their connection to their perceived Sung ancestry, and the great Hakka families with their distinct dark clothing and broad hats. As my late grandmother would remind me, the Hakka were only ”guest families” whom our ancestors, the Sung, merely tolerated on their land.

The Hoklo, who welcomed the British and from whose language the name Hong Kong is derived, were looked down upon and distrusted by all Chinese. I was raised with stories of the Hoklo as semi-barbaric “big feet people” who lived on boats. And yet it is among the Hoklo that the lineage of many of Hong Kong’s great Eurasian families can be traced, for it was their status as outsiders that bonded them to the first Europeans. And it was into an Eurasian family that my grandmother, for all her prejudice, had married.

As a child I could walk in innocence and security between squatter settlements draped in Nationalist and Communist flags. I bought dried fish from Hoklo grandmothers who in broken Cantonese spoke to my mother in pride of husbands lost fighting the Nationalist cause, and of their grandchildren in Taiwan.

In private function rooms around dark wood mahjong tables I sat as men loudly proclaimed the coming Communist tide and the end of Western imperialism, in hotels owned by Indians and Jews that served tea to the bourgeoisie.

hong kong story
Photo: Hong Kong Story screenshot.

Even today, one may ascend the lifts to Jardine House’s more rarified heights, where Cheong Sam wearing hostesses serve drinks to an English speaking multi-ethnic trading aristocracy under a Union flag. For some in the room, this flag, which was raised in Stanley prison upon Japan’s surrender at the end of the Second World War, remains a potent reminder of a shared experience of belonging.

Far more than opium, Britain’s legacy in South China is a city that successfully embraced the complex and diverse ethnic, cultural and national identities of its people. From a bad and unequal treaty sprang an international port city that would represent both security and order, and the promise of a better life, on the doorstep of an intolerant and turbulent ancient empire.

What defines Hong Kong is not Confucian or Western values, nor a Chinese or foreign community, nor in such a small territory is it the land or the flag that flies. Tolerant, diverse and multicultural, Hong Kong was far more than just a British or Chinese city.

“Hong Kong’s essence has always been its people.” The words of Chan Siu Jeung, whose family’s fortunes fluctuated with those of Hong Kong for much of the 20th century, ring as true now as they did 20 years ago. The Hong Kong Story is the story of the Hong Kong people.

The documentary ends on a note of cautious optimism. “If China sincerely wants to let Hong Kong govern itself as part of One Country, Two Systems, we will be in for a wonderful next century,” said Andrew Choa. I wonder what he would think today?

Correction 12/21: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Union flag in Jardine House flew in Stanley prison during WWII. In fact, the flag was raised in Stanley prison upon Japan’s surrender at the end of the war. 

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Evan is a UK-based researcher and writer on HK and China affairs.