Hong Kong | Fan Ho

Anticipating the 65th Anniversary of the Communist Takeover of Mainland China, Iconic Photos look back at the world it unleashed. 

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Under the Japanese rule during the Second World War, Hong Kong’s population sunk below 600,000. This figure was dramatically reversed after the war; as the communist takeover of mainland China began, Hong Kong’s population jumped to 1.6 million. Shanghai, its greatest rival city, was no longer open to foreign capital, and from 1945 to 1949, financiers, merchants and industrialists fled to the British colony from Shanghai, its greatest rival city. Among the escapees was Fan Ho, a photographer who documented the street life in Hong Kong in those tumultuous years following his arrival.

Those were different days. The notorious Dalton-Douthwaite scandal (where two British soldiers murdered a Chinese girl) was just around the corner. Large immigration forced newcomers to be housed in shacks and squatter huts, built on hillsides and in cemeteries. Welfare support was non-existent, and provided only by volunteers and kaifong associations. Drug abuse was rampant; by 1959, there were around 150,000 to 200,000 addicts, an staggering number of a population of 2.8 million. This was the era of Kowloon Walled City and Triads that ruled it, and this was the Hong Kong that stared back at you from Fan Ho’s black-and-white photos. After Fan Ho took a photo, “with a knife in his hand, a pig butcher said he would chop me. He wanted his spirit back.”

Better days too were just around the corner. In 1961 arrived John Cowperthwaite, a Classicist who was to preside over the colony’s finances for the next decade. He kept personal taxes at a maximum of 15 percent, and balanced the budget aggressively. He was an idiosyncratic man, who never released economic statistics because “once the data was published there would be pressure to use them for government intervention in the economy”, but proved an excellent administrator. Under Sir John, a laissez-faire Gladstonian, the colony’s GDP grew at an astonishing average of 13.8 percent in every year — an unprecedented rate in those slower growth days.

(More Photos Here).

Exodus from Shanghai, 1949

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“The cold, muddy waters of Shanghai’s Soochow Creek teemed with thousands of Chinese junks and smaller sampans. Terrified refugees were preparing once more to flee before the surging tide of communism. Nevertheless, the great majority of Chinese were becoming more reconciled to the prospects of communist rule. The cagey Reds had switched to a “soft” line. … Said a Red officer: “When the kettle belonged to Chiang, we tried to break it; now that it is ours, we want to preserve and use it.” wrote Time magazine on Jan. 10, 1949.

Nonetheless, the splendor of the imperial city of trade languished with this Communist takeover. It killed investment and growth until the economic reforms in the 90s. However, the communist takeover signaled the end of 27-year civil war in China.