Ye olde travel guide: Hong Kong 1842

Sara Sheridan offers tips for visitors to the little-known backwater of Hong Kong, now under British control following the First Opium War

Illustration by Jonty Clark.

This article first appeared in the December 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine

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When to go

It’s always hot in Hong Kong’s subtropical climate. However, the autumn and winter are more bearable than the heavy rainfall of spring and increasing heat and humidity of summer, when rainstorms and thunder are common with the occasional typhoon.
If you’re travelling by boat from Britain via India and Java, it will take you around four months to arrive into Hong Kong’s scenic harbour. It’s a view, however, you will never forget.

What to take with you

The first thing to pack is a mosquito net, as sleeping even one night without protection could prove deadly.
News of home is always in short supply, so you’ll no doubt find that back copies of newspapers such as the newly published London Illustrated News are always welcome.
You could also catch up on the latest developments by chatting with fellow Britons. Hong Kong is a friendly place and ex-pats will be delighted to meet you.
Reading matter is limited so bring some books to divert you. And, thanks to Hong Kong’s unpredictable climate, both a parasol and an umbrella are a must, even in the depths of winter.

Sights and activities

China is well-known for its opium houses and you can easily obtain this pleasant drug. There’s also a Chinese Opera (which is a bit outlandish for some western tastes). Watch out, though, pickpockets operate openly in these places.
For those with less exotic tastes, botany is popular in Hong Kong, particularly on the low ground where there are spectacular flowers. You will also want to witness the ingenuity of the locals who construct buildings within the framework of bamboo scaffolding. Or why not hire a boat to see Hong Kong’s satellite islands, Stanley and Aberdeen?

Costs and money

While her majesty’s currency is acceptable in all establishments, so is the Chinese ‘cash’. This is a coin with a hole drilled in the middle. Batches of cash are strung up, 100 amounting to the sum of fourpence-ha’penny. Paper money – the smallest denomination being 400 cash – is also in circulation, and 1000–1200 cash make a silver ‘dollar’.
You need to haggle everywhere you go. So remember that a cup of tea should cost a single cash – two, at the very most.

Dangers and annoyances

Heavy rainfall in springtime often causes flooding of between two and four feet. But the greatest danger is malaria. Work will soon start on draining the area now known as Happy Valley, thought to be the source of the illness. There is some debate – but precious little agreement – over whether the north of the island is healthier than the south.
Hong Kong is highly lawless and Government House itself has been robbed. Armed bands 100-strong are not uncommon. You certainly need to bear arms. If you get caught in a fracas, don’t panic – the mob generally disperses. Protect your property and they will move on.

Sleeping and accommodation

Hong Kong is growing rapidly. There are several new houses to rent along Queen’s Road – but be careful to pick property that is unlikely to flood. If in doubt, get a recommendation from the staff at Government House.

What to eat 

You’ll not go hungry in Hong Kong. Food is varied, cheap and plentiful, and don’t feel that you will be restricted to an oriental menu. Many British ingredients are available including potatoes. Yet it’s worth trying the local cuisine – for only a few cash you can dine like an emperor.

Shopping

There has been an exodus of the best shopkeepers from the nearby Portuguese colony of Macao to Hong Kong, and they have mostly set up business on Queen’s Road. Almost everything you can think of is available – from sumptuous satins, silks, papers and porcelain, to inks, carvings, furniture, incense and curiosities.
Although Hong Kong is not especially known for its indigenous wildlife, the island is famous for its bird market and its exotic oriental bazaar.

Getting around

For only a few cash you can hire a chair, although make sure you take an umbrella. The interior of China is closed to Europeans but the treaty ports of Shanghai, Foo Chow, Amoy, Canton and Ning-po are all within a few days’ sailing, should you be tempted to make an excursion.
Sara Sheridan is the author of The Secret Mandarin, a novel based on the real-life adventures inside China of Scottish botanist Robert Fortune