Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Tiananmen 20th Anniversary in Hong Kong

June 4th, 2009- 20th Anniversary of Tiananmen Square Massacre

Today is the 20th anniversary of that pivotal event in 1989. When it happened, I was exactly 6 and a half years old. I don't remember anything about it, I was most likely playing with my Barbies. At 6 and a half, I wasn't thing about China. I wasn't thinking about anything but how much I loved summer, the sound of our Chinese pagoda wind-chime ringing in the warm summer breeze that blew in through the screen door, and if I would be allowed to have ice-cream for dessert. My Chinese language abilities at this age consist of a few key words in Cantonese: ping-gaw (apple), bay-gaw (nose), jo son (good morning), jo tow (good night), daw jie (thank you), cha siu bao (roast pork bun). Essentials.

Today I am exactly 26 and a half years old, and I'm in Hong Kong, missing that cool summer breeze (it's hot and rainy here) and thinking a lot about China, Tiananmen, and my future. My Chinese language skills are equal to that of a 6 and a half year old. It's progress.

My first experience learning about Tiananmen happened in high school, in my 9th grade world history class. I remember I did a big report on Deng Xiaoping, who was the leader after Mao and authorized the military to end the protests. I also remember watching a documentary about the events. But since then, it's been a long time since I thought much about it.

In honor of this day, I am lucky to be in Hong Kong, and not the mainland. Here there will still be a memorial candle light vigil in the evening, and people here can still talk freely and openly about the protests. Hong Kong will be the only "official" part of China allowed an open and free demonstration.

In the afternoon I go with my friend Paul, the other HK research Fulbrighter, to an art response to the June 4th 20th anniversary out in an artist commune near Kowloon City. We take the ferry from North Point and arrive at the Cattle Depot Artist Village, which was once a cattle slaughter house. The buildings are old-fashioned brick structures, long and cavernous, with a touch of Chinese flare to them, set among now more modern apartment buildings, shabby governmental residences, and Hong Kong's TownGas power plant.

The artwork is all done by artists around my age, who don't have any memories of Tiananmen either. Their responses come from their own personal feelings about the event. The pieces are varied, with different types of media employed. There are photographs, videos, sculptures, linoleum etchings, Lego block re-creations, and other mixed-media works. Paul and I like a poster of The Tank Man with a quote from the Hebrew bible below the image:"I have seen slaves on horseback while princes go on foot like slaves." (Ecclesiastes 10-7)

There is also a nice piece made of a wooden block at a 90-degree angle with a mirror to its right, around a foot high. Carved into the wood is the Roman numeral IV. In the mirror the reflection is VI. Together the mirror and wood show the important date: VI IV. 6/4

I also liked a video that required the viewer to wear 3-D glasses. When you closed your right eye, you saw news footage and documentary images of the protest. When you closed your left eye, you saw Chinese military (perhaps propoganda) footage. With both eyes open, the images overlap and blend together. But it rests with the viewer which images they want to see, and how they edit the footage by opening and closing their eyes.

The last piece we looked at was actually the first one the viewer would see upon entering the exhibit. It was a series of photographs of the artist at the time of the massacre. She is 3 years old in 1989, and she poses with her parents in a park in Hong Kong, beside its own version of the Goddess of Democracy statue. Above the photos she includes a poem:

The Reds

The beautiful red heals
The beautiful red kills
The beautiful red reveals the beautiful ills

The original red dimmed
The original red bit
The original red means the original sins

I have two reds in my life
The beautiful and the original
They are art and the Cultural R

At night, I decide to check out the remembrance vigil being held in Victoria Park. I arrive pretty late at 9:30pm, the rally started at 8:00pm. There are already a lot of people making their way home.

My feelings upon entering the park are ones of great respect, awe and emotion, as I see before me the largest gathering I have ever witnessed in Hong Kong, or anywhere for that matter. Hong Kong University reported the following day there could have been over 100,000 people in the park. The main square is the size of 6 soccer fields and 1 basketball court. Inside people of all ages-young, old, parents,
children, students, workers, gathered together, many holding candles wrapped in a paper cone, and listened intently to the speaker's passionate voice ringing out over the booming loudspeaker. I could only watch from the edge of the court, the crowd an impenetrable wall of bodies. There were moments when everyone raised their candles in unison high into the air, the soft glow of the flames a silent but very visible affirmation of the supporters in remembrance of those events that took place on June 4th, 1989. The small flames, amassed together, harnessed a power and brightness that almost matched that of lights of Causeway Bay's buildings in the background.

I made my way to my usual jogging path, but this night there were no joggers. I watched as an elderly woman cradled her candle on a park bench. A few minutes later a couple with their two young sons walked by. The elderly woman gave the candle to the small boy to hold, and this to me felt so symbolic of the purpose of this remembrance event. As the candle passed from her hand to his, it felt as if she were saying, take this candle, and don't forget what happened, even if you don't understand now, even if you weren't there. Don't forget to love your freedom. The family then posed for pictures taken by their other small son.

Around the park people sang together songs printed in the program book. The general feeling of the crowd was calm, peaceful, and orderly-three adjectives I don't normally associate with a gathering of 100,00 people. I felt safe, and that is also not something I usually feel in crowds a fraction of this size back home in New York. But that is what is special about Hong Kong- the acceptance of crowded living quarters, cramped streets, bumping into people constantly. It is part of everyday life, and the Hong Kong locals learn to just accept that and take it all in stride with patience and (most of the time) politeness.

At 10:00pm the vigil came to an end, and then those 100,000 people made their way out of the park, flooding the streets of Causeway Bay. But again, a dignified orderliness marked the tone of the exodus.

In the seven months I have been living here, this occassion marked for me a turning point and view on Hong Kong and its people. I suddenly realized how lucky and special Hong Kong is, an enclave of freedom among a massive giant of censorship. While I have usually witnessed a reluctance to vocalize opinions in the classrooms at my university, I have seen this day the tempered way in which they do exercise their freedom. Patient, orderly, and quiet, and with sheer numbers alone, they made their opinions known with a whisper, more powerful than any roar.