With a sizzling economy, trendsetting fashion scene and notorious nightlife, Hong Kong of the 1980s and ’90s was the most vibrant city in Asia, if not the world. When China took possession of the former British territory in 1997, it pledged to let the good times roll by granting the city semiautonomous status for 50 years. Its “one country, two systems” plan would allow Hong Kong to retain capitalism and personal freedoms unavailable to mainland Chinese.
Unable to keep itself from seizing Asia’s most glittering prize, China soon began welching on the deal with incremental regulatory moves. In 2020, it passed a “national security” law giving the government new powers to punish critics, silence dissenters, and forever alter life for Hong Kongers.
Overwhelming numbers of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million residents choked city streets in mass protests that resulted in bloody clashes with police but failed to thwart the ambitions of its determined overlords in the Chinese capital of Beijing. The famous skyline still stands, but beneath its towers of commerce and culture, the city once regarded as Asia’s shining temple of capitalism and liberty becomes less recognizable by the day.
Today the world bows before China’s economic might, but three decades ago, Hong Kong was one of Asia’s “little dragons.”
In 1991, it was the world’s 11th largest trading power, with more total exports than China or India. Adjusted for purchasing power, its per capita income exceeded that of Japan and Great Britain.
It was also a cultural makeweight. Riding the kung fu craze kicked off by favorite son Bruce Lee, Hong Kong cinema rose to peak influence. Actors like Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-fat and directors like John Woo energizing global audiences with action classics like Hard Boiled (1992) and Drunken Master II (1993), whose combat choreography informed films like The Matrix.