The elevator doors are covered in a mirrored paint, with a sepia-toned 1989 photo of Tiananmen Square protesters etched on top. The effect is deliberately eerie, as your own reflection merges with an image of the past. It is, at the entry to a tiny Chinese memorial, an unmistakable way to emphasize that the memory of the Tiananmen killings 25 years ago is not dead.
This is Hong Kong’s June 4 Museum, a place that fought for years just for the right to exist and to stand as a space where the people who died that day, when Chinese soldiers took aim at unarmed civilians, can be remembered. It may yet lose that right due to a concerted effort to boot it from its current space.
Hong Kong is the only place in China where Tiananmen’s dead can be commemorated. On Wednesday, the anniversary, crowds will take to the streets in an annual candlelight vigil that is expected to draw 150,000 people this year.
Those who built the museum hope it, too, will attract people who don’t want to forget, particularly visitors from mainland China – some 40 million came to Hong Kong last year – whose ability to remember has been deliberately impeded by authorities in Beijing. The museum is one of the few places large numbers of Chinese can, if they choose, come to see and hear what their government has sought to hide from them.
It is an ugly story.
Inside the museum, walls of text and pictures describe two turbulent months, from April 15 – the day reformer Hu Yaobang died, the initial spark for student protests – through June 12, a few days after tanks rolled toward Tiananmen.
A projected computer image overlays the geography of killings on a map of central Beijing. In a small theatre, a mother of a dead student describes by video the smell of the body bag as she sought to cremate her lost child. The display terminates in a narrow passageway lit by two panels of pure white light, where the slow jangle of atmospheric music is intended to spur reflection.
This is a “place where people can come to, to see for themselves what has happened – to feel what happened,” says Mak Hoi-wah, a social activist who is among the founders of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China. The alliance was created in 1989 to support China’s democracy protesters, and is the driving force behind the museum.
It is important the museum be a real brick-and-mortar place, he says, and not merely an online accumulation of documents. “If it is on the Internet, people may have a very distant feeling of relation” with history.
But the struggles of building the museum, even in a place like Hong Kong where speech is supposed to be free, make clear the lengths mainland China goes to suppress memories of the massacre. The organizers spent years searching for a space, and only after using a pair of temporary locations did the alliance find what it hoped would be a permanent home for the museum on the fifth floor of a narrow office building near Hong Kong Museum of History.
It is small – just over 800 square feet – but it was finally a space where they could display the past for others. Of 300 daily visits, 40 per cent have been by people from mainland China, a sign of success.
But its situation remains precarious. Even before the museum could open, it faced a highly co-ordinated ejection effort. Neighbours banded together to say it violated the “office use” designation of its space. In a vote, 90 per cent of the building’s other owners said they wanted legal action to evict the museum.
The brother of the shop owner leading the charge is a political consultant for the Communist Party, Mr. Mak says. “Therefore, we do think there are political intentions behind their movement to kick us out,” he says.
The museum paid $1.35-million for its space, some of it through a mortgage that admission revenues will not be high enough to cover. Beyond the financial issue, though, it’s uncertain how long the museum can hold on in its present location. Depending on the court proceedings, it may face eviction later this year.
“In China, they just want total control, without any challenge,” Mr. Mak says. “The government can cover up everything, as if nothing happened. This is totally against humanity.”
But the events of June 4 are something China has found itself unable to forget, in the way an injury leaves a limp long after it has healed. To the student demonstrators of that time, the stakes of Tiananmen were clear long before the tanks rolled in. When the students of 1989 launched a hunger strike, Chai Ling, then one of their leaders, explained the reason: “Why should we go on hunger strike? Because we want to use this method, the only freedom we have left, to see the true face of our people,” she said. “I want to see if this country is worth our sacrifice and contribution.”
In having its soldiers open fire, the Communist Party issued a decisive reply: no.
In the years that followed, the party dramatically opened the country’s economy, fostering an outpouring of creative energy that has made China richer than ever. But at Tiananmen, China chose dollars over lives, a decision that lies like rot at the country’s base even 25 years later.
“That’s the root of all the social and political problems in China these days,” says Rowena He, who as a teen watched the protests unfurl across China, and left for Canada in 1998, after she found herself unable to continue in the Chinese system. “In order to get rich, you can do anything you want. That’s why you have seen all of these tainted milk cases. You can poison a baby in order to get rich.”
And so, the June 4 Museum carries a purpose beyond telling stories of the past. It’s telling people about the present.
“It’s not possible to understand today’s China without understanding the spring of 1989,” says Prof. He, who lectures at Harvard University and recently published Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of Struggle for Democracy in China. “Chinese society, and the people who experienced it in one way or another, have been living with an open wound.”