The orchestra was formed in 1895 and gave its inaugural concert that year under the baton of George Lammert. It disbanded the same year, but re-formed in 1903 and began giving concerts again. Once more it ceased, remaining idle until 1907, when Denman Fuller took over as conductor. Concerts were given irregularly and the players were amateurs, though the level of talent was considered relatively high and enthusiasm among the public was strong. For the next several decades, the orchestra sporadically performed under different conductors with no apparent serious intention by management of converting the players to professionals or the operations to a more regular schedule.
After World War II, the ensemble was reorganized and called the Sino-British Orchestra. Its conductor was talented violinist Solomon Bard, who helped shape the players into a quite talented ensemble, yet the orchestra's concerts always featured only native artists. That would change during the tenure of Bard's successor, Shanghai conductor Arrigo Foa, who assumed duties when Bard stepped down in 1953. Foa first attracted Hungarian pianist Louis (Lajos) Kentner, who collaborated with him in a performance of the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3. Near the end of 1957, the orchestra took its current name, splitting with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Society. Foa remained its music director. In 1962, the HKPO began performing in Hong Kong's newly constructed city hall. In 1969, Lim Kektjiang was appointed to succeed Foa as music director. It was owing to his initiative that the orchestra turned professional in 1973. Its size of 27 players, however, limited it mostly to the more lightly scored early Classical and Baroque repertory. Kektjiang was succeeded by Hans Gunter Mommer in 1975, who encouraged a more European sound and oversaw the orchestra's gradual increase in size. Mommer resigned in 1978 amid morale problems and difficulties with players, who now numbered 78. Chinese conductor Ling Tung was appointed music director that same year, but in a short time developed a strained relationship with the HKPO members, many of whom resigned or were dismissed. Tung resigned in 1981 and the orchestra was without a permanent conductor until 1984, though many prominent guest conductors were engaged, including Maxim Shostakovich, who had recently defected from the Soviet Union with his son Dmitry. In fact, Shostakovich was appointed to serve as principal guest conductor in 1982. American Kenneth Schermerhorn assumed the post of music director in 1984. Two years later, the HKPO made a successful concert tour of the Republic of China. Schermerhorn made several highly praised recordings with his new orchestra, including one of the Villa-Lobos Choros 8 & 9. In 1989, David Atherton assumed the podium duties and the orchestra, having already achieved much prestige under the leadership of Schermerhorn, continued to live up to its reputation as one of the finest orchestras in Asia. Atherton made a series of well-received Stravinsky recordings with the orchestra. The HKPO's music director in the new century was Samuel Wong, who made a critically successful recording with the orchestra of the Turandot Suite and other works by Ferruccio Busoni. In 2002, the HKPO consisted of 89 members and performed its regular concerts in the Hong Kong Cultural Center.