Early British colonial rule
Chinese and foreigners were segregated under early British rule. The Europeans had their own buildings and facilities, similar to the other British colonies around the globe. Most of them lived in the Mid-Levels. The boundary of Hong Kong was open to China in the early days. The Chinese were free to travel between Hong Kong and mainland China. The Chinese were living in the villages in the foot of the mountain. In principle, the British didn’t intervene too much in the matters among Chinese. The Great Qing Legal Code still applied to them.
In the beginning, the rule of the British over Chinese was only through the Hong Kong Police Force, a small-scale colonial police force, responsible for security to fire services. The attitude of Britain towards Hong Kong was similar to its other colonies: non-intervention policy towards daily lives of local inhabitants unless absolutely necessary.
The United Kingdom has proclaimed clearly its principles in ruling Hong Kong in the beginning:
- Hong Kong to become a free port with no tax levied, open to the world for trading;
- To respect the customs of local inhabitants
During Taiping Rebellion, many merchants in Southern China escaped to Hong Kong to avoid warfare. They employed many labours from Guangdong and Fujian, this resulted in great surge of population. Hong Kong naturally took the path to become an entrepot (there was often a misunderstanding from mainland China that Hong Kong became a rich city from entrepot trade), with over a hundred thousand population. As Hong Kong was an entrepot, everyone could do business here regardless of your origin. In the early days of colonial rule, no tax was levied. Commerce became prosperous under such free environment.
As mentioned above, under the principle of the colonial government in respecting local customs, there was no town planning at all for the Chinese community. This resulted in serious hygiene problems. When epidemics broke out, not only the Chinese were infected but the British. Only for this reason did the colonial government start to intervene on the rule of the Chinese community.
The most important change was the decree issued in 1865 proclaiming the equality of the law of Hong Kong towards everyone. The original texts with discrimination to Chinese were abolished. This marked the ground stone of the rule of law of Hong Kong.
Another change was the establishment of the Urban Council, with similar functions of a council. This elected council functioned as an institution to tackle with home affairs, such as hygiene problems in the city, and the development of utilities like gas, electricity and freshwater. To the British, it was most important to maintain good hygiene in the Chinese community. That is a typical colonial policy, pragmatic and free from ideologies. The British colonial government in Hong Kong has been a pragmatic one throughout the colonial history of Hong Kong.
To sum up the British rule in one sentence: the colonial government refrained from intervention in local affairs unless absolutely necessary. The Manchus were unable to rule, while the British didn’t want to. This resulted in a free environment for knowledge and business to thrive, and the result why Hong Kong later became the freest economic entity in the world. It is better to say Hong Kong people were the few lucky ones who could disregard the rulers throughout human history, then they were contented to the rule of the British.
Hong Kongers’ identity as refugees
Hong Kong has long been separated from Chinese rule for over 150 years, a much longer period to much Chinese sovereignty on Earth. However, the history of growth of self-identity was not that long, it was only the matter of recent decades.
Hong Kong was a society composed of refugees. We had refugees from mainland China, India and Vietnam. They formed a majority of the Hong Kong population (Hong Kong’s population increased for several times after World War II). Many families took root in Hong Kong for only two to three generations. Therefore, their mindsets developed in their origins were brought to Hong Kong, many of them with certain political backgrounds.
On the other hand, the education system in Hong Kong was not unified. There was no legitimate official concept and ideology in the education system. The system allowed the Government and civil society to establish their own schools. The school authority had the rights to implant the concepts they wanted to disseminate in their curriculums. There were school institutions with different backgrounds, from religious groups, industrial associations, clan relative societies, academic institutions and political groups (such as Leftist schools), with religious variations from Buddhism to Christianity to Muslims. Different students from different schools will therefore hold different values.
This resulted in heterogeneous and diversified mindsets and values in Hong Kong, many of them were quite radical. Few could find somebody else with congruent views as himself. Everyone is more or less different from the others, and that’s why many find themselves confused in the question of self-identity. The identity as a “Chinese” and as a “Hong Konger” gradually becomes antagonistic, especially when this “China” is so distinctively different in its culture, thinking and concept from Hong Kong, the antagonism is further sharpened.
That is the infant stage of the identity as a Hong Konger. There are not yet any significant figures or groups. Hong Kong people are awaking. When you start to find yourself have something distinctively different, it’s hard to cheat yourself anymore.