Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Hong Kong

Today we are off to Hong Kong. Same routine as for our trip to Vietnam last month....CW3 bus from Gelang Patah in Malaysia to the Jurong East MRT station in Singapore....take the green line subway train to the bus shuttle from main terminal of Changi airport to the Budget Terminal where we board Tiger Airlines flight to Hong Kong. This works very well and is easy from Puteri Harbour Marina in Malaysia as long as your flight departs Singapore during mid-afternoon or later. It takes about 3-4 hours to make the trip from the marina to the airport via public transportation during non-peak traffic hours.

I recently read the old novel "Noble House" by James Clavell which speaks of Hong Kong during the 1960s, and am currently reading his prequel novel "Tai-Pan" about Hong Kong during the 1840s. These novels have provided a sense of what the island/city/country was like during those time periods. That is about the extent of my "knowledge" about this city. For those like me who did not pay much attention to Hong Kong in their history classes, here is a brief summary of the island we are visiting. This compilation of facts comes from several websites.

Hong Kong began as a coastal island geographically located in southern China. Man existed more than 6,000 years ago at many sites along the winding shoreline of the island. It was believed that during the earliest prehistoric periods, from the close of the fourth millennium BC, Hong Kong experienced a change in the environment when sea levels rose from as much as 100 meters below the present level. Bronze was worked locally during the second millennium BC, resulting in knives and spearheads and tools. Pottery and ceramics followed the typical progression as seen in other parts of SE Asia. Population of the island today is approximately 7,000,000.

At the time of the Qin (221 - 206BC) and Han (206BC - AD220) dynasties, parties of people from the mainland came and settled in Hong Kong. They brought with them their heritage, which made an impact on the indigenous populations. Coins of the Han period have been discovered in Hong Kong, and a brick tomb was uncovered at Kowloon's Lei Cheng Uk in 1955 with a series of Han tomb furniture. Many other discoveries and excavations reveal relations between various Chinese dynasties of the past with Hong Kong

Western influence in China came about at the beginning of the 15th and 16th centuries due to the increased trade in Chinese products, such as silk and tea, through the Silk Road that stretched from northwestern China to eastern Europe. The Europeans were interested in Hong Kong's safe harbor located on the trade routes of the Far East, thus establishing a trade enterprise between Western businessmen and China. The Portuguese were the first to reach China in 1555, but the British dominated foreign trade in the southern region of Guangzhou (Canton) during the early stages of Western connection in China.

Hong Kong was part of the Chinese empire before coming under British administration as a direct result of the 19th-century Opium Wars. The conflict arose from Chinese resistance to allowing their ports to trade in opium produced in British-controlled India. The Chinese Emperor did not want opium imported into China. But the Emperor insisted that the British could only use silver to pay for tea. The British populace demanded that tea be supplied and the only place to obtain quality tea was from China. There was not sufficient silver to pay for the amount of tea needed to meet the demands of Great Britain. So traders (oftentimes known as pirates) began buying opium in British controlled Bengal (India) and illegally bringing it to Canton, where it was sold to Chinese traders for silver. The silver was then sold back to the British so they could purchase more tea. Had the Chinese Emperor accepted another form of payment for tea rather than insisting solely on silver, the spread of opium into China might not have happened.

The British used force on two occasions in the late 1830s and late 1850s to impose their commercial will. When peace terms were drawn up in 1841 in the Treaty of Nanking which ended the First Opium War, the Emperor of China agreed that Hong Kong Island should be ceded to Britain and five other ports licensed for foreign trade. The territory of Hong Kong comprises two other pieces of land: the Kowloon peninsula was ceded under the Convention of Peking in 1860, and in 1898 the New Territories were leased from China for 99 years. The British controlled Hong Kong from then – apart from a four-year period during World War II when the territory was occupied by the Japanese – until the territory was handed back to the Chinese in July 1997.

Hong Kong is now a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). As a SAR, Hong Kong today enjoys certain freedoms that are denied to mainland Chinese. A very important one is the freedom of speech. Under the Basic Law which is the governing instrument of the region, executive power is held by a Chief Executive, who is appointed by an ‘Election Committee’ composed of 800 ‘representatives of the community’. The Chief Executive is answerable to the State Council of the PRC and serves a five-year term. The Chief Executive appoints a 15-member Executive Council to assist in the administration of the Region. Hong Kong’s legislature is the 60-member Legislative Council; 24 members are directly elected in geographical constituencies, 30 members are selected from ‘functional constituencies’ (mostly professional bodies and business interests) and the remaining six by the ‘Election Committee’.

Hong Kong’s economy has moved away from manufacturing and is now service-based, acting as a major corporate and banking center as well as a conduit for China’s burgeoning exports. Manufacturing remaining in Hong Kong is concentrated in textiles, consumer electronics and other consumer goods. Hong Kong is the world’s largest producer of children’s toys. Hong Kong’s natural deep-water harbor is probably the best in the region. Much regional trade is still conducted through Hong Kong. (Photo above was taken from the trolley. They must love their chocolate to have special deliverymen just for chocolate.)

Soon after Hong Kong’s handover to China in July 1997, Asia’s financial crisis hit. With its mature and stable banking system, Hong Kong weathered the immediate storm. However, the depressed regional economy took its toll. After a brief recovery, by mid 2002 the economy was contracting at an annual rate of 1.5%. Unemployment, meanwhile, peaked at 8%. The economy is now rebounding, unemployment is falling and the property market has picked up. Tourism and trade are now the key drivers of growth.

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