During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the colony developed rapidly—becoming a magnet for immigrants and center for trade with Chinese communities abroad. But up until WWII, Hong Kong Hong Kong lived in the shadow of Shanghai, which had become Asia’s premier trade and financial center.

The early 1900s were turbulent times. China was being torn apart by political upheaval, economic chaos, rebellion and civil war. Hong Kong’s population would continue to grow due to the waves of immigrants fleeing conflict and famine in China.

1911: Sun Yat-sen, China’s modern founder, leads a nationalist revolt that eventually toppled the Qing government and establishes the Republic of China in 1912.

Hong Kong, Queen's Road c.1910


British, US, & French warships in Victoria Harbour, 1936

1937: The Japanese invade China. By 1938, much of China was occupied by Japanese forces, including Guangdong province, just to the north of Hong Kong. Refugees fleeing the Japanese occupied areas pushed HK’s population to one and a half million in 1939.

December 1941: After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Great Britain, as an ally of the U.S., was officially at war with Japan. Hours after the Pearl Harbor attack, Japanese troops attack Hong Kong from the north. Allied forces withdraw from New Territories and Kowloon to HK Island.

Hong Kong volunteers, 1941

Despite valiant efforts by British and Australian forces (and Hong Kong Volunteers), British forces surrendered on Christmas day (known in Hong Kong as “Black Christmas”) after 18 days of fierce fighting.

Hong Kong would be under Japanese rule for 3 years and 8 months. During that time, British and Allied nationals were interned in camps and two-thirds of the Hong Kong Chinese population fled to China.

Trade grinded to a halt and HK’s currency plummeted in value. Buildings and factories were stripped and materials sent to Japan. Tremendous food shortages became the norm.

August 1945: The Japanese surrender. The British Royal Navy arrive to re-establish British rule over a battered colony with a population of only about 600,000.


Soon after the Japanese surrender, civil war breaks out again between Mao Zedong’s Communists (CCP) and the Nationalists (KMT).

During the conflict, many refugees flee to Hong Kong. Between 1945-1950, 1.5 million Chinese flooded south to Hong Kong.

1949: Mao’s CCP wins the war. The KMT flee to Taiwan. Hundreds of thousands more streamed across the border leading up to the defeat, as well as after. The flood of refugees is finally stopped when the CCP seals the border between China and the New Territories, but not before HK’s population swells to 2 million.

The UN imposes a trade embargo on trade with China, with serious consequences for both China’s and Hong Kong’s economies.

THE 1950s & 1960s: RAGS TO RICHES

The chaos and famine of Mao’s Great Leap Forward (and other disastrous policies) results in new waves of desperate immigrants finding their way across the border to Hong Kong. The colonial government to desperately tries to stem the tide of refugees.

1953: Many of the Chinese refugees are living in squatter camps. The Shek Kip Mei fire leaves 53,000 homeless. Public housing policy is fast tracked.

Not all immigrants were poor refugees though. Many—especially from Shanghai and Ningbo—were businessmen, bankers, entrepreneurs, financiers, and property tycoons. Many of this wealthy elites came with their capital largely intact. Those who lost their fortunes still had their knowledge and skills intact and were able to secure financing to re-build their riches.

This class of successful entrepreneurs became leaders in developing Hong Kong’s industry—especially textiles, shipping, electronics—and transformed Hong Kong into an international arena of finance and industry. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, HK’s economic growth averaged about 10% per year. Along the way, many of Hong Kong’s rags-to-riches stories are born.

This was a pivotal period for Hong Kong, giving birth to what have become its typical modern attitudes—that single minded dedication to money-making which powered the engine of expansion (and materialist obsession on wealth building and conspicuous consumption).

Manufacturing was a particularly big part of the success story—with hundreds of thousands of refugees providing cheap labor for textile factories set up by Chinese entrepreneurs. By the 1960s, HK’s textile and garment industries accounted for more than half of colony’s exports.

1966: Mao’s Cultural Revolution begins in China. Separately, Hong Kongers riots over a price increase in the first-class Star Ferry fare.

Hong Kong harbour, 1966

Late 1960s: China starts moving away from isolationist policies.

1967: Leftist Riots. Inspired by Mao’s Cultural Revolution, pro-Commie leftists in Hong Kong turns a labor dispute into large demonstrations against British colonial rule. Calling for massive strikes, the protesters clash violently with the HK police. Later, they resorted to planting bombs (real and fake) around the city and murdering some members of the press.


Hong Kong’s standard of living continues to rise during the 1960s and 1970s, in stark contrast to their relatives on the mainland.

Late 1960s and early 1970s: The Vietnam War brought U.S. Navy ships to Victoria harbor. American soldiers on R &R give birth to Hong Kong’s red light districts in Wan Chai and Tsim Sha Tsui.

1971: The U.S. lifts trade sanctions and resumes diplomatic relations with China—setting Hong Kong on a path of unprecedented economic growth and prosperity.

During the 1970s and 80s, HK’s economy developed at eye-popping rate. Deng Xiaoping’s pragmatic and successful economic policies greatly boost Hong Kong’s fortunes. As a key trading port and trading partner with China, Hong Kong soon plays a pivotal role as China’s window to the world and the world’s gateway to China.

1972: Hong Kong’s population hits 4 million.

1974: The Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) is set up to stamp out crime and corruption. The ICAC is granted unfettered powers to investigate and prosecute rampant corruption among police and government officials. ICAC very effective and key to Hong Kong’s success in attracting international business and capital to the colony.

1979: Hong Kong’s US$1 billion Mass Transit Railway (MTR) opens [ HK MTR subway maps ].

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