Modern-day Hong Kong is best known for its sprawl of skyscrapers and role as a bustling financial hub and regional trade conduit off the southern coast of mainland China.

But the territory was once a quiet backwater of rural hamlets and fishing communities, where mountainous terrain dominated sparse human settlement. 

Hong Kong central business
Photo: GovHK.

Twenty-five years since the city was handed back to China by colonial power Britain, here are key points in its evolution:

Ancient history

Remnants of burial grounds and early rock carvings show human life in Hong Kong as far back as the Stone Age. 

The territory is thought to have come into the fold of the Chinese empire under the Han dynasty between 206 BC and 220 AD.

Increasing numbers of Han Chinese from the mainland began to settle in Hong Kong, alongside boat-dwelling communities also thought to have originated from southern China.  

Trade boom

Hong Kong’s sheltered main harbour became a place to replenish supplies for trading ships plying the maritime silk road between Asia, Africa and the Middle East, flourishing from around the 7th century. 

As well as silk, China exported porcelain and tea and received everything from spices to plants and textiles. 

Victoria Harbour Hong Kong colony colonial history British
Hong Kong circa 1900.

Hong Kong’s outlying islands were also a haven for Chinese pirates — its current territory includes 260 islands, many of them uninhabited.

European arrival

Portuguese, Dutch and French traders arrived on the south coast of China in the 1500s and Portugal set up a base in Macau, which neighbours Hong Kong. 

But in the 18th century, China imposed restrictions on the Europeans in a bid to contain their influence.  

Britain was angered after an imperial edict banned its trade in opium from India to China, which had led to the spread of addiction.  

After Chinese authorities seized a vast haul of the drug, Britain attacked in 1840 and reached northern China, threatening Beijing, in the First Opium War.

To make peace, China agreed to cede Hong Kong Island to Britain in 1841. 

The Kowloon peninsula followed in 1860 after a second Opium War, and Britain extended north into the rural New Territories in 1898, leasing the area for 99 years.

British rule

Hong Kong was part of the British empire until 1997, when the lease on the New Territories expired and the entire city was handed back to China. 

1997 handover
Photo: GovHK.

Under British rule, Hong Kong transformed into a commercial and financial hub boasting one of the world’s busiest harbours.

Anti-colonial sentiment fuelled riots in 1967 that led to some social and political reforms — by the time it was handed back to China, the city had a partially elected legislature and retained an independent judiciary.  

Hong Kong boomed as China opened up its economy in the late 1970s, becoming a gateway between the ascendant power and the rest of the world. 

Return to China

After lengthy negotiations, including between former leader Deng Xiaoping and British ex-prime minister Margaret Thatcher, the two sides signed off on the future handover of Hong Kong in 1984.  

The Sino-British declaration said Hong Kong would be a Special Administrative Region of China and would retain its freedoms and way of life for 50 years after the handover date on July 1, 1997. 

july 1 flags tsuen wan
Photo: Almond Li/HKFP.

Beijing says Hong Kong’s One Country, Two Systems model remains intact.

But critics, including Britain and other Western powers, say China has eviscerated the city’s unique freedoms, especially in the wake of huge democracy protests that broke out in 2019.

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