Outside the British Consulate in Hong Kong this week, bouquets and handwritten tributes piled up as a long line of people waited in sweltering heat to pay their final respects to Queen Elizabeth II.
In the onetime British colony, the death of a monarch who served as a living link to Britain’s globe-spanning empire marked a complicated historical moment.
The colonial era that ended a quarter-century ago in Hong Kong was characterized by racism, injustice and corruption. But for many, Elizabeth’s death last week at 96 was also a reminder of the heavy Beijing hand that has supplanted 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 penned a message of thanks to the queen, and brought green and white flowers, colors that he remembered the late monarch often wearing.
“We miss the queen so much, especially when we experienced China’s governance,” he said.
Chang, who is preparing to immigrate to Britain, said the tribute underscored his increasing dissatisfaction with Beijing’s rule. Despite colonial abuses, he recalls the years bracketing the handover as a time of freedom and prosperity.
It wasn’t until the waning years of British rule that greater democratic freedoms were granted to Hong Kongers. In the many decades prior, the colonial government had little tolerance for political dissent and invoked anti-sedition laws that resemble those that Beijing wields in the southern Chinese city today.
China assumed control of Hong Kong in 1997, under a “one country, two systems” arrangement meant to grant the city 50 years of economic and political autonomy. But in the past few years, the Chinese Communist Party has consolidated control and aggressively stamped out dissent, jailing hundreds of protesters, activists and journalists under a draconian national security law.
In July, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Hong Kong for the 25th anniversary of the territory’s handover, in a declaration of victory against the anti-Beijing protests that rocked the city in 2019.
As China’s Communist Party has clamped down on political dissent, any praise of Hong Kong’s colonial past has become potentially subversive. Earlier this year, Hong Kong authorities revised school textbooks to deny that the territory was ever a British colony, instead describing it as having been temporarily occupied by foreign forces.
In a sign of the subject’s sensitivity, Hong Kong actor and singer Law Kar-ying posted a video Thursday on China’s Twitter-like platform Weibo, apologizing after he praised 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 Tuesday commentary that paying condolences to the queen signaled a deep-rooted “colonial-loving mentality” and proved the need for “decolonization.”
But popular sentiment appears to defy such admonitions. In a Hong Kong shop specializing in British memorabilia, customers have increased around fivefold since the queen’s death, compared to the usual 100 or so a day, said proprietor Bryan Ong.
While he is accustomed to aficionados of the British monarchy, Ong said he was taken aback by the depth of grief being publicly expressed.
“This is the first time I met a lot of emotional, crying, tears-in-eyes people in my store,” the 42-year-old collector said. He said he’s been opening an hour earlier and closing an hour later to accommodate the surge of arrivals, most of whom are not looking for anything in particular.
“They just find some place to release their emotions,” Ong said. “Lucky or unlucky, my store is one of the places they chose.”
Many in Hong Kong saw the emotional response to the queen’s passing not just as homage to a cultural icon, but also a subtle rebuke of China’s crackdown on civil liberties.
“Nostalgia is always about romanticizing the past, but I think nostalgia is always about critiquing the present as well,” said John Carroll, a professor of history at the University of Hong Kong.
He said the magnitude of the response to Elizabeth’s death was unexpected, given Hong Kong’s vexed relationship with British colonialism and the queen’s limited role in local politics.
On the self-governed island of Taiwan, the response has been more muted. One of the mourners who waited in line at the British Office, the U.K.’s representative entity, was a 50-year-old fabric designer from Hong Kong.
“The passing of the queen was like the end of an era to me,” she said, giving only her last name, Lui, because of fear that she could be targeted by China supporters. “The golden age of colonial Hong Kong is totally over.”
As teenagers in Hong Kong, she and her siblings took to the streets to try to catch a glimpse of a visiting Elizabeth, but were unable to push through the welcoming crowds. Nearly 36 years later in Taipei, she paid her respects on a rainy afternoon to the queen she never got to see.
Lui, who left Hong Kong last year amid Beijing’s tightening authoritarian grip, first considered leaving after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, but held out hope that China would become more open and democratic over time.
During the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014, she thought about emigration again. But it was the violent responses to protesters in 2019 that cemented her decision.
When the queen made her first trip to Hong Kong in 1975, Lui was just 3. She was used to seeing the queen’s visage on coins, and recalled vaguely wondering how her likeness had come to life.
Elizabeth’s second visit, in 1986, came two years after the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which laid the foundation for Hong Kong to eventually return to Chinese control. Lui still remembers the cheery atmosphere and the sound of the British military band playing Scottish bagpipes.
On Tuesday, she penned her farewell in a book of condolences.
“Thank you for giving us a civilized colonial period,” she wrote. “It became our good old days.”
Lui acknowledged that Hong Kong under colonialism wasn’t perfect. But she couldn’t help but compare the city’s past with its present.
“Imagine you and your ex-girlfriend broke up for family reasons, but your new girlfriend blocks you and bullies you, making you lose your freedom and financial ability, and even your smile,” she said. “Won’t you miss your ex-girlfriend so much?”
Yang is a staff writer and Shen a special correspondent.