Every Saturday in Hong Kong, volunteer curator and translator C.S. Liu helps guide visitors through the first permanent museum dedicated to the history of the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989 in Beijing.
At the entrance to the June 4th Museum stands a replica of the Goddess of Democracy statue that Beijing students rallied around 25 years ago. Liu, now in his 40s, explains how important it is to preserve their story for future generations.
“The museum is a way for us to commemorate those who lost their lives,” Liu said. “We want people to know these protestors didn’t die in vain.”
As Beijing tries to erase the evidence of the brutal crackdown that saw the People’s Liberation Army use automatic weapons and tanks to kill, by official count, at least 246 student demonstrators, the memory of Tiananmen lives on almost 1,200 miles away in Hong Kong. Residents of the former British colony say recalling the Beijing pro-democracy protests reflects their own fight to preserve their freedoms, which have been diminishing since the territory was returned to rule by China in 1997.
Former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping set out to govern Hong Kong under the “one country, two systems” formula. Ratified in 1984, the Sino-British Joint Declaration ensured Hong Kong’s sovereignty for 50 years after reunification. To this day, Hong Kongers continue to enjoy different freedoms from their Mainland cousins, including a vibrant free press and access to an uncensored Internet.
The interactive museum is located on the fifth floor of the Foo Hoo Centre in the Tsim Sha Tsui neighborhood. The 800-square-foot space cost HK$9.7 million (U.S.$1.26 million) and was paid for, in part, with donations collected over two years from supporters in Hong Kong and overseas. Richard Tsoi, Vice-Chairman of The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, the group behind the museum, said the group is still paying down the mortgage since donations only reached HK$6 million (U.S.$774,000).
Open less than two months, the museum has faced continual opposition from neighbors and protestors.
“Some visitors are very supportive. They think it’s important to remember the June 4th incident, but there are some [visitors] who say it’s not true,” Liu said. The museum is fighting a lawsuit from its building’s owners’ committee, whose members claim the museum space is being misused and want them out.
On opening day, Liu said about two dozen protestors calling themselves the June 4th Truth Group showed up outside the Foo Hoo Centre, holding up pictures of dead Chinese soldiers and burning tanks.
“[The protestors] said the students violated laws, therefore they deserved to die,” Liu said. “How can anyone justify crushing people with tanks for breaking any law?” he asked.
The most vocal opposition to the museum has come from a group calling itself The Voice of Loving Hong Kong, said Tsoi, who expects the group to attend the annual June 4 candlelight vigil in Victoria Park to show a video questioning the 1989 democracy movement.
In the days leading up to the anniversary, a handful of members from The Voice of Loving Hong Kong stood outside the museum’s building, handing out leaflets that deny the massacre ever happened.
“It’s just confusing for visitors who pass the museum, especially our Mainland visitors who are trying to find the truth,” Tsoi said.
So far, the June 4th Musuem has attracted over 7,000 visitors, half of whom come from the Mainland, Tsoi said.
“On the second day, a former student protestor brought his son and told him about what happened at the Square and said he was lucky because he went home for dinner but lost his friends,” Liu said.
Parents and small children, and students and tourists alike, can be seen walking around the maze-like museum, taking in the photos and digital archives. A video playing in a loop on a monitor features members of the Tiananmen Mothers, a group that shares its members’ sad tales of children lost during the fatal protests, and of their ongoing fight for justice from the Chinese government.
Benjamin Chan, 28, spent his day off work at the museum to learn more about the historical fight against China’s autocracy.
“We don’t have much education about June 4th, so I wanted to come out here today to learn more,” said the recent university graduate who noted that many Hong Kongers are fighting for universal suffrage. Some have even set a protest for July that could occupy the city’s financial heart, dubbing it Occupy Central.
Volunteer Liu said Mainland visitors to the museum generally want to find out what happened at Tiananmen Square, but there are some tourists who appear to have found the museum by mistake.
“I don’t know how some Mainland tour groups find us, because big groups will come in, take a quick look around, and then go shopping,” Liu said.
“Because of censorship, it’s difficult to get any information on the June 4th incident, so when [Mainland visitors] come to Hong Kong, they buy books, they search the Internet, and they can come here,” Liu said.
One of the more emotional visitors Liu recently met was a former Chinese soldier who came to the museum to repent.
Freshly enlisted in the army in 1989, the soldier—then in his 20s—was asked to support the troops on the frontlines in the Square, where he witnessed the deaths of many innocents, Liu recounted.
“He was crying a lot when he told his story about a girl who was just asking for directions to leave the Square,” Liu said. “[The soldier] just hit her over the head and she died instantly. All she wanted to do was leave the Square. That moment is burned in his head like a computer disk. He can’t erase it from his memory.”
During the time of the protests, in Spring 1989, China was just opening up to the world after being closed off for so long. Hong Kong, by contrast, was already a brimming capitalist metropolis, experiencing first-world wealth and freedoms.
“Many people don’t know this, but Hong Kong played a vital role in ferrying the protestors out,” Liu said, explaining how a rank-and-file “underground railway” plan dubbed “Operation Yellowbird” helped student leaders and dissidents wanted by Beijing escape China after the crackdown with the support of Hong Kong activists, celebrities, and diplomats.
“[Hong Kongers] were so proud of being Chinese at that time,” museum visitor Paulina Luk, 60, said of 1989. “Everybody was talking about Beijing and the future. Nobody could imagine how brave those students were,” she said.
Luk, who spent three hours at the museum, reminisced about how she was at work when she first heard news of the military crackdown on the demonstrators in Beijing.
“It was a sad time. Many [Hong Kong] offices closed and sent people home. We watched and cried from our TV sets about what was happening and felt scared for the students,” Luk said.
Now, 25 years later, China’s is the second-largest economy in the world, but Luk feels her northern neighbors have forgotten about what really matters.
“We [in Hong Kong] still have our freedom to speak and to express our thoughts, so we must keep this freedom and show our respect and never forget those who passed away,” Luk said, adding how she’s attended 22 candlelight vigils to commemorate Tiananmen, held each June 3-4 in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park.
“I’m 60 now, I have nothing to lose. I don’t want the younger generation to forget what happened. Hong Kong is my home,” Luk said. “I don’t want to see it turn into just another Mainland city. Now I just feel shame. I think [Mainlanders] are more concerned about making money than democracy.”
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