The history of Hong Kong did not begin in 184 i when the British flag was raised at what is now Western District's Possession Street. Then Hong Kong Island was home to several thousand people, but the territory had long been an international maritime crossroads. Since the turn of the century Hong Kong has grown into a global financial centre and regional transportation hub boasting the world's eighth-largest trade figures. Its per capita GDP is higher than Britain's, and its ratios of public housing and country parkland are world-beaters. So is life expectancy, for the 6.3 million people who live in Asia's most popular travel destination.
Rock inscriptions, as at Big Wave Bay and on Cheung Chau, show that fisherfolk inhabited Hong Kong during the Bronze Age, there were coastal settlements six millennia ago. That prehistoric era can he sensed today in the Lantau Island village of Tai O , packed with an aboriginal heritage of stilt houses and animist prayer stones.
In the 2nd Century BC, China's Qin Dynasty expanded its empire. The Han Dynasty took sovereignty over the Hong Kong region in 111 BC, the vaulted tomb of one of its military officers now lies within a housing estate at Lei Cheng UK.
The region's products included incense trees, the probable inspiration for Hong Kong's name, meaning ''Fragrant Harbour". The village of that name was actually near Aberdeen. Pearls were a major export for centuries, harvested in Tolo Harbour. Salt was cultivated too, its importance evident in a 13th-century lmperial official's rock inscription near Clear Water Bay.
In the 1270s, Hong Kong's first VIP visitors arrived. The Sung Dynasty's last two emperors (young ''boy emperors'') and their lmperial retinue, fleeing Mongol conquerors, found temporary refuge on Lantau and at Kowloon City.
At that time, much farmland belonged to the Tang's, the First of the Five Cantonese "Great Clans" to settle here - about 1,000 years ago. Their ancestral halls in Kam Tin, Ping Shan and elsewhere are imposing evidence of wealth and power. Their walled villages are solid reminders of past banditry, tigers and clan warfare. Villagers also sought supernatural protection, from Buddhist and Taoist deities, and ornate temples survive in many old fishing villages, from Causeway Bay to Yuen Long.
In 1662, Manchu invaders ousted China's Ming Dynasty, but loyalist rebels dominated the South China Sea.The new Qing Dynasty enfurced coastal evacuation for seven years, many villagers did not return. A new wave of migrants arrived from the north : northern Hakka clans. Their heritage is preserved in walled-village folk museums at Tsuen Wan's Sam Tung Uk and Sai Kung peninsula's Sheung Yiu.
The Qing Dynasty erected coastal forts, as at Tung Chung on Lantau island. It was there that the largest pirate fleet was crushed in 1810 by a combined armada of lmperial Chinese, British East india Company and Portuguese vessels. Nearby, Tuen Mun harbour - on the maritime route to Canton City (modern Guangzhou) - was the first Hong Kong place recorded in Chinese annals. It entered European history in l 5 14, when Portuguese traders set up a fortified base.
In the 19th Century, t h e W e s t ' s increasing passion for such Chinese imports as tea, silk and porcelain led to a balance-of-payments crisis. Blocked bv trade restriction , merchants redressed the trade balance with opium. Sold via Chinese middlemen, it depleted China's silver reserves. The weak Qing Dynasty banned the drug, its Commissioner Linseized the merchants stock in Canton, and the ''Opium Wars" began. Each ended with punitive agreements, called ''Unequal Treaties" by China.
In 1842, Britain was ceded Hong Kong Island, which had been claimed the previous year by Captain Charles Elliot. The island's anchorage attracted shipping and an influx of settlers, both Western and Chinese. In 1860, Britain gained all of Kowloon Peninsula. In 1898, seeking a bu1Yer zone, it signed a 99-year lease for the New Territories, from Kowloon's Boundary Street to the Shenzhen River. Local clans rebelled briefly. Ironically, Hong Kong provided a temporary haven - and University of Hong Kong medical schooling - for the founder of modern China, Dr Sun Yat - sen.
On Christmas Day 1941, Hong Kong surrendered to Japanese forces. After the Pacific War, Britain resumed sovereignty. China's civil war and political turmoil created tidal waves of refugees, who hastened Hong Kong's development from entrepot to manufacturing centre to a services industry powerhouse.
In the 1980s, negotiations about Hong Kong's future began, the 1984 Sino- British Declaration outlined the way forward. Adopting Deng Xiaoping's policy of "One Country, Two Systems", China guaranteed to maintain Hong Kong's capitalist system for 50 years. The Basic Law defined Hong Kong's new status as a Special Administrative Region of China (SAR).
Despite some Sino - British disagreements, the transition from semi-autonomy under the last British Governor (Chris patten) to self-rule under the first Hong Kong -Chinese Chief Executive (Tung Chee-hwa) has been accompanied by economic prosperity and social stability. Now, the history of Hong Kong begins its next exciting chapter of change and progress.