The area now known as Hong Kong was likely inhabited as early as the Stone Age. It fell under Chinese rule in the 3rd century B.C., turning what was once a sprawling collection of fishing villages into a booming (and, to European eyes, quite enviable) center of international trade. It was no surprise, then, that Great Britain claimed it in 1842 as the spoils of battle. The end of the First Opium War, fought for three years along China’s most popular trade routes, had turned Hong Kong Island into a colony of the crown. Britain snapped up surrounding territories in the years that followed, and Hong Kong grew from a single island to a region that encompassed some 425 square miles.
While segregated -- half the region dedicated to European pursuits such as polo and cricket, and the other filled with tea shops, silk traders and other Chinese cultural holdovers -- Hong Kong flourished as a British port. Historians herald its early educational system, which worked to meld eastern and western philosophies. The region drew Chinese émigrés throughout the 1850s as rebellion rocked the mainland; a host of international expats, including a few thousand American citizens, were drawn to Hong Kong as trade routes grew in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. World War II introduced another wave of invaders: Japanese occupation forces controlled the region for nearly four years before the British returned in 1945.
Post-war Hong Kong became a capital of industry as well as trade. Plastics and textiles became top exports, and skyscrapers redefined the local skyline. Controversy also brewed -- separated from mainland China by 150 years of colonial rule, modern Hong Kong was a diplomatic minefield. After years of debate and negotiation, the area was returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997; now considered a “special administrative region” of a communist superpower, Hong Kong retains its capitalist ideals and governs much as it did in its British heyday.