Hong Kong has been inhabited for some 5000 years. However, its recent history begins with the British East India Company when they established Aberdeen, an operational base for the opium trade on the island of Hong Kong in 1821. Relations between Great Britain and the Chinese Empire have been tense ever since. Most of the opium actually ended up in China, which meant large-scale addiction among the Chinese population with accompanying social problems on the one hand, and tremendous wealth exclusively for the British traders on the other. Tensions ran high and the First Opium War broke out in 1842. The war was won by the British, forcing the Chinese emperor to cede Hong Kong island to the British East India Company. The 1850 rebellion by oppressed Chinese in Taiping caused in influx of wealthy merchants to Hong Kong which brought even more prosperity to the island. The presence of refugees and the continued tensions between China and the British East India Company over the opium trade led to a Second Opium War which was again won by the British. The treaties under the Convention of Peking meant that a larger land area, including the peninsula south of the Shenzhen River, came under British rule. The economic powerhouse of Hong Kong grew from strength to strength with more land mass, and then on 9 June 1911 the British signed a 99-year lease with China for the additional islands and parts of the mainland linked to the islands. Hong Kong thus became a British colony, a status which was only temporarily interrupted by the Japanese occupation (1941-1945) in World War II.
In the meantime, the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 overthrew the last imperial dynasty and for the first time a Chinese emperor was forced to abdicate. Emperor Puyi was briefly restored to the throne in 1917, but after a few days was again removed. During the Second World War, the Japanese reinstalled him, though this was again short-lived. After the war, the Chinese Communist Revolution saw the victory of Mao and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Once again, throngs of refugees fled to Hong Kong, making the crown colony a powerful economic stronghold.
This became the Hong Kong of luxury and urban density. Here in a super-metropolis where money is less of an obstacle than the available space, Tim Peeters went in search of the romantic ideal expressed by the Dutch architect Herzberger. It’s the ideal place to study what quality means in a minimum of habitable surface area, or in other words, to discover the optimal ratio between fewer square metres and more quality. How much quality, how much luxury should be injected to compensate for the lack of space? We’ll see if Tim managed to conduct any research, in light of the current situation in Hong Kong.
In 1989 the People’s Republic of China announced they would not be extending the lease and in 1997 Great Britain handed over Hong Kong to the Chinese, under the condition that it would treat Hong Kong as a Special Administrative Region with its own democratically elected government for a period of 50 years. This was dubbed ‘one country, two systems’. Fifty years may have seemed faraway to the decision-makers of 1997, but China has perseverance and the young of Hong Kong have a different view on things.
In the spring of 2019, the chief executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, made the mistake of proposing an extradition law which would extradite Hong Kong citizens to mainland China. This sparked massive protests against the government, led mostly by young people and students. Suddenly the younger generation realized that their freedoms in Hong Kong would eventually come to an end. During the rest of the year, the protests expanded into mass demonstrations and occupations. Despite violent government attempts to suppress the protests and threats from mainland China, young people have become increasingly vehement in their demands for the preservation of freedom and democracy. The threat of being swallowed by the legal system of the People’s Republic of China 30 years from now is no trivial future scenario for them, but harsh reality. The rest of the world remains silent; China has a contract and the chances of holding onto independence seem impossible. Seen in this light, researching spatial quality amid Hong Kong’s density and demonstrations is perhaps a romantic luxury ill-suited to the current mood.
Prof. Dikkie Scipio
2nd quarter 2019