The hilly island of Hong Kong (no 1 on the map above) was first offered to Great Britain in 1841 during the First Anglo-Chinese War, or 'Opium War'. The following year, under the Treaty of Nanjing, it was ceded 'to be governed by such laws as Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain etc. may see fit to direct'. Uninhabited apart from one or two fishing villages, it was mostly covered in snake-infested and mosquito-ridden vegetation, but the channel which separated it from the mainland formed a better harbour than that at nearby Macao , and a new settlement of Victoria quickly grew up on its north shore. As administrators, merchants, bankers, missionaries, teachers, doctors, and a host of adventurous trades people poured in, so did more and more Chinese. The estimated population of 3,650 in 1843 had risen to 23,817 just two years later, of whom 595 were Europeans and 362 Indians.
By 1861, the Taiping Rebellion across southern China had contributed to a greatly swollen population of 119,321, including 2,986 non-Chinese inhabitants. They now had a little more territory. The previous year, the Treaty of Peking had awarded Britain a further 3.75 square miles on the mainland (no 2 on the map). This was Kowloon, 'Nine dragons', so called after the ring of mountain tops that overlooked it, and that reminded people of the nine dragons embroidered on imperial robes. Its acquisition provided an expanse of flat land for development and secured the safety of the harbour. Even so the colony was still tiny, and it remained so until 1898, when the British government was able to claim a 99-year lease on additional land. This consisted of 366 square miles of countryside and 230 islands along the heavily indented coastline, and it became known as the New Territories (no 3).
This was the shape retained by Hong Kong ('Fragrant Harbour') for the remainder of its history under British rule. The administration of the colony was led by the governor, the first of whom was Henry Pottinger and the last Chris Patten. In between were men such as George Bonham, George Bowen, Hercules Robinson, William des Voeux, and Matthew Nathan, after whom well known streets in Hong Kong are still named. In 1997 the territory reverted to Chinese sovereignty, and became a Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China.
Many big western trading companies first established themselves in 19th -century Hong Kong, including Jardine Matheson & Co., Dent & Co., Swire & Co., and the American Russell & Co. One of today's principal banks, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, was founded in 1864, although it had been preceded in 1845 by the Oriental Banking Corporation. The senior figures of these enterprises were usually Western and were known as taipan 'great businessmen'. Junior employees were Chinese, but for the handling of their Chinese staff and the conclusion of lucrative deals with local Chinese merchants, the taipan depended on their own Chinese managers, or compradores. Both taipan and compradores made great fortunes. Some of the taipan who had used their wealth to build up collections of Chinese arts and crafts eventually shipped them home to their estates in the United Kingdom. One such was Lancelot Dent. Among his acquisitions was the fine Chinese bed, purchased from his descendants by the Durham Oriental Museum in 1981.
Hong Kong served as a point of entry for Western art and architecture into China. George Chinnery (1774-1852) painted the island in 1846, one of the first English artists to do so. He taught the Chinese artist Lamqua in Guangzhou , and Lamqua trained other Chinese students. The galleries of the Hong Kong Museum of Art display many water colours of Hong Kong harbour painted by Western artists in the 19th century. Through the early 20th century the colony also became a centre for Chinese artists in their own right, such well known figures as Zhao Shaoang, Fang Zhaoling, Lin Fengmian and Wucius Wong being associated with it.
One of the oldest buildings still standing in Hong Kong is St John's Cathedral, completed in 1849, and although the New Territories preserve examples of walled villages and ancestral halls of the mid-Qing dynasty, the overall architectural flavour of the former colony is inevitably Western. It has not, however, been overridingly conservative, as Western and Chinese architects alike have combined imagination and skill to make maximum use of precious land space. A population of 6.7 million people (mid-2001), packed into a little over 1000 square kilometres, gives Hong Kong one of the greatest levels of population density in the world. In response to this, tower buildings, bridges, roads, museums and arts centres seem to have defied all convention with thrilling examples of post-modern design.Prof. K. Pratt | Jul 2002