A quarter of a century after the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square on 4 June 1989, the first permanent museum dedicated to the massacre opened in Hong Kong in late April this year.
The museum is barely 800 square feet in size, packed into the fifth floor of a narrow office building in East Tsim Sha Tsui. Since opening day, the museum’s popularity has necessitated crowd control measures: visitors queue up outside the building, the line stretching past the aptly located Pub Tibet below, and only a handful are let in at a time.
It was 3:15 in the afternoon when we reached the front door, located off the fairly discreet Austin Avenue. By that time, visitors had gathered in a line extending more than halfway down the block, leafing through pamphlets distributed by volunteers dressed in yellow vests that bore the logo of the Hong Kong Alliance.
The museum is the brainchild of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, an organization that takes on the quixotic mission of supporting Hong Kong’s integration with China—an increasingly unpopular position—but maintaining that Hong Kong must be integrated into a free and democratic China. In other words, it is mainland China that must become more like Hong Kong and not the other way around.
The Alliance was the product of Li Peng’s declaration of martial law in May 1989, formed amidst the unprecedented demonstration that took place then in Hong Kong to denounce Beijing’s actions and support the student movement. Attended by over one million people, the only subsequent demonstration to have come close to this size in Hong Kong was the July 1 march to oppose the anti-sedition Article 23 of the Basic Law that the SAR government attempted—but thankfully failed—to pass in 2003.
Soon after we stepped in line, one of these yellow-clad volunteers walked over and handed each of us a little pink ticket that politely informed us the museum is “a bit crowded” right now, and won’t we “please come back at around 4 o’clock.”
Given that it was a public holiday (International Labor Day) and the museum had opened not more than two weeks earlier, we had been anticipating the scene to be something of a madhouse; however, despite the fact that the line was essentially at a standstill, all those present were patiently biding their time before they were allowed in. A few visitors were engaged in muted conversation with either each other or the volunteers themselves, but most chose just to focus on the informational pamphlets that they had just been handed.
“Geared towards a world vision of disseminating democracy-empowerment initiative, the Museum project is unique of its kind in China and in the world in that it is dedicated to the interrogation of the ‘Democracy Movement’ and ‘Rehabilitation of June 4’ in Mainland China,” the first paragraph of the English pamphlet read. The second and third pages were filled with direct quotes related to June 4th from all sides involved: There was the CCP’s referral to it as “a serious political row…a moment when the destiny of the Party and of the nation was at stake”; There was student protest leader Wang Dan, who in 1991 said “What drives me can be summed up in these simple words: the renaissance of the Chinese people”; The pamphlet also included the retreat of Hong Kong SAR Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying, who on June 6th, 1989 said that he “strongly condemn[s] the Chinese communist rulers for their bloody slaughter of the people,” but by 2013 declared “The SAR Government makes no comments on matters of June 4th.”
Exhibition attendants report that around half of all visitors are mainlanders; considering the unthinkable nature of promoting the museum across the border, it appears that word is spreading quickly between friends and online about the ‘May 35th memorial’ (now a recent addition to the ever-growing catalogue of ‘sensitive terms’ banned in the run-up to June 4th).
After returning at four o’clock, we were ushered inside and took the elevator up to the fifth floor. As we stood in the elevator, I thought of a letter sent to the HK alliance that contained previous legal threats to the museum’s existence by representatives of the Foo Hoo Centre. The museum has faced an uphill struggle against lawyers representing the property owner and continues to receive threats against its existence. Despite the adversities they have encountered, however, the museum’s creators hope that they can relocate as soon as possible—not to elsewhere in Hong Kong, but to Beijing.
According to Alliance chairman Lee Cheuk-yan, the letter warned that the huge crowds at the museum “might cause nuisance to other tenants.” Yet, looking around at the other visitors whose silence implied their willingness to comply with the museum’s somber atmosphere, one would wonder how this gathering could possibly be described as a “nuisance”: After all, the museum was only allowing around twenty to thirty visitors at a time.
Despite the scarce floor space, the events of spring 1989 are explored in thorough detail through historical accounts, Party statements, press clippings, witness testimony, documentary films and survivor accounts, as well as moving interviews with the Tiananmen Mothers and the families of the fallen.
For those who consider themselves more or less well-informed on the incident, the museum probably won’t shed very much light on what they already know: The first section has visitors walk alongside a timeline of events leading up to June 4th, from Hu Yaobang’s memorial service and Zhao Ziyang’s return from North Korea in May to the infamous editorial that labeled the growing student protests as dongluan, or a “disturbance.” There are blown-up photographs of students wearing bandannas and carrying banners that sport such protest slogans as “Mother, I’m hungry yet I can not eat.” There are areas where visitors can write their own thoughts on the matter in chalk. As one turns a corner, there are multiple TV screens showing such classic Tiananmen documentaries as Frontline’s “The Tank Man” or “The Gate of Heavenly Peace” amidst giant ‘MASSACRE’ stickers strewn about—at one point, we considered counting up the number of times the word appears throughout the tiny museum, but we soon found ourselves distracted by a pile of eliminated photos of injured protestors.
The central room contains a table, upon which is situated a miniature diagram of the square; in the adjacent room, a miniature version of the protestors’ Goddess of Democracy statue stands alongside a fractured photographic mural of the Forbidden City, complete with its imposing portrait of Mao that was distorted during the protests by a few enraged youth from Hunan province. Moving past the Goddess of Democracy, we found ourselves in a small library where a smiling HK alliance volunteer handed us reading material on the incident to look over.
To sum up the overall impression the museum wishes to leave its visitors with in one word, it would have to be that what happened on June 4th, 1989 was a ‘Massacre’: The word itself is plastered on practically every wall in the place, in the most aggressive of fonts and in the most conspicuous of places. This deliberate move is part of the museum’s unconcealed political agenda: The HK alliance clearly believes that no other word can more aptly describe what occurred during those days at Tiananmen square.
Despite its small size, the museum boasts “over 1,000 archival, digital or film-based materials from tiny 2D to large 3D size”; however, as we already mentioned, we didn’t find very much new material amongst what was exhibited. Then again, we don’t feel that the content of the June 4th Museum is what is most important: Instead, what really is most important is the museum’s mere existence without being shut down or censored (knock on wood). As we approach the twenty-five year mark of the incident in Tiananmen, it is becoming more and more important to not let this moment in history fade away into either obscurity or fall victim to the distortion of erroneous historical interpretation; the HK alliance’s opening of this museum is, at the very least, a firm step in the right direction.
For another write-up on the museum, check out the Index on Censorship’s report here.
By Alex Stevens and Ryan Kilpatrick