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March 7, 2024 10 mins

Some old traditions are a bit curious. Here are two very different, but very fascinating, examples.

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:04):
Welcome to Aaron Manke's Cabinet of Curiosities, a production of
iHeartRadio and Grimm and Mild. Our world is full of
the unexplainable, and if history is an open book, all
of these amazing tales are right there on display, just
waiting for us to explore. Welcome to the Cabinet of Curiosities.

If you're a history fanatic like I am, then you
know that the past is not gone. It's not even past.
History lives on in the present, influencing the very shape
of our world. The city of Hong Kong is a
perfect example of that idea. Hong Kong is located on
China's southeast coast. Today it's considered a Special Administrative Region
of China, but that wasn't always the case. The story

of Hong Kong involves multiple wars, occupations, and treaties, as
well as one of the strangest lease agreements in world history.
Beginning in prehistory and yes, there is such a thing,
Hong Kong was a territory of Imperial China for many centuries.
The country was sparsely populated. It wasn't until the late
sixteen hundreds, during China's Qing dynasty that more people moved

there and the region grew into an important trading port.
Now fast forward about one hundred years to the late
seventeen hundreds. China was trade partners with Great Britain, but
the British Empire felt like it was getting the short
end of the deal. They bought a lot of Chinese
products like tea, porcelain, and silk, but China didn't buy
many British items in return. That meant that instead of

bartering for goods, British traders had to pay in silver,
and this was threatening to create a silver shortage in
the UK. Britain's solution to this problem was well unethical,
to say the least. You see, at the time the
British Empire exercised colonial rule over India, the climate there
just so happened to be perfect for growing poppies. If

you were big into world history in high school or college,
you probably know where this is headed. Poppies were used
to manufacture opium, a highly addictive and dangerous narcotic. The
British Empire began creating huge quantities of opium and exporting
the drug to China, and because it was so addictive,
people bought it once and then kept buying it very quickly.

The trade imbalance between Britain and China flipped. Beyond the
fact that its own silver stores were now running low,
China was worried about its people opium use spread like
wildfire in the country. In an attempt to counteract this,
the nation banned opium entirely in seventeen ninety six, but
British traders weren't interested in following Chinese law. They continued

shipping opium into the country for decades. Finally, in eighteen
thirty nine, tensions came to a head. The First Opium
War broke out. The fighting lasted for three whole years
until the British Army claimed victory. They negotiated a treaty
that favored them and not only allowed for British merchants
to trade freely, but it also gave Britain ownership of

Hong Kong Island. Still, though the British Empire wasn't entirely happy,
it wanted opium to be legalized across China. When China refused,
the Second Opium War began. It lasted until eighteen fifty
six and ended in another Chinese loss. This time, Britain
gained a mainland territory called Kowloon, which was directly north

of Hong Kong Island. Over the next few decades, the
British Empire changed the region significantly. It expanded trade and
turned the area into a bustling business center. At the
same time, thousands of migrants were seeking an escape from
political upheaval in mainland China, and many chose to move
to these British owned territories. And then came the strangest part.

In eighteen ninety eight, the British Empire approached the Chinese
government with a proposition. Once again, they wanted to expand
their colonial rule. They didn't just want ownership over Hong
Kong Ia and Kowloon. They wanted total control over the
two hundred and thirty five islands that make up modern
day Hong Kong. But they also made a slight concession.

They didn't ask for total control of Hong Kong forever. No,
they just wanted to lease it for ninety nine years.
It had to be one of the strangest power grabs
in history. It seemed pretty obvious that this was an
attempt to expand their landholdings, But who knew if the
UK would actually give Hong Kong back. Nevertheless, China agreed
to these terms, and it doesn't appear that they started

getting antsy about it until around nineteen eighty, when Chinese
and British officials entered into negotiations about the future of
Hong Kong. Perhaps because of how much the world had
changed since the eighteen hundreds, Britain did something kind of shocking.
They agreed to return Hong Kong when their lease was up.
All they asked that China do in return was allow
the city to maintain its capitalist economy and partially democratic

political system. China said, okay, but only for the next
fifty years, and after that they would do whatever they wanted.
Hong Kong was passed back to China in nineteen ninety seven,
becoming the Special Administrative Region that it is today. While
the city's future is unclear, one thing is certain. History

