Mr Wong, a market stall trader, had one thing to say of the day that Britain’s late Queen Elizabeth II visited a Hong Kong public housing estate in 1975: “We didn’t sell many vegetables that day.”

A photo of the Queen visiting Hong Kong was among the tributes left outside the city’s British consulate. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

The young monarch toured the newly completed Oi Man Estate, a symbol of the colonial government’s efforts to boost living standards in a backwater where poverty was widespread, as part of her first of two carefully choreographed visits to the colony.

Wong, who was at his vegetable stall in the estate’s market that day, was not amused by the pageantry. “There’s not much to recall,” the 86-year-old told HKFP on a September afternoon a week after the Queen’s death. “She walked past, and that was it.”

Across Victoria Harbour in Admiralty, an upmarket district home to the British consulate, Wong’s curt words strike a sharp contrast to the hundreds of Hongkongers standing in line to sign a book of condolences commemorating the Queen. Amid extravagant flower bouquets and printed photos, handwritten cards spelled out heartfelt messages of gratitude to a monarch both familiar and distant to Hong Kong people.

A man takes a photo of the tributes to the Queen outside the British consulate on Sept. 14, 2022. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

“Thank you for giving us a beautiful Hong Kong. May the Queen Elizabeth II rest in peace!” one note, laminated to make it last, read.

Romanticising the past, critiquing the present

Around the world, people are paying their last respects to Britain’s longest serving monarch ahead of her funeral on Monday. The floral tributes and black-clad mourners outside Hong Kong’s British consulate are not unique to the city.

The scale of the mourning, however, is striking compared to Commonwealth countries – many of them former colonies that were granted independence after the British Empire crumbled – some of which still recognise Britain’s monarch as their head of state. While many have announced national holidays to mark the death, scenes like those outside Hong Kong’s British consulate have not materialised.

Since Hong Kong was handed over to China in 1997, the city no longer has formal ties to its former coloniser, yet every day this week, people have stood for hours, weathering unseasonable late-summer heat and high levels of pollution, to sign a book of condolences inside the consulate building. Some came prepared for the wait, armed with folding chairs and books to pass the time.

Pro-democracy activist Grandma Wong outside the British consulate. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

The outpouring of tributes cannot be divorced from the city’s political reality, academics say. Protests have been effectively banned since Beijing passed a national security law in 2020 following months of mass demonstrations, which at times turned violent, triggered by a proposed amendment to the city’s extradition law three years ago.

Those found guilty under the legislation face up to life imprisonment. Civil society groups have disbanded under pressure, pro-democracy newsrooms have shut down, and scores of activists have been detained on national security charges.

With few avenues left for political expression, mourning the late monarch who reigned over colonial-era Hong Kong – and the subsequent decline of the city’s freedoms in the hands of Beijing – is one way for people’s voices to be heard.

“It has been a long time since I have taken part in an event in a public place with people who, I think, share some of my ideals,” a woman who asked to be called Mrs. Chan told HKFP.

A protest march in 2020. File photo: May James/HKFP.

Professor John Carroll of the University of Hong Kong’s history department, said there was a “sense of nostalgia” among those who showed up at the consulate.

“And nostalgia, anytime and anywhere in the world, is about romanticising the past and critiquing the present.”

That critique, Carroll added, is “not necessarily a rational one.” Many of the social welfare improvements that Hong Kong people associate with the British’s legacy, such as in housing and education, only came in the last two decades of colonial rule. Similarly, Hong Kong did not make significant strides towards democracy under the British, with top positions occupied by unelected colonial elites.

In 1994, Hong Kong adopted a set of reforms that abolished appointed members and broadened the voter base for the Legislative Council elections. After the Handover, however, some of the changes were reversed and the legislature was replaced by a Beijing-controlled Provisional Legislative Council.

A protester waves a protest flag and British colonial flag at a lunch time rally in 2020. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“Those extensions of democratic governance under Chris Patten were more performative than anything else… on their way out the door, they did this as a way to build up a positive legacy of what Britain had been up to in Hong Kong,” Mark Hampton, an associate professor at Lingnan University, told HKFP.

Indirectly expressing dissatisfaction

Yet, some waiting in line outside the British consulate said their grieving was motivated less by colonial-era policy and more by the aspirations they associated with the pre-Handover period.

“We are mourning the end of an era when there was hope that the future would be better,” said Tommy, who was in his early 30s. “This is our way of indirectly expressing our dissatisfaction with the state of Hong Kong now.”

