The death of Queen Elizabeth II has sparked a wave of nostalgia among some in Hong Kong for the territory’s pre-1997 “golden age” at a time when Beijing is clamping down on the city’s freedoms.
More than 2,500 people braved sweltering temperatures on Monday and queued for up to three hours outside the British consulate in the territory to lay flowers and pay tribute to the Queen, who was affectionately known to older generations as the “boss lady”. On Tuesday morning, people could be seen queueing again outside the consulate.
While China’s president Xi Jinping sent condolences to the UK’s new monarch, King Charles III, and praised the Queen as having won “wide acclaim”, many pro-Beijing politicians in Hong Kong and conglomerates based in the Chinese territory have been muted in paying their respects.
John Lee, the city’s new chief executive anointed by Beijing this year, issued a brief statement expressing “sadness” after Xi offered his condolences. Pro-Beijing lawmaker and government adviser Regina Ip and HSBC chief executive Noel Quinn also extended their condolences.
But British colonial-era trading houses Swire and Jardine Matheson have remained silent in the days after the Queen’s death, as have many other businesses and politicians in the territory. Her funeral is scheduled for Monday.
Beijing and the Hong Kong government have increasingly denied Britain’s role in the development of the financial hub, and have sought to play down the colonial past in recent years. New school textbooks have attempted to recast the city’s history by describing it as an “occupied territory” that was never a colony.
The drive follows anti-government protests in Hong Kong in 2019 that led Beijing to introduce a national security law and stamp out the territory’s once-vibrant media and civil society groups.
Beijing-backed newspaper Ta Kung Pao on Tuesday published a commentary criticising “political propaganda” for promoting nostalgia over the Queen’s death, saying it only reflected a “very small minority” of the population.
Yet buildings, streets and post boxes featuring the Queen’s royal cipher and Hong Kong dollar coins bearing her likeness that are still in circulation are just some traces of her strong presence in the city, which was ruled by Britain for more than 150 years until its handover to China in 1997.
The Queen was head of state in Hong Kong for 45 years, presiding over a period of rapid development that some regard as a golden age for the city even though it was under foreign rule.
“I love and respect the Queen very much,” said 74-year-old Tung Lau, who queued outside the British consulate. “Back in the colonial days, we had always believed that we would have a better future.”
Lau said his daughter had joined a wave of emigration in response to Beijing’s attempts to exert greater control, and had moved to Canada.
Many exiled pro-democracy activists, including former student leader Nathan Law, paid tribute to the Queen.
Even some of Hong Kong’s younger generation, born in the postcolonial era, had a sense of nostalgia for what they saw as a period when the city’s circumstances were “better”.
This is despite the fact that Britain’s governors never granted Hong Kongers full universal suffrage, colonial police were criticised for their repressive response to anti-government protests and a sedition law left over from the period is now being used to prosecute Beijing’s critics.
“I shed tears when I first heard of the Queen’s death,” said Jack Chan, a 23-year-old postgraduate student. “Those were the better days before 1997. Things have rapidly diminished especially over these past few years.”
Many former pro-democracy protesters, a number of whom waved the Union Jack and pleaded for Britain’s support during the 2019 demonstrations, have either been jailed or have fled.
Banker Monie Fong believed the Queen’s death reminded many of Hong Kong’s “golden era” between the 1950s and the handover, and highlighted the disappearance of the values and freedoms it once held.
“It is the end of an era,” the 57-year-old said.
The Queen visited Hong Kong twice in 1975 and 1986. Many older people living at a Kowloon public housing estate where she stopped still had vivid memories of the monarch.
An 86-year-old surnamed Chan recalled seeing the Queen in person as she passed by his vegetable stall at the public housing estate’s market, describing her as “really graceful”. The Queen also visited the city’s racecourses, among other venues.