It was late at night in Hong Kong when Buckingham Palace announced that Queen Elizabeth II was put under medical monitoring, and Bryan Ong could barely sleep.
“I was shocked. You know things were bad or they would not have announced she’s under medical supervision. But it was so sudden,” said the self-proclaimed royalty enthusiast in the former British colony, who was still struggling to process the news of the queen’s death the next day.
In Hong Kong, where many streets are named after the UK’s queens and kings following more than 150 years of British rule, she is remembered fondly by many. Throughout the day, people shared their condolences on social media, and crowds gathered to lay flowers by the British Consulate. In a Facebook group dedicated to the queen, where her Hong Kong fans fawned over every one of her public appearances, some changed their profile pictures to her portraits.
Among the older generation in the city, Elizabeth was affectionately known as Boss Lady, a nickname that testified to people’s emotional connection to her, Ong said.
“To a certain extent, people saw her as an idol, rather than an ordinary political leader,” Ong said. An entrepreneur in his forties, Ong has been collecting colonial memorabilia since he was a child and had amassed a collection so impressive, he opened a private museum in the city center last year to display his treasures, including mail stamps, military medals, banknotes, and newspaper clippings.
The Museum Victoria City also exhibits certificates bearing the queen’s signature, antique portraits and replicas, which an in-house designer painted after some rigorous research. “I hope with all these items, we can piece together Hong Kong’s history, of which the queen is an inalienable part,” Ong said.
Hong Kong’s government, however, is less keen to acknowledge the role the British Empire played in the city during the queen’s 70-year reign, during which it became a prosperous global financial hub. Hong Kong, which was handed over to Chinese rule in 1997, has been reframing its colonial past. Latest textbooks insisted that it was a “forcible occupation” and China has never ceded the sovereignty of the city to the UK.
In the early afternoon of Friday, the Hong Kong government issued a carefully-worded statement that made no mention of her connection to the city. “It is with great sadness that I express our profound condolences on the passing of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. She was greatly respected, admired and praised by the British people,” wrote the city’s leader, Chief Executive John Lee.
Chinese President Xi Jinping also sent deep condolences in a statement on Friday and took the opportunity to address bilateral relations. Xi said he was willing to work with King Charles III, Elizabeth’s son and successor, to “promote the healthy and stable development of bilateral relations for the benefit of the two countries and their peoples,” according to the statement.
The outpouring of grief for the queen in Hong Kong came as China’s clampdown on the semi-autonomous city fuelled colonial nostalgia. Bristling under Beijing’s tightening grip, some Hong Kong people harked back to the colonial days with rose-tinted glasses.
People, for instance, often contrasted her two trips to the city with that of Chinese leaders. While the queen, who visited in 1975 and 1986, was photographed interacting with residents in public housing estates and wet markets, Chinese officials were often surrounded by security entourage and stayed far removed from the crowd. During the pro-democracy protests in 2019, some demonstrators also waved colonial-era flags, as a symbol of resistance to China, even if they themselves never saw British rule.
But most have mixed feelings about this chapter of history. While Britain is often credited with establishing the rule of law, key infrastructure, and a world-class civil service, there were also darker aspects to their rule, such as entrenched racism and violent crackdown on unrest.
More crucially, some in Hong Kong blame the British for their current plight, as it had failed to democratize the city while it was in power. And a broad and powerful sedition law passed during the colonial era has been used in recent years to curb dissent.
Some also blamed the UK for failing to hold China accountable for the Sino-British Joint Declaration, a treaty that set the conditions for Hong Kong’s transition and supposedly guaranteed its semi-autonomy. Two years following the negotiations, the queen would become the first British monarch to visit China on a historic tour.
This complex history did not stop some residents from romanticizing the queen. For many royalty enthusiasts, their passion is rooted not in political reality but in what for them is the queen’s personal charm.
Ong recalled the queen’s portraits, which decorated the public school he attended as a child, and cited her final appearance on Tuesday, when she appointed Liz Truss as prime minister. “She fulfilled her duty all the way toward the end. I really respect that spirit,” Ong said. “She is irreplaceable. There won’t be anyone like her.”