Hong Kong has the highest breast cancer incidence in Asia and studying secular changes in its rates may lead to hypotheses regarding disease aetiology and also predictions of future trends for China. We examined statistics from the Hong Kong Cancer Registry based on 26 566 cases of invasive breast cancer from 1973 to 1999. The trends in breast cancer incidence were studied using log-linear longitudinal models. We further analysed the independent effects of chronological age, time period and birth cohort on incidence trends using age-period-cohort modelling. The average annual per cent change of the age-standardised incidence was 3.6% during 1973-1999. Age-period-cohort modelling indicated the incidence development was predominantly a cohort effect, where the rise in relative risk was seemingly linear in successive birth cohorts, showing a 2-3-fold difference when comparing women born in the 1960's with those born around 1900. Our results suggest that direct and indirect consequences of westernisation may have been responsible for most of the observed increase in breast cancer incidence. As China moves towards a more westernised way of life, we can expect an emerging epidemic of breast cancer as Hong Kong's experience has demonstrated.