Pre-war Hong Kong society exhibited distinctive colonial characteristics. Economically, Hong Kong’s economic lifeline was controlled by British businessmen. The four most influential British-owned corporations were HSBC, Standard Chartered, Jardine Matheson, and Swire. Politically, most of the administrative positions in the Hong Kong government were taken up by foreigners. They were preferred even for relatively junior positions such as police inspectors, prison guards, health inspectors, foremen of Public Works Department, and clerks in various government agencies. This left few opportunities for the Chinese. Under such a system, foreigners in Hong Kong were well off. Except for a small number of upper-class Chinese, the average Chinese were poor, especially those at the grassroots level. Children from poor families could not go to school as free education was not available at that time. Although the development of pre-war Hong Kong system and society was insufficient, overall progress was made as the economy and society developed. The growth of entrepot trade and industry, the opening of the University of Hong Kong, the vibrant atmosphere among intellectuals, the budding of Hong Kong film industry, the growing attention for sports, and the blossoming of the publishing industry all added colours to pre-war Hong Kong society.
Some British hunting in Fanling in 1938. Since Hong Kong was established as a free port, the British in Hong Kong had a dominant position and a good life for a century.
Coolies on a street of Sheung Wan, Hong Kong in the 1920s. Most of the grassroots Chinese led a hard life in pre-war Hong Kong.
Western-style buildings in Mid-Levels on Hong Kong Island (left, taken in around 1920) and a market in Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong (right, taken in around 1939). Mid-Levels has been a high-class residential area while Sham Shui Po a grassroots community since pre-war era.
Tanka boat people in Yau Ma Tei (left), and a rural Hakka mother and son outside Kowloon City (right) in the early 20th century. In addition to the urban population, there were many farmers and fishermen in pre-war Hong Kong.
Left: the 26th Brigade Hong Kong Scouts in 1928; Right: child labour working at roadside in Hong Kong in 1936. Since free education was not available in pre-war Hong Kong, only a small number of children could receive education and participate in extracurricular activities. Many children from poor families had to work to support their families.
Left: Lai Tsi-hsi (賴際熙, fifth right in the front row), the Grand Secretariat of the former Qing imperial Hanlin Academy (翰林院), and literati and scholars in Hong Kong in 1926; Right: a group photo of painter Xu Beihong (徐悲鴻, first left), Hsu Ti-shan (許地山, second left, the then Head of the Chinese Department, University of Hong Kong), and others taken during an art exhibition at the Fung Ping Shan Library in 1938. Many former Qing Hanlin scholars came to Hong Kong after the 1911 Revolution. With the opening of the University of Hong Kong in 1912, the cultural atmosphere among intellectuals became vibrant.
The British introduced horse racing to Hong Kong. It became an iconic sport and betting activity in Hong Kong. Left: the fire killing 614 people at the Happy Valley Racecourse on 26 February 1918; Right: the stands at the Happy Valley Racecourse were crowded with spectators in 1927.
A photo of the “King of Asian Football” Lee Wai-tong (李惠堂) and his trophies in 1928. Sports including football gained growing attention in pre-war Hong Kong.
The film industry in Hong Kong started developing in the 1910s. Left: Lai Man-wai (黎民偉), known as the “Father of Hong Kong Cinema”, played Chuang Tzu’s wife in the silent black-and-white film Chuang Tzu Tests His Wife (《莊子試妻》) in 1913. It was the first short narrative film produced in Hong Kong and the first Hong Kong film released abroad (the United States); Middle: Lim Cho-cho (林楚楚), Lai’s wife and the lead actress of the Hong Kong film Rogue (《胭脂》); Right: a photo of Lai and his family in Hong Kong in 1941.
From left to right: newspapers Life Daily News (《生活日報》), The Observatory (《天文臺》), and The Star Daily (《星報》) launched in June 1936, November 1936, and March 1938 respectively. Newspaper and publishing industry blossomed in pre-war Hong Kong, which helped Hong Kong’s press and cultural sector grew.
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