National Geographic : 1954 Feb
Hong Kong Hangs On 239 Britain's Fabulous Crown Colony on the South China Coast Faces an Uncertain Future with Boundless Energy and Quiet Confidence BY GEORGE W. LONG Assistant Editor, National Geographic Magazine With Illustrations by National Geographic Photographer J. Baylor Roberts T YPHOON signals were flying in Hong Kong. Rain fell in torrents as I stood at the frontier railway bridge linking the British Crown Colony to Red China. Gangs of Chinese laborers hauled big rattan baskets of quacking ducks and green vege tables through the Bamboo Curtain. Return ing empty-handed, they lined up to show stony-faced Red guards the border passes pinned on their soaking shirts (page 259). Slow Freight to China A hoarse whistle made me jump. Turning, I saw a wheezing locomotive slowly pushing two freight cars my way. Near the bridge it jammed on its brakes, and the uncoupled cars coasted into China. "Traffic's light these days," said my police guide. "Mostly food coming in and occasional freight going out, like this shipment of medi cine and dyes. Travelers are scarce, too: a few Chinese and now and then a diplomat, or a missionary expelled by the Communists. "Not many years ago," he recalled as we chatted, "people crossed this border bound from Hong Kong to London, all the way by rail. The 10,000-mile journey, across Siberia, took 17 days. Now they can ride about 22 miles. This is the end of the line for almost everyone." After the storm I crossed to Hong Kong Island and climbed by cable car to Victoria Peak, backbone of the rugged island that gives the colony its name. Before me spread one of earth's most magnificent panoramas. Far below, teeming Victoria crowds the island's long, narrow shore. Climbing part way up the Peak, the metropolis resembles a huge cliff-dwellers' city; buildings, closely packed, seem to stand like acrobats on the shoulders of those below (pages 244 and 246). Beyond, the blue harbor with its many ships divides the island from the mainland town of Kowloon, which covers an outthrust peninsula. In the distance barren hills loom like a gigantic backdrop, screening the heart of the colony from China.* I counted 20-odd seagoing freighters in the spacious anchorage. Freight junks clustered around each, loading and unloading cargo (page 252). Sampans, junks, launches, tugs, squat ferries, yachts, and naval craft dotted the sheltered waters. Sleek ocean liners lay berthed at Kowloon docks. The Englishman with me, long a resident of the colony, shook his head. To my surprise he said, "The anchorage looks a bit empty. In normal times it would have twice that many freighters." Trade with China founded Hong Kong, boomed it into a major port, and was long its lifeblood. The half-empty anchorage, the drawn Bamboo Curtain on the frontier, are life-and-death problems for the colony as it struggles to survive in the explosive and divided Far East. British merchants in Canton, discouraged by Chinese trade restrictions in the 1830's, began looking for a base of their own. They chose rocky, almost uninhabited Hong Kong Island, a notorious pirates' lair across the wide Pearl River (Chu Kiang) estuary from Por tugal's Overseas Province of Macau (map, page 245). Middleman Between East and West China formally ceded the island in 1842, after the Opium War, and later gave up Kow loon. The New Territories, a piece of main land behind Kowloon plus 75 scattered islands, was leased to Britain in 1898 for 99 years. The whole colony is only slightly larger in land area than New York City; Hong Kong Island itself is about the size of Manhattan. From barren island to one of the world's biggest ports in less than a century-that's the amazing story of Hong Kong. Its magnifi cent harbor and strategic China coast location made the colony a bustling middleman be tween East and West. It became the wide * See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE: "1940 Paradox in Hong Kong," April, 1940, and "Hong Kong-Britain's Far-flung Outpost in China," March, 1938, both by Frederick Simpich.