Crowds of more than 2,500 people of varying ages lined up for hours outside the British Consulate on Monday, enduring sweltering temperatures of 33 degrees Celsius (91 Fahrenheit), to leave flowers, framed photographs and messages thanking the “patron” or “lady in charge” – as it was often called in Cantonese during the colonial years.
For some of them, it was not just a matter of mourning a monarch who had ruled the city for 45 years, but a subtle form of protest against the way China has tightened its grip on a city. once free and boisterous that critics dispute. has seen its civil liberties steadily eroded since the British ceded sovereignty to Beijing 25 years ago.
But in celebrating the monarchy and its symbols, some Hong Kongers see an opportunity for a veiled dig from both the Chinese Communist Party, which has made no secret of its eagerness for Hong Kongers to forget the era, and local authorities who have recently introduced textbooks. who claim that the city was never a colony to begin with. The books instead refer to the period of British rule as a “forced occupation”.
A retiree named Wing, who spoke to CNN outside the consulate on Monday but declined to give his full name, said it was “incredible” to be part of a mass rally again.
“I am angry that the Hong Kong government is not showing respect (to the Queen). They are afraid that the Chinese government will tell them, but we were part of the colony,” said Wing, who was born in the 1960s.
Another, Sylvia Lee, said she was saddened to hear of the Queen’s death, saying she was a symbol of stability across the world.
“No one lives forever and we knew this day would come one day. He was a respected figure and the government during the colonial period made many contributions to the development of Hong Kong, especially in the 70s and 80s,” said Lee told CNN, referring to a time when the city’s appointed governors built its public housing and transportation infrastructure.
A symbol of protest – and a complicated past
On the surface, the Queen’s mourning may not seem confrontational – especially as Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Hong Kong chief executive John Lee (a former police officer who began his career with the Royal Hong Kong Police Kong in 1977) sent their condolences” to the UK.
But the displays of affection are also reminiscent of the city’s pro-democracy demonstrations, during which protesters adopted the colonial flag as a sign of resistance to China’s one-party rule.
In a notorious incident, protesters stormed into the city’s legislative chamber, defacing it with graffiti calling for universal suffrage while hanging the colonial flag over the council speaker’s seat.
Britain’s ties to Hong Kong date back to the 19th century, when the empire’s desire to impose opium on China – both through trade and through its people’s addiction to the illicit drug – resulted in two wars that forced China to cede land to the British. .
Britain ruled Hong Kong for 156 years until it was returned to China in 1997 in a long-standing deal, but signs of British influence remain in English street names of the city and the use of the common law system.
Queen Elizabeth herself visited Hong Kong twice when the city was British territory, while her son, who became King Charles III, attended the handover ceremony.
Following the protests, the British colonial government introduced a series of welfare reforms, including public housing schemes and compulsory free education.
But colonial-era critics point out that even under British rule, Hong Kongers did not have universal suffrage. And many felt that London had neglected its duty by not granting British citizenship to Hong Kongers at the time of the transfer, instead offering most a limited passport which did not give them the right to live and work in Great Britain. Brittany. Since the introduction of the National Security Act, Britain has created what it calls a pathway to citizenship via a new type of visa.
“It was the (Queen’s) empire that in 1997 handed us over to China against our will,” said Jeffrey Ngo, a Washington-based activist born during the final years of Hong Kong’s colonization. .
Ngo said he was too young to remember life under British rule, but said older generations of Hong Kongers remember Queen Elizabeth II’s reign – particularly her visits in 1975 and 1986 – with an immense tenderness “because they associate this with a freer, simpler life, a happier bygone era.”
“The sentiment is understandable, given that the intuitive point of comparison is Hong Kong under Chinese rule. I respect their lived experience, even if it’s not something I share. For me, the wealth and prestige of monarchy are inseparable from the violence and violence of empire expansionism,” he said.
Ngo said the draconian laws used by Beijing to prosecute pro-democracy activists today – such as colonial-era sedition legislation – were a reminder that there was also a darker side to British heritage. .
CNN’s Jan Camenzind Broomby contributed reporting.