In Hong Kong, Mourning the Queen and the Past

HONG KONG — Many people lining up outside the British Consulate General here this week were mourning not just the death of Queen Elizabeth II but the loss of what the city once was.

They were there to leave flowers, a portrait of the queen or a Union Jack, and to sign a book of remembrance for Elizabeth, who was Hong Kong’s head of state for 45 years when it was a British colony. The consulate said more than 10,000 people had paid their respects in the week ended Friday, when temperatures neared the mid-90s.

“When mourning the queen, we are mourning the lost Hong Kong,” said Cathleen Cheung, 30, a social worker who went to the consulate on Friday.

Hong Kong was a British colony for more than 150 years before it returned to Chinese control in 1997 under a policy of “one country, two systems.” Since then, China has chipped away many of the city’s freedoms, including of speech, assembly and political dissent. A national security law passed in 2020, after massive protests roiled the city the year before, shattered what remained of the city’s pro-democracy movement.

“In the past few years, it’s been so hard for many people to gather,” Ms. Cheung said. “It’s a really rare chance, and we have to cherish it.”

Elizabeth’s death has drawn mixed reactions in former British colonies across Africa, Asia and the Pacific, rekindling debates about Britain’s policies and legacy. In Hong Kong, the memorial for the queen has given some residents a rare platform for public, if quiet, political dissent.

Some visitors to the consulate on Friday wore yellow masks and black T-shirts with slogans that echoed those from the pro-democracy demonstrations of a few years ago. The outpouring of grief brought so many people to the consulate that it extended its hours.

The line outside was peaceful. A police van was parked nearby, but no officers were inside or on the street.

“We grew up in a time when we had nine years of free education, a fair and enlightened environment, and we could move up the social ladder,” said Mara Leung, 50, a saleswoman who left flowers at the consulate. “We took it for granted at that time, but now it is very difficult for young people to do it.”

Not everyone looked back so fondly. On Friday, a man staged a small protest outside the consulate with a banner that read “Chinese people don’t forget the Opium War,” a reference to the conflict that allowed Britain to gain control of Hong Kong.

Chinese nationalists attacked Law Kar-ying, a 75-year-old Hong Kong opera star and actor, on social media for an Instagram post in which he said that “Hong Kong was a blessed land during her reign.”

Mr. Law later deleted the post and uploaded a video on the Chinese social media site Weibo to apologize for praising the queen.

In recent years, pro-Beijing officials have moved to wipe away the city’s past by covering up British royal insignia and publishing new school textbooks that claim Hong Kong was never a colony at all but rather an “occupied territory,” in an apparent bid to establish China’s unbroken sovereignty.

Alexandra Wong, 66, an activist better known as Grandma Wong who was recently jailed for her democracy advocacy, has said that waving the Union Jack had become “very dangerous” in Hong Kong.

Britain was not always viewed positively when it controlled Hong Kong. In 1967, widespread riots broke out against British rule. There were democratic reforms and economic prosperity in the 1980s and ’90s, but activists condemned Britain for never granting the city’s residents universal suffrage. The colonial police force was criticized for using excessive force and repressing protests.

Still, many have regarded the 1997 handover as the end of a golden age for the city. It set off a wave of emigration by Hong Kong residents to Britain, Canada and Australia.

At the official level, remembrance of the queen remained disconnected from the colonial era. Hong Kong sent its chief secretary, Chan Kwok-ki, to the consulate on Tuesday to sign the remembrance book on behalf of the government. He went “to express profound condolences,” a government statement said. A statement from John Lee, Hong Kong’s chief executive, made no reference to British colonial rule.

“Having reigned for 70 years, she was the longest reigning monarch of the United Kingdom,” Mr. Lee said. “She was greatly respected, admired and praised by the British people.”

Still, the warm feelings of many Hong Kong residents about the days of British rule have grown with Beijing’s tightening grip over the city, and the queen’s death seemed to bring them to the surface.

“We are not nostalgic for colonization. We’re just nostalgic for the old days,” said Agnes Chan, 70, a retired banker who visited the memorial at the consulate. “The British government set up a good example for us of how a democracy should be and gave us freedom of speech and rule of law.”

Her husband, Kelvin Wong, 70, a retired financial controller, praised the queen, saying he missed her. “When my generation was growing up, she gave us a good environment where we had good opportunities to develop,” he said. “The mood is certainly different now. Times have changed.”

Zixu Wang reported from Hong Kong, and John Yoon from Seoul.


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