HONG KONG (AP) – Hundreds of Hong Kong residents line up outside the British Consulate General for hours each day to pay their respects to Queen Elizabeth II, leaving piles of flowers and handwritten notes.
The collective outpouring of grief following her death last week is perhaps the most fiery among the former British colonies, where mourning has generally been subdued. It is seen by some experts as a form of dissent against increasingly intrusive controls by communist Beijing, which seized the territory in 1997.
Some Hong Kongers long for what they see as a bygone “golden age” under Britain’s not-entirely-democratic colonial rule, when the city of about 7 million rose to prominence as a global financial center and tourist destination.
The Queen’s death has sparked a wave of interest in British memorabilia, among other things.
The Queen is nicknamed “si tau por” in Hong Kong. Pronounced “see-tao-POHR” In the local Cantonese dialect, this translates to “lady boss”.
“We called her ‘si tau por’ when we were under her rule. It’s just a way of showing her respect. There was a sense of kindness from her, she is not the kind of boss who is above you,” said SK.
Another resident, 80-year-old Edie Wong, said she was there “from real feelings” from her heart.
“People in Hong Kong love her,” Wong said. “Because when we were under her rule, we enjoyed democracy and freedom and were very grateful. I want to say goodbye to ‘si tau por’ who is in heaven.”
With its takeover on July 1, 1997, China promised to leave Hong Kong’s Western-style civil liberties and institutions intact for at least 50 years. Many who grew up in the former region grew up hoping for even greater freedoms.
But after months of anti-government protests in 2019, Beijing imposed a tough national security law on the city, seeking to stamp out public dissent.
News outlets deemed too critical of Beijing were forced to shut down and dozens of activists were arrested. The mass protests are over. Tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents have chosen to migrate to the UK and other places such as Taiwan.
So far, the authorities have allowed regular, somber tributes to continue.
“I would imagine that some people go there not so much for nostalgia, but as a kind of protest, now that dissent is being suppressed,” said John Burns, emeritus professor of politics and public administration at the University of Hong Kong.
“Some people, for example, who agree with the kind of universal values that the UK stands for and that were embodied in our Bill of Rights at the end of colonialism could join this as a form of protest,” Burns said.
Emotions in Hong Kong are running high, former Democratic Party chairwoman and ex-MP Emily Lau said, given the city’s political situation and its struggles to combat COVID-19.
“There are some who are really nostalgic and have sentimental feelings for the queen, but there are also people who have complaints about the current situation in Hong Kong,” Lau said.
“We cannot rule out that some people used this opportunity to express this,” he said.
At the same time, public figures in Hong Kong are being scrutinized for their response to the queen’s death and criticized if they are seen as overly admiring of her reign or British rule more generally.
Commentators on mainland Chinese social media sites are slamming veteran actor Lau Kar-ying for posting a selfie outside the British consulate on Instagram with a caption that includes the line: “Hong Kong was a blessed land under his reign.”
Having been heavily criticized for attributing Hong Kong’s prosperity to British rule, Lau deleted the post and posted a video apology on the Chinese microblogging website Weibo. He urged people not to read too much into what he said.
“I am Chinese and I will always love my motherland. I’m sorry,” Lau said.
Not all Hong Kongers are sentimental about British rule. Some resent London’s decision not to grant them full British citizenship but to give them British national overseas passports before handover, which do not guarantee the right to live in the UK
“The British took away the rights of those born in Hong Kong before 1997. They did not protect those rights,” said Leslie Chan, who said he has no plans to pay his respects to the queen. “When the British government discussed the future of Hong Kong with China, Hong Kong people were left out of the discussion,” he said.
Some in Hong Kong focus only on the last decades of British rule before the handover to China, when the city became increasingly prosperous and the colonial government nurtured its heritage with new parks, train lines and other modern amenities.
British rule in Hong Kong has benefited the region in some ways, but colonialism is ultimately harmful to its hegemony and racism, Burns said.
“When you talk about the benefits of colonialism, you can’t just spend the last 10 or 20 years in Hong Kong,” he said. “You have to see the whole thing.”