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Farewell to British Hong Kong

by Walter Glaser

I hope that you will forgive me for writing this as my impressions of Hong Kong in its last days of British rule. I have visited the Crown Colony of Hong Kong every year since the late 50's and have just returned from seeing for the last time the old Hong Kong that I knew. In my humble opinion those living there who say there will be no change are indulging in an overdose of wishful thinking. Hong Kong may, at least for a few years, be quite different to the rest of China. But it will also be different to the way it was under British rule, and before giving you my impressions, I should perhaps start with a thumb-nail sketch of its history.

Until the turn of this century, commerce, administration and travel in China were mainly centered along the country's great rivers, the colonial powers of the world realized that to penetrate China's vast markets, a commercial and military staging post at the mouth of such rivers was the ideal place for a foothold and base in China. Britain, Japan, France, Germany and Portugal all had enclaves to support their political and economic interests. Shanghai at the mouth of the Yangtse, was the major China base for Germany, France, Japan and Britain.

Another major trade artery was the Pearl River. European powers had enclaves in Canton that were somewhat similar to those in Shanghai, but Portugal and Britain wanted more. So they took up unpopulated tracts of land, Portugal annexing Macau on the western end of the Pearl River. It seems almost inconceivable in today's climate of the war against drugs, to realize that the British East India Company, under the protection of Britain's Armed Forces, had made it a policy to open China's trade doors by attempting to addict China's masses to the opium on which this company had a virtual monopoly. One must bear in mind that this was the era when Coca Cola concentrate contained a goodly dose of coca-leaf extract, enough to give drinkers a cocaine "high" that made them exceptionally brand-loyal!

On January 20, 1841, Captain Charles Elliot of the British Royal Navy who was then Britain's representative as Trade Superintendent decided to take over Hong Kong Island. The Chinese had just confiscated thousands of cases of opium from the British settlement in Canton, and Captain Elliot figured that a firmer base, not accessible to the Chinese would make a safer storage and trading area. He did this without referring to London, but by the time the news of his actions reached England, the acquisition of the Island of Hong Kong, now known as Victoria Island, was a fait accompli.

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