Queen Elizabeth II: Hong Kong's grief sends message to Beijing

·6 min read
Hong Kongers lay flowers for the Queen outside the UK Consulate
The ground is crowded with flowers, the Queen's photos and the occasional colonial flag

Hong Kongers have been lining up for hours this week to pay their respects to the Queen in what has been perhaps the biggest display of affection for the late monarch seen outside the UK.

But the collective outpouring of grief says as much about the present as it does about the past, and comes as Beijing has been tightening its grip.

The long queues, piles of flowers and cards in the city's Admiralty district contrast with more muted reactions seen in other former British colonies.

Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule under "one country, two systems", which promised that the city's way of life - including civil liberties unavailable in the mainland - would be kept for at least 50 years.

But a crackdown on protests, Beijing's imposition of its national security law and only allowing "patriots" to govern are seen by many as reneging on that promise.

"There is a mix of complex emotions," said Dr Li Mei Ting, a cultural and religious studies lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Outside the British consulate, mourners opened umbrellas to hide from the scorching sun while "God Save the Queen" played softly from a mobile phone.

Parents brought their children along, and one father even wrapped his seven-month-old daughter in a Union Jack flag.

"I don't remember ever seeing Hong Kongers doing this to any leader who passed away," Ted Hui, a former Hong Kong MP who now lives in Australia, told the BBC.

Nostalgia for a 'golden age'

In the city, the Queen was affectionately called si tau por, which means "boss lady" in Cantonese.

Many in the queue were older people, among them Mr Lee, aged in his 60s, who had brought chrysanthemums. "I hadn't bought any flowers before, not even when I was courting girls."

He said he was grateful for the Queen as Hong Kong's economy flourished and society became liberal and open under colonial rule. Others said the education and medical systems were hugely improved and the city also enjoyed the rule of law under British rule.

Queen Elizabeth II's visit to Hong Kong in 1975
Queen Elizabeth II visited Hong Kong twice during her reign. She is affectionately called "boss lady" in Cantonese

Hong Kong became a British colony after two Opium Wars in the 19th century and colonial rule lasted for 156 years. Meanwhile mainland China was swept by political turmoil including the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution.

"Hong Kong was peaceful during those days," said Ms Fung, 75.

When Hong Kong people reminisce about the colonial era, they are often referring to the period from the mid-1970s to 1990s, says Dr Li.

"People who experienced this period see it as Hong Kong's golden age," she said.

The British colonial government changed its governance model as a response to deadly anti-colonial riots in 1967, which were sparked by a labour dispute and supported by Beijing. More public housing was built and free primary education was introduced, partly in a bid to ward off further social movements, Dr Li says.

But US-based activist Jeffrey Ngo says the last three decades of the colonial period do not give the full picture - and that the British empire had played a "very big role" in paving the way for the current situation.

"Plenty of activists have been prosecuted, especially since 2019, under laws that were put in place by the colonial government and were never repealed before 1997."

Last week five speech therapists were convicted under the colonial-era sedition law, for publishing children's books which portray the Chinese government as wolves and Hong Kongers as sheep. The judge said it was a "brainwashing exercise", while critics say the sentence was a blow to freedom of speech.

The UK also did little to democratise the city for much of the colonial period, Mr Ngo said.

Current day discontent

For some, commemorating the Queen is a way to express their unhappiness at the Hong Kong government. Protest is no longer possible under Beijing's sweeping national security law and stringent Covid rules.

Mr Tse, who brought his pet Corgi on a leash with a Union Jack, said the mourning was an "alternative form of political expression".

Mr Tse and his Corgi
Mr Tse says he is surprised by the number of people waiting outside the consulate

Flying that flag on another day could risk arrest or even prosecution under the national security law - but it is being tolerated for now because of the Queen's death, he added.

Mr Chan came with his wife and two children. He said the family felt close to the Queen as all members were born at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, which was opened in 1963.

"We will pay tribute to whoever merits our respect. [Authorities] should not easily accuse people of collusion with foreign forces but not reflect on their own behaviour that causes so much unhappiness among Hong Kongers," he said.

Some in the line were also planning to leave the city. Hong Kong's population has shrunk by almost 200,000 in two years - and many of those leaving plan to settle in the UK.

"Hong Kongers are queuing under such heat. We share the same ideas and no words are needed to explain," said Ms Lee, who came with her 21-year-old daughter.

"There is a huge contrast between the past and the present... Now we have lost what we had and many people I know are emigrating," she added before confirming that they plan to leave too.

A father and his seven-month-old daughter wrapped in a union jack
This father says he will teach his daughter about Hong Kong's colonial history when she grows up

Hong Kong's identity

Younger people without direct experience of the colonial era were also in the queue. Some said they were worried that Hong Kong's colonial past would be buried under Beijing's drive to reshape the city.

New textbooks now say Hong Kong was never a British colony but was merely occupied by a foreign power.

Law student Sam said his grandmother fled mainland China by swimming to the city. "Immigration officers said to my grandma that our si tau por was also a woman, so she would be taken care of in Hong Kong."

Christopher, 15, said traces of Hong Kong's colonial history are still visible - such as the old banknotes and street signs. "But it feels like they are fading."

"No matter our criticism, the colonial period was part of our Hong Kong identity and history," said Dr Li.

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The dazzling crown resting on top of the Queen’s coffin