The Power of Memory

November 15, 2011

The Struggle Against Oppression

“With a new generation in Hong Kong which had not been born at the time of Tiananmen, we need to do a few things differently,” Peggy Siu, the convener of a youthstyle, drop-in-and-out and get a taste of Tiananmen Square space in Victoria Park, explained on the afternoon of June 4, the twentysecond anniversary of the massacre of student demonstrators by the military in Beijing.

Organized by the Alliance of Patriotic Catholic Movements for Democracy in China, people were invited to drop in and learn a bit about what Legislative Council member and union leader, Lee Cheuk-yan, calls the importance of remembering. “In particular, the young people of Hong Kong and China need to know what happened on June 4, when the regime washed the call for democracy in blood,” he said. He said that right now, it is especially important as this year we are seeing history repeat itself.

“This year is one of the worst in this regard; an era of darkness seems to have fallen across the country,” he continued. “All free and democratic voices are being silenced by violence.” Lee told the 150,000 people who gathered in the park that evening to burn candles in memory of those who died on that fateful morning that in the centenary year of the expulsion of the Qing dynasty, “The dream of our grandparents of the empire being taken over by democracy is also being crushed.”

Siu said that although the reality of Tiananmen may not be pleasant, an education space needs to be welcoming. She explained that the drop-in display offered a gentle insight into the harsh realities of
what life must have been like for the one million people at the mass rally in Beijing back in late May and early June of 1989.

“It provides an opportunity to get involved by doing a few of the activities that the students did during the long days and weeks they were camped out in the square,” she explained. “They made flowers. So people here are making them too,” Siu continued, pointing to several bunches at the foot of a miniature replica of the memorial column constructed by the students in Tiananmen. “Although we can’t build a Goddess of Democracy here,” she laughed, “we do what we can.”

She added, “We have set up small tents, as a reminder of the tent city that sprang up around the rally, and are using them as a memorial to those who died.” The path to the tents featured poster-sized photographs depicting both the humane and inhumane sides of Tiananmen. One showed students giving food to soldiers, whose convoy of trucks had been trapped in the massive crowd and ordered to stop. Another showed a mother giving her small child to a soldier to hold, and the big smiles on both of their faces as the soldier held the boy up in the air.

Catherine Baber, Amnesty International Asia Pacific, and Alberto Ho Chun-yan at the Amnesty International report briefing in China

Another shows a young girl, her yellow dress blowing in the wind, standing at a microphone in front of the students’ Command Center, as she addressed the crowd. She represented a group of children invited to spend the day there on June 1, 1989, the International Day of the Child. Other photos depicted the inhumanity; a blood-soaked towel, tanks lined up in battle array and the violence of the soldiers as the students were making their retreat. Siu said, “The truth of these pictures may cause you sadness, but it is important to accept the truth even when it is sad.”

Those who dropped into the display were invited to do calligraphy, brushing their own reflections or the themes presented onto paper. Others recited a poem, read from the writings of the students in Beijing twenty-two years ago, sang or just sat quietly. A few watched a video presentation. Others expressed their response in art form, drawing, painting or sketching. A small group spent the afternoon putting Tiananmenthemed tattoos on people’s arms while others were on hand just to chat with people.

Siu explained that you could write a statement, make a prayer or expression of hope, and fix it to the prayer-line, containing the cards that had been presented at the novena of Masses that had been offered at various churches around the diocese in the run up to the Tiananmen anniversary. Siu, herself, attached two reels of cotton thread to the handle of a small, mechanical music box; one black and one white. “Good and evil,” she explained. “I entwine my hands and fingers in the thread and, as I turn the handle, the cotton tightens around my fingers and hands until they begin to hurt.”

She said it reminds her that pain is part of the struggle for freedom and justice, but the music cheers her up and is a source of hope. When it really hurts, I stop,” she said, “and just reflect that after one setback, we need to replenish our hope and try again.” She engages passers-by, placing the music box near their ear. “If they stop and ask me, I explain what I am doing,” she said. “I just figure that if they can come to understand something about me, then they have learned something new.” Siu explained, “Our little display is just one way that a younger generation can learn to relate to the big things about Tiananmen, like why we will pray in this space tonight and have the candlelight vigil.” Lee said that we must keep the memory of Tiananmen alive, as memory is a powerful weapon in the struggle against oppression. As the words inscribed on many t-shirts at the memorial read, “Don’t forget June 4.”