is decidedly curious. When we think of New Year's Eve,
we often think of glitz and romance, champagne bubbles, midnight kisses,

and of course that famous ball drop. Whether gathered at
home watching the Times Square festivities on TV or gathering
in Times Square, most Americans have counted down to midnight
alongside the ball. Time Square is the perfect location for
such an event. The lights bade the city goers with
the promise of a brighter future. It's easy to get

lost in the glow for a moment. You might even forget.
All Those promises come in the form of advertisements, nothing
more than what you'd see while scrolling through social media.
In fact, the first ever ball drop was itself one
big advertising scheme, and it drew its inspiration from an
iconic landmark. The first New Year's Eve ball drop occurred

in Times Square in nineteen oh seven, but ball drops
weren't a new concept at the time. The first time ball,
as it became known, was constructed on top of the
Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England, in eighteen thirty three, and
it wasn't just for show. The ball drop signaled the
hour of one pm. In a time when people had
to go to a professional to get their wristwatches properly timed,

the ball allowed them to clock it themselves. When the
ball dropped, people on the ground nearby would just stop,
adjust the time on their watches and then keep moving.
But why one pm, Well, the ball didn't just help
those on foot. It was especially useful to nearby sailors.
This was important because if chronometers were even just a
few minutes off, ships could go way off course. This

original time ball functioned a lot like the New Year's
Eve ball that we know today. First, it was hoisted
up a flagpole by rope, and that it was held
in place by an electro magnet until it was released
at one PM. Unlike the New Year's Eve ball, this
one was made of paper light leather. It wasn't glamorous,
but it got the job done. Given the success of

the time ball in Greenwich, others were built around the UK. Then,
in eighteen seventy seven, the US erected its first one,
atop the Western Union Telegraph Building in Lower Manhattan. At
ten stories high, it was the tallest building in the
city at the time. The ball could be spotted from
blocks away. It was more stylish than those before it.
Multiple copper sheets in the shape of crescent moons formed

a sphere, while the slats between them allowed for the
wind to flow. You can imagine the copper gleaming in
the sun while the East and Hudson Rivers glittered not
far away. Perhaps this site inspired the use of a
time ball or celebration, but not without some healthy competition. First.
You see, for centuries Trinity Church, also located there in

Lower Manhattan, hosted a New Year's Eve ringing of the bells.
It was the city's main event by the end of
the nineteenth century. The celebration often drew thousands of people. Then,
in nineteen oh four, The New York Times opened a
new headquarters in what was then known as long Acre Square.
The paper's owner, Adolph Ox, lobbied to change the name
of the square, and thus Times Square was born. But

this was just the beginning of ox publicity campaign. He
didn't just want to stamp the paper's name on the city.
He wanted to steal the show. That year. He sought
to outshine Trinity Church, and that he did. Ox put
on an all day street festival and set off fireworks
when the clock struck midnight. The time celebration repeated for

the next two years until the city banned fireworks due
to the hot ash they created. But Ox wasn't willing
to step aside. Instead, he came up with a new idea.
The Western Union timeball had become a source of both
spectacle and pride, and its whole purpose was to mark
the passage of time. This seems to have inspired Ox.
The newspaper man hired someone to construct a ball made

of wood, iron, and twenty five watt bulbs. The final
product was seven hundred pounds and five feet in diameter.
That might seem small to us now, but at the
time it was quite a feat and just like a
time ball, it gave everyone a reason to pause and
take stock of time together. The original New Year's Eve
ball remained in use until nineteen twenty. Over the next

few decades, the ball grew in size and style. Wood
and iron gave way to stronger metals. Light bulbs were
replaced with crystals and computerized LEDs. Today's ball weighs almost
six tons, measures twelve feet in diameter, and is decorated
with over two thousand crystals and thirty thousand high powered LEDs,
and each year it to send sixty six feet and

usually has some sponsors signage nearby. It is Times square
after all. I hope you've enjoyed today's guided tour of
the Cabinet of Curiosities. Subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts,
or learn more about the show by visiting Curiosities podcast
dot com. The show was created by me Aaron Mankey

in partnership with how Stuff Works. I make another award
winning show called Lore which is a podcast, book series,
and television show and you can learn all about it
over at the Worldoflore dot com. And until next time,
stay curious.

Aaron Mahnke's Cabinet of Curiosities News

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