In Hong Kong, tributes to Elizabeth seen as veiled jab at China

Bouquets and handwritten tributes piled up outside the British consulate in Hong Kong this week as a long line of people waited in the sweltering heat to pay their last respects to Queen Elizabeth II.

In the former British colony, the death of a monarch who served as the living link to the world-spanning British Empire marked a complicated historical moment.

The colonial era in Hong Kong, which ended a quarter of a century ago, was characterized by racism, injustice and corruption. But for many, Elizabeth’s death last week at the age of 96 was also a reminder of the heavy hand of Beijing that ousted British rule.

As the traditional Chinese Mid-Autumn Moon Festival was celebrated in Hong Kong and elsewhere, John Chang, 56, waited three hours in line outside the British consulate. He wrote a message of thanks to the Queen and brought green and white flowers, colors he remembered the late monarch often wore.

A woman and a man wearing masks hold up the flag of the United Kingdom.

John Chang, right, holds the United Kingdom flag with activist Alexandra Wong Fung-yiu outside the British consulate in Hong Kong on Monday.

(John Chang)

“We miss the Queen so much, especially when we witnessed China’s governance,” he said.

Chang, who is preparing to immigrate to Britain, said the honor underscores his growing dissatisfaction with Beijing’s rule. Despite colonial abuses, he remembers the years leading up to the surrender as a time of freedom and prosperity.

It was only in the final years of British rule that Hong Kongers were granted greater democratic freedoms. In the many decades before that, the colonial government had little tolerance for political dissent, invoking anti-sedition laws similar to those Beijing applies in the southern Chinese city today.

China took control of Hong Kong in 1997 under a “One Country, Two Systems” agreement that would give the city 50 years of economic and political autonomy. But in recent years the Chinese Communist Party has consolidated control and aggressively repressed dissent, jailing hundreds of protesters, activists and journalists under a draconian national security law.

In July, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Hong Kong to mark the 25th anniversary of the territory’s handover in a declaration of victory over the anti-Beijing protests that rocked the city in 2019.

As the Chinese Communist Party has cracked down on political dissent, any praise of Hong Kong’s colonial past has become potentially subversive. Earlier this year, Hong Kong authorities revised schoolbooks to deny the area was ever a British colony, instead describing it as temporarily occupied by foreign forces.

As a sign of sensitivity on the issue, Hong Kong actor and singer Law Kar-ying posted a video on China’s Twitter-like platform Weibo on Thursday apologizing after praising the Queen for Hong Kong in a now-deleted Instagram post to a “blessed land.”

A 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 comment that condoling the queen signals an ingrained “colonial-loving mentality” and proves the need for “decolonization.”

People queue as a car drives past.

People queue outside the British consulate in Hong Kong on Friday to pay tribute to Queen Elizabeth II.

(Anthony Kwan / Associated Press)

But popular sentiment seems to resist such admonitions. At a Hong Kong shop specializing in British memorabilia, customers have increased fivefold since the Queen’s death, compared to the usual 100 a day, owner Bryan Ong said.

While he is used to lovers of the British monarchy, Ong said he was surprised by the depth of sorrow publicly expressed.

“This is the first time I’ve met a lot of emotional, crying, teary-eyed people in my shop,” said the 42-year-old collector. He said he opened an hour earlier and closed an hour later to accommodate the barrage of arrivals, most of whom aren’t looking for anything special.

“They just find a place where they can express their emotions,” Ong said. “Fortunately or unluckily, my shop is one of the places they chose.”

Many in Hong Kong saw the emotional response to the Queen’s death not only as a tribute to a cultural icon, but also as a subtle rebuke of China’s crackdown on civil liberties.

Flowers and a photograph are set out for the Queen.

Flowers and a photo are laid for Queen Elizabeth II outside the British Consulate in Hong Kong on Friday.

(Anthony Kwan / Associated Press)

“Nostalgia is always about romanticizing the past, but I think nostalgia is also always about criticizing the present,” said John Carroll, professor of history at the University of Hong Kong.

He said the scale of the reaction 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 self-governing island of Taiwan, the reaction was more muted. One of the mourners queuing outside the British Office was a 50-year-old fabric designer from Hong Kong.

“The death of the queen was like the end of an era for me,” she said, giving only her last name, Lui, for fear of being targeted by Chinese supporters. “The golden age of colonial Hong Kong is completely over.”

As teenagers in Hong Kong, she and her siblings took to the streets to catch a glimpse of a visiting Elizabeth, but couldn’t push through the welcoming crowd. Almost 36 years later, on a rainy afternoon in Taipei, she paid her respects to the queen she never saw.

Lui, who left Hong Kong last year amid Beijing’s increasing authoritarian grip, first considered it after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, but hoped China would become more open and democratic over time.

During the pro-democracy umbrella movement in 2014, she thought about emigrating again. But it was the violent reactions to protesters in 2019 that cemented her decision.

When the Queen first visited Hong Kong in 1975, Lui was just three years old. Accustomed to seeing the Queen’s face on coins, she recalled vaguely wondering how her likeness had come to life.

The Queen speaks to an officer as she walks past a line of soldiers.

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II speaks with the officer in charge of the Gurkhas Honor Guard after arriving in Hong Kong on October 21, 1986 for a two-day visit.

(Associated Press)

Elizabeth’s second visit, in 1986, came two years after the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration that laid the groundwork for Hong Kong’s eventual return to Chinese control. Lui well remembers the happy atmosphere and the sound of the British military band playing Scottish bagpipes.

On Tuesday she wrote her farewell in a condolence book.

“Thank you for bringing us a civilized colonial era,” she wrote. “It became our good old days.”

Lui acknowledged that Hong Kong was not perfect in colonialism. But she couldn’t help but compare the city’s past to its present.

“Imagine that you and your ex-girlfriend broke up due to family reasons, but your new girlfriend blocks you and bullies you, causing you to lose your freedom and your financial opportunities and even your smile,” she said. “Aren’t you going to miss your ex-girlfriend so much?”

Yang is a staff writer and Shen is a special correspondent. In Hong Kong, tributes to Elizabeth seen as veiled jab at China

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