The incredibly long history of China and its varied religions is woven into the culture of the country in a way unfamiliar to most Western visitors. Familial loyalties set 1,500 years ago still prevail, and religious rituals to appease ghosts and deities still take place in the global city of Hong Kong and its surrounding islands.
Although archaeological digs support settlement in the area as long ago as the early Neolithic period, the region was only incorporated into Imperial China some 1,800 years ago. The New Territories were the first area to prosper as a trading hub under the 9th century Tang Dynasty and, by the 1276 Mongol invasion of Northern China, the Southern Song Dynasty court complete with its child emperor fled first to Fujian, then established itself on Lantau Island before moving again to the site of present-day Kowloon.
During the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, the archipelago returned to obscurity, until the first Portuguese mariner-traders arrived in 1513 and settled in the region to trade with southern China. After building a fortified base in the Macau area, they came under attack by Chinese forces and were finally expelled in the 16th century. An edict was issued forbidding further contact with foreigners, ostensibly to curb piracy.
The Kangxi Emperor reopened restricted trade routes, but confining the traders to designated areas such as the Canton Hong. The British East India Company was quick to join in, having recognized China’s increasing dependency on opium in exchange for tea and silks. By the Qing Dynasty, the importation of opium was banned, cutting off the British revenue stream and causing the First Opium Wars. Hong Kong Island was seized by British forces and became a part of the British Empire in 1842, ceded for 150 years.
The Crown Colony soon became one of the wealthiest colonial outposts in the world. By the late 19th century, Britain had seized the New Territories and Hong Kong was a free port by the beginning of the 20th century. Continually successful until the beginning of WWII, the islands was seized by the Japanese and remained in their hands until 1945.
After the war, trade reopened again, but with a weary eye to the rapidly-approaching end of the 150-year secession of Hong Kong. Finally, in 1997, the sovereignty of Hong Kong was transferred again and it became China’s first Special Administrative Region. Although a number of Chinese-owned companies relocated to the West along with their founders, the prosperity of Hong Kong was barely affected by the changes and its colonial history is still commemorated in several museums.
China’s culture holds a heritage of over 5,000 years of civilization mostly undisturbed by the West. Hong Kong, of course, is unique in that 150 years of colonial rule has influenced its culture as a superficial overlay on the traditional pillars of Chinese rituals and beliefs.
The mix of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism makes up the core of Hong Kong religion, combined with myths, legends, and deities specific to each region. The family is another pillar of culture, and all Hong Kong citizens are jointly proud of their island region home and the ancient mainland’s history and achievements.
The most important aspect of Chinese culture is the concept of ‘face’, a quality intangible to most Westerners but essential to everyday life in Hong Kong. ‘Face’ is a reflection of a person’s dignity, position, and prestige, and may be lost, saved, or given to another, which plays a force in business, as well as personal transactions. Sincere compliments, respect, and actions increase the recipient’s self-esteem and give ‘face’, and losing one’s temper, reprimanding, or insulting a person in public cause loss of face, an unacceptable mistake.
Family values are based on Confucianism, which dictate a person’s obligation to others within their sphere of influence. Hierarchy plays an important role in respect for age, duty, honor, loyalty, sincerity, and filial piety. Strict behavioral rules exist within the hierarchal set-up, and are followed even now, 1,500 years after Confucius’s death.
Customs and culture in Hong Kong are also centered around the ancient practice of Feng Shui, the placing of a building by a master of divination. This is taken very seriously, as bad luck and disaster are believed to affect a badly-positioned construction. Local religious festivals, mostly Buddhist or Taoist, reflect the various deities charged with safety, success in business, and luck in life, and the family ancestors are treated with extreme respect.