Hong Kong gripped by nostalgia for a ‘golden age’

Show of respect for Queen Elizabeth II sends a coded message to Beijing and the Communist Party

Poignant and at times defiant, the people of Hong Kong have been paying their respects to Queen Elizabeth II in a wave of colonial nostalgia. 

The death of Britain’s longest-reigning monarchy has brought back memories of a rose-tinted past and the harsh realities of the present in a city silenced by China’s authoritarian rule.

Even the sweltering heat failed to stop the procession outside Hong Kong’s British consulate this week.

Umbrellas shaded mourners from the scorching sun while “God Save the Queen played softly from a mobile phone” as the sea of floral tributes ebbed and flowed.

“This is a rare opportunity for true Hongkongers to get together in solidarity and talk. I don’t suppose there will be other opportunities again. Since 2019, we have not been able to do this,” a social worker in her 30s, who declined to give her name, told The Guardian media group.

She was referring to the summer of discontent in 2019 when massive pro-democracy protests broke out. 

What followed was the persecution and imprisonment of activists under a catch-all National Security Law imposed by Beijing. It also signaled the demise of organizations refusing to kowtow to the ruling Communist Party of China.

In the space of a year, free speech evaporated as quickly as the promised “One Country, Two Systems” model that guaranteed greater political freedom for the city.

People who experienced this period see it as Hong Kong’s golden age.

Li Mei Ting, of the Chinese University of Hong Kong

“For Hong Kong people, [the Queen] represented a simpler, more free era for the city, known affectionately [in Cantonese] as … ‘Old Lady Boss’. RIP,” Kevin Yam, a prominent Hong Kong lawyer now based in Australia, said.

The crown and Hong Kong:

  • British colonial rule lasted for more than 150 years.
  • It followed the Qing Dynasty’s defeat in the First Opium War during the early 1840s.
  • On July 1, 1997, the city was handed over to the People’s Republic of China.

Delve deeper: Anti-colonial riots in 1967 forced the British government to usher in a wave of reforms, covering public housing, education and healthcare.

High-rise dreams: By the 1980s, Hong Kong had become a major regional financial center with a skyline of glass and steel to match a decade later.

Golden age: “People who experienced this period [between the mid-1970s to 1990s] see it as Hong Kong’s golden age,” Li Mei Ting, a cultural and religious studies lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said.

Big picture: This craving for a bygone era has left an indelible mark as Hong Kong struggles with its new identity as just another major Chinese city. 

Between the lines: “We talked about [the Queen’s] visits to Hong Kong – she was graceful but down-to-earth,” the unnamed social worker said.

Social reforms: “But mostly, we talked about how the British brought the rule of law, [a] free economy, the education system, universal healthcare, public housing, social and political reforms. We think these were their greatest contributions to Hong Kong,” she said.

China Factor comment: More than 220,000 people have fled the city since the end of 2019. Many have moved to the United Kingdom under the British National Overseas Passport scheme. But their love of a yesteryear image of Hong Kong will never fade.