Queuing with Tommy, Kelly said she believed that the 2019 protests and the subsequent crackdowns had prompted many people – including herself – to come out and pay their respects to the Queen. Both declined to share their last names.

“Maybe if all was well, I wouldn’t even be here,” Kelly told HKFP. “I wouldn’t be convinced that this [wait] is worth my time.”

The British Consulate-General in Hong Kong, which extended the opening hours of the book of condolences to meet demand, told HKFP on Thursday that around 6,700 people had entered the consulate to leave messages since last Friday. 

A man pays his respects to the Queen outside the British consulate on Sept. 14, 2022. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

“We have been deeply touched by the heartfelt tributes from the many Hongkongers remembering Her Late Majesty The Queen,” Brian Davidson, the British Consul General to Hong Kong and Macao, said. “It seems that everyone lining up to pay their respects has their own individual memory or reflection of the life of Her Majesty.”

While the Queen’s death has intensified criticism of the British Empire’s violent and racist past in parts of Africa and the Caribbean, that condemnation has not extended to Hong Kong.

“There weren’t scenes like the suppression of the Mau Maus in Hong Kong,” Hampton said, referring to the British’s 1950s deadly crackdown on anti-colonial resistance groups in Kenya in which an estimated 12,000 people were killed. In Hong Kong, the “general competence of governance” in the city was high, Hampton added.

“Certain things that the British did [elsewhere] weren’t possible in Hong Kong because China would never have tolerated it. So a lot of the more critical narratives, some of them very deserved, tend to fall flat [here],” he added.

‘Whitewashing colonial rule’

In contrast to the crowds outside the British consulate, official reactions to the Queen’s passing have been more muted. 

The city’s leader, Chief Executive John Lee, expressed “deep condolences to the people of the United Kingdom” in a brief statement last Friday. The book of condolences, meanwhile, was signed by the city’s number two official, Chief Secretary Eric Chan, on Tuesday.

A person sits in front of the police cordon outside Victoria Park on June 4, 2021. Photo: Jimmy Lam/HKFP.

The fact that Chan represented the government rather than Lee suggested that paying tribute to the Queen was “not something [the administration] really wanted to do,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, an emeritus professor at Hong Kong Baptist University’s Department of Government and International Studies.

A commentary run by Beijing-backed newspaper Ta Kung Pao recently criticised those who mourned the Queen, calling them “anti-Chinese elements” who were “whitewashing colonial rule.”

“In other countries where there are good relations with the UK, the head of state would go [to sign],” said Cabestan. “It’s a message that Hong Kong’s relationship with the UK is not that good because of the national security law, because of [the UK government’s] criticism of the new normal in Hong Kong.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers elected to the Legislative Council last year in a race only open to candidates deemed patriotic enough by the authorities were largely silent on the Queen’s death. Dominic Lee, a legislator from the pro-Beijing New People’s Party, shared a meme mocking people for getting down on their knees to grieve the Queen.

A man in line outside the British consulate to leave a message in a book of condolence for the Queen on Sept. 14, 2022. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

Hampton, from Lingnan University, however, said he believed political expression was not the main reason many people had turned out to mourn.

“She was the queen for 70 years. For some people, it’s just a show of respect for somebody they admired. The royal family is also part of a global celebrity culture,” he told HKFP. “And I’m sure there are people who feel that this is a big historical event and they want to be part of it.”

Nostalgia, too, Hampton added, was a powerful motivator – but politics may not be driving that sentiment.

“There’s a linking of the Queen with a nostalgia for an earlier period, but it’s not necessarily about colonialism,” he said. “It maybe has to do with [missing] a simpler era.”

Wearing a t-shirt with an illustration of a colonial-era Hong Kong flag, Albert C. said: “For me, it’s not political. I myself do a lot of business on the mainland. I had a happy childhood in Hong Kong under colonial rule. I just want to show I’m grateful for that.”

Clarification 19/9/2022: An earlier version of this article identified John Carroll as a professor of history at the University of Hong Kong, where he in fact holds the functional title of principal lecturer.

Support HKFP  |  Code of Ethics  |  Error/typo?  |  Contact Us  |  Newsletter  | Transparency & Annual Report

Support press freedom & help us surpass 1,000 monthly Patrons: 100% independent, governed by an ethics code & not-for-profit, Hong Kong Free Press is #PressingOn with impartial, award-winning, frontline coverage.

Hillary Leung

Hillary has an interest in social issues and politics. Previously, she reported on Asia broadly - including on Hong Kong's 2019 protests - for TIME Magazine and covered local news at Coconuts Hong Kong.