Remembering the Boss Lady: Queuing in London and Hong Kong

Queuing is a well-established British tradition, probably dating back to the establishment of the mass transit system in the late 19th century, and reinforced by decades of cultural indoctrination. As such, it should have come as no surprise that tens of thousands of loyal subjects were willing to stand in line for more than 12 hours to pay their respects to the country’s longest reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. Even in the former British territory of Hong Kong, thousands of people braved unseasonably hot September days to stand in line for hours to sign the book of condolences at the British Consulate.

Of course, all of this was completely unnecessary. Given the inevitability of the Queen’s passing, it would have been a relatively straightforward exercise for the government to create and thoroughly stress-test a laying-in-state website well in advance that would have allowed people to book a time slot to pay their last respects in Westminster Hall or at the consulate on Justice Drive without having to endure hours of discomfort.

But the long lines of people in London (Balmoral, Edinburgh and Windsor) and Hong Kong were not just ordinary queues – they were in essence pilgrimages – and discomfort, inconvenience, and suffering are an integral part of a pilgrimage, as indeed is spectacle. Pilgrimage is a very public demonstration of one’s devotion – think of the Hajj in Mecca or the 88-temple circumnavigation of Shikoku in Japan.

The London queue was a spectacular made for television moment that both showcased the capital’s famous landmarks, and illustrated to everyone in Britain and around the world just how admired and valued the Queen was. Importantly, it allowed people from all walks of life to join together in a common purpose and share their personal thoughts and memories of the late monarch, and explain precisely why they were willing to endure hours of hardship for a brief moment before the Queen’s coffin. For the former England football team captain, David Beckham, who quietly joined the back of the queue at, it was to honour the staunchly royalist grandparents who first instilled in him a sense of national pride that would stay with him throughout his playing career. Beckham reportedly declined an invitation to skip the line, saying his grandparents would not have approved.

The Westminster Hall pilgrims’ stories reminded me of the 29 characters, representing nearly all sectors of late-Medieval society, who gathered across the river at the Tabard Inn in Southwark to embark on a journey to the tomb of the martyr Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. The story tellers in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales also had a shared sense of purpose and had very personal reasons for embarking on their pilgrimage. The Canterbury Tales is a brilliant evocation of English society at the time of its publication; a country in transition, even turmoil, rocked by the Great Rebellion of 1381 and the deposition of Richard II in 1399. And while the modern television and newspaper coverage was not as eloquent as Chaucer, it was equally instructive, illustrating not just the superficial acts of devotion but also the tensions beneath the surface that may yet burst forth now that the Queen is gone.

For the people of Hong Kong who braved the blistering sun to sign the book of condolences, the pilgrimage was both an act of devotion and defiance. In Hong Kong, the late Queen was known as the “boss lady” (事頭婆, Si Tau Po). She symbolized a better time, a time of stability, rising living standards, and liberal values. Of course, the Queen herself had very little to do with creating a better life for the people of Hong Kong but that was of little importance to the pilgrims.

Just a few weeks after Queen Elizabeth ascended the throne in 1952, a protest on Nathan Road highlighted the desperate plight of those made homeless by squatter settlement fires in Hong Kong. And it was the accumulation of grassroots pressure over the next two decades to tackle housing and social issues that eventually forced the colonial government to take action by building public housing, schools and hospitals. It was in the government’s interest to demonstrate its benevolence towards the poor and downtrodden by improving their lives and providing opportunities for self-advancement. But it could have chosen repression instead, and the fact that it did not still resonates today.

The boss lady was the silent face of this benevolence. She only visited Hong Kong twice during her 70-year reign but, until the handover in 1997, she was constant background presence, her portrait hanging in government buildings, schools and post offices, as well as on stamps and coins. She is remembered with genuine affection by many older Hong Kong residents but the boss lady is also a potent political weapon used as a stark contrast with the current Chinese Communist Party-led regime that tramples on the freedoms the people in Hong Kong once enjoyed. Her image, and that of the colonial-era flag, was a common presence in the 2019 protests, and during her funeral on the evening of September 19, crowds gathered outside the British Consulate, at one point singing Glory to Hong Kong, the unofficial anthem of the protests that is now seen by the authorities as a threat to national security. The police promptly arrived, extinguished the candles on the railings outside the consulate, and arrested a harmonica player for initiating the singalong.

In short, the boss lady was whatever you wanted her to be, and it is unlikely the world will see such an evocative symbol again any time soon.

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