The British forces landed on Hong Kong Island during the First Opium War in 1841. In 1860, the Qing government was defeated in the Second Opium War and Kowloon was ceded to Britain. This gave Britain complete control of Victoria Harbour, a deep-water harbour that can accommodate a number of ocean-going vessels. Under the free trade policy, merchants from different countries enjoyed free access to Hong Kong and zero-tariff policy doing business here. In light of booming industry in major capitalist countries in Europe and the U.S. after the Industrial Revolution, the opening of Suez Canal, and the operation of the Eurasian submarine cable, a surge of merchandise exporting from the West to the expansive China market through Hong Kong was witnessed. In addition, Chinese took up the majority of Hong Kong’s population. They were hard-working and good at doing business, which helped promote the economic development of Hong Kong. The city gradually became an important entrepots in the Far East because of these favourable conditions. According to statistics, in 1867, 20% of China’s total imports were from Hong Kong and 14% of China’s total exports were through Hong Kong. In 1880, 37% of the value of China’s imports and 21% of its exports were through Hong Kong.
After Hong Kong was established as a free port, its economic activities were controlled by British merchants. Opium was the main merchandise at that time. The photo shows a British opium warehouse boat floating in the waters near Hong Kong.
The overseas-bound Chinese workers “coolie” in Hong Kong. Hong Kong was once a hub of coolie trade in early years. The gruelling coolie trade was associated with inhuman practices. However, it helped promote shipping and financial industry in Hong Kong.
Victoria Harbour during the 1870s (left) and 1880s (right). From the photos, a growth of economy can be concluded from the growing number of ships in the habour and buildings along the coast over the decade.
Left: Dent & Company (1858); Right: the waterfront west of Pedder Street in the 1870s. The buildings from left to right are Jardine, Matheson & Co., Hunter & Co., Lane, Crawford & Co., Union Insurance Society of Canton Limited and Douglas Lapraik & Co. Large British companies dominated the commercial activities in early Hong Kong.
The Standard Chartered Bank Building (left, building on the left) and the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Limited (HSBC) Main Building (right) in early years. The two British banks started business in Hong Kong in 1859 and 1865 respectively.
The Hong Kong Government focused on increasing land supply in the 19th century. The photo shows the Central Reclamation on Hong Kong Island commenced in 1890 and completed in 1904.
The Sincere Department Store near Hong Kong-Macau Ferry Terminal in the early 20th century. The emergence of department stores showed that people’s purchasing power increased with the thriving Hong Kong society.
Utilities including water, electricity and transport developed rapidly between 1841 and the early 20th century in Hong Kong. The photos show the present-day Pok Fu Lam Reservoir completed in 1863 (left) and the North Point Power Station which started operation in 1919 (right).
The photo above was taken in 1933. It shows the Star Ferry Pier in Kowloon, the Kowloon Terminus, and the Terminus Clock Tower. Decades after Hong Kong became a free port, its land and water transport became more developed. The Star Ferry, the tram, and Kowloon-Canton Railway came into service in 1898, 1904, and 1910 respectively. (Photo source: Fotoe)
The development of Hong Kong as a free port met challenges, especially from natural disasters such as typhoons that threatened life and property. The photos show the aftermath of the terrible typhoon in 1906. More than 10,000 people lost their lives in this disaster.
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