Outside the British Consulate in Hong Kong this week, bouquets of flowers and handwritten tributes piled up as a long line of people waited in sweltering heat to pay their last respects to Queen Elizabeth II.
In a once British colony, the death of a king who served as a living link to Britain’s globe-spanning empire was a complex historical moment.
The colonial era that ended a quarter century ago in Hong Kong was marked by racism, injustice and corruption. But for many, Elizabeth’s death last week at the age of 96 was also a reminder of Beijing’s heavy hand that replaced British rule.
As the traditional Chinese Mid-Autumn Moon Festival was celebrated in Hong Kong and elsewhere, John Chang, 56, stood in line at the British Consulate for three hours. He wrote a letter of thanks to the Queen, and brought green and white flowers, the colors he remembered the late king often wearing.
“We miss the Queen very much, especially when we tested governance in China,” he said.
Zhang, who is preparing to immigrate to Britain, said the honors underlined his growing dissatisfaction with Beijing’s rule. Despite the colonial abuses, he remembers the years bracketed for delivery as a time of freedom and prosperity.
It was only in the last years of British rule that more democratic freedoms were granted to Hong Kong residents. In the several decades before it, the colonial government had little tolerance for political dissent and relied on anti-sedition laws similar to those that Beijing enforces in the city in southern China today.
China took control of Hong Kong in 1997, under a “one country, two systems” arrangement intended to give the city 50 years of economic and political independence. But in the past few years, the Chinese Communist Party has consolidated its control and brutally cracked down on dissent, imprisoning hundreds of protesters, activists and journalists under a strict national security law.
In July, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Hong Kong to mark the 25th anniversary of the territory’s handover, in declaring victory over the anti-Beijing protests that rocked the city in 2019.
At a time when the Chinese Communist Party has suppressed political opposition, any praise of Hong Kong’s colonial past could become devastating. Earlier this year, Hong Kong authorities revised textbooks to deny that the area was a British colony, instead describing it as being temporarily occupied by foreign forces.
Indicating the sensitivity of the topic, Hong Kong actor and singer Lu Kar-ying posted a video Thursday on the Chinese Twitter-like platform Weibo, apologizing after praising the Queen, in a now-deleted Instagram post, for making Hong Kong a “blessed land.”
One Beijing-backed newspaper accused anti-Chinese forces of fabricating fond memories of colonial rule. Ta Kung Pao, another pro-Beijing publication, said in a commentary on Tuesday that offering condolences to the queen indicated a deeply rooted “colonialist mentality” and demonstrated the need for “decolonization”.
But popular sentiment seems to defy such warnings. Owner Brian Ong said at a Hong Kong shop specializing in British souvenirs, the number of customers has increased nearly fivefold since the Queen’s death, compared to the usual number of 100 or so a day.
While he’s familiar with aficionados of the British monarchy, Ong said he was surprised by the depth of grief that was publicly expressed.
“This is the first time I’ve met so many emotional, crying and tearful people in my shop,” said the 42-year-old collector. He said it was opening its doors an hour ago and closing an hour later to accommodate the huge increase in arrivals, most of whom are not looking for anything in particular.
“They just find somewhere to let go of their feelings,” Ong said. “Lucky or unlucky, my shop is one of their chosen places.”
Many in Hong Kong saw the emotional response to the Queen’s death as not only a tribute to a cultural icon, but also a subtle rebuke of China’s suppression of civil liberties.
“Nostalgia is always about romanticizing the past, but I think nostalgia is always about critiquing the present as well,” said John Carroll, professor of history at the University of Hong Kong.
He said the scale of the response to Elizabeth’s death was unexpected, given Hong Kong’s strained relationship with British colonialism and the Queen’s limited role in local politics.
On the autonomous island of Taiwan, the response was even more muted. One of the mourners who waited in line for the British office, the representative entity of the United Kingdom, was a 50-year-old textile designer from Hong Kong.
“The Queen’s death marked the end of an era for me,” she said, naming only her surname, Lowe, for fear of being targeted by China supporters. “The golden age of colonial Hong Kong is completely over.”
As a teenager in Hong Kong, she and her siblings took to the streets to try and catch a glimpse of visiting Elizabeth, but she was unable to get past the welcoming crowds. After nearly 36 years in Taipei, she paid her respects to the Queen who was unable to see her on a rainy afternoon.
Lowe, who left Hong Kong last year amid Beijing’s tightening authoritarian grip, initially considered leaving after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, but hoped China would become more open and democratic over time.
During the pro-democracy umbrella movement in 2014, I considered emigrating again. But it was the backlash against protesters in 2019 that cemented her decision.
When the Queen made her first trip to Hong Kong in 1975, Louie was only three years old. She was used to seeing the Queen’s face on the coins, and she remembered vaguely wondering how she would look.
Elizabeth’s second visit, in 1986, came two years after the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which laid the groundwork for Hong Kong’s eventual return to Chinese control. Lowe still remembers the cheerful atmosphere and the sound of the British military band playing the Scottish bagpipes.
On Tuesday, she wrote her farewell in a condolence book.
“Thank you for giving us a civilized colonial period,” she wrote. “It has become our good old days.”
Lowe admitted that Hong Kong under colonialism was not perfect. But she couldn’t help but compare the city’s past with its present.
“Imagine that you broke up with your ex-girlfriend for family reasons, but your new girlfriend blocks you and bullies you, making you lose your freedom, your financial ability, and even your smile,” she said. “Won’t you miss your ex-girlfriend so much?”
Yang is a staff clerk and Shen is a special reporter.