I’m walking across campus with Will and Lucy when they point to a long black poster set up between two buildings and say something.
“Huh?” I’m tired, and hot, and tired, and really hot. And tired. All I want to do is get back to the flat, crank up the AC, and lie on the couch with a remote control and something slippery and cold.
“It’s a six,” Lucy says. She points to a Chinese character in large white paint. Then she moves her finger. “And a four.”
“Yeah,” says Will. “A six and four. But just them. It doesn’t mean anything.”
“Maybe it’s 64,” I say, leaning my body in the direction of home, hoping they’ll get the hint. But they’re standing their ground.
“No,” says Will. “Then it’d be a six-ten-four.”
“It doesn’t make any sense,” Lucy says, repeating her brother.
But it does, of course.
A month ago the members of the Gen Ed office were planning a meeting of three sub-working groups. In total, 15 people would be invited, and it was hard finding a day and a time that worked for everyone.
“What about the second week of June?” KS, the acting director said.
“I have a two-day workshop,” I said. “How about the first week?”
Everyone looked down at their planners. “The 1st?” said William.
“I have practicum,” KS said.
I shook my head. “A conference at Poly. What about the fourth? My book is blank on that day.”
William’s head shot up. He stared at me. KS actually laughed. “You can come that day,” he said, “but I won’t be here.”
21 years ago I was in England, winding down the second year of my stint as a rock star in the nearly-almost-but-not-quite-ever-even-semi-famous alternative rock quartet Don’t Kick the Baby. My friend Steve was visiting that spring, and he and I were having a grand old time, going up to St. Aidan’s college and drinking beer, getting a wee bit tipsy, stumbling down to Dunelm where the kebab van was, stuffing our faces with greasy meat and raw onions, then strolling across the bridge and back to my flat, where we crashed out and stayed up talking about deep things like would we ever find a woman who would love us, and whatever happened to that band Big Country?
Evenings, we’d sit in front of the TV watching the news and eating takeout Chinese. The Ayatollah Khomeini died at the end of May, and I remember Steve and I leaping up when we heard that and actually slapping a high five, sort of a bizarre move for two would-be hippie-pacifist freaks.
And there was this thing in China, these students protesting in this square we’d never heard of before, in Beijing. They’d been there for more than a month already, and every night the crowds were getting bigger, the speeches more fiery. And the government wasn’t doing anything about it.
It was, I have to say, magical to watch. There was this sense, very tangible, that something big was going to happen, that the government was about to cave, that everything in China would change. This was the period of Glasnost, after all, when Gorbachev was rewriting the rules in Russia. And there was Lech Walesa in Poland, and the Solidarity movement. Quietly but steadily, the world was changing—the oppressive regimes were coming down. The world was becoming a better place.
Way back in October, our friends Anita and Collin took us to Victoria Park on the Island for the mid-autumn festival. Glowing red lanterns were strung everywhere and crowds of families wandered from one stage to another, taking in the Peking Opera, the shadow puppets, the traditional dance shows. There was popcorn, the first I’d had since coming to Asia, slightly burned and sticky with sugar.
“We do this in the fall,” Anita said. “And then in June we bring you back.”
We grinned. “Bring us back? Why? What’s in June?”
Anita, who usually smiles, stopped. She looked at us closely. “For June 4th.” She didn’t actually say the words, but her voice implied Of course.
We must have stared a moment too long.
Her voice dropped in pitch but not in volume. “Tiananmen Square,” she said. “Tiananmen Square.”
So on June 4th, 2010, we pile into Anita and Collins’ car and head down to Victoria Park again. We’d told the kids over dinner about the massacre, explaining that the students were unarmed, that they were protesting for more open communication with the government, for freedoms that we don’t even think about in the United States—like for instance, the right to sit around the dinner table and talk about the government. We tell them that this is a somber event, that they should take it very seriously, that we won’t tolerate any acting up.
On the drive down, Anita talks about the original vigil, 21 years ago, how nearly 20% of Hong Kong’s population showed up, spontaneously the night after the massacre to protest the slaughter of unarmed students by the soldiers of their own country. Anita is not one to get choked up, and she does not get choked up telling this story. Rather, you can tell that she’s very proud of Hong Kong, of the way this tiny region that, not 8 years after Tiananmen, would be ceded to China, refused to ignore this blatant act of unjustified violence.
Indeed, defiance seems to be the mood du jour. When we get to the park, there’s Canto rock blasting from a huge tower sound system set up on scaffolding. We’re escorted into a fenced off area about a hundred meters square, between two other fenced off areas about a hundred meters square. Anita pulls out a long roll of plastic sheeting, and we spread it on the muddy ground, making just enough room for all of us.
It takes me a minute to figure out what’s going on. Why the fenced in area? Why are we just staring at a scaffolding in the middle of a muddy field? Where’s the stage? Who’ll be speaking? Why the loud music?
The first question is answered almost instantly. Crowds pour through the open gates of the fenced in area: college kids in tight jeans and Converse tennis shoes; families like us with kids in strollers; elderly couples, him in gray pleated trousers, her in a flowered dress. Within seconds, it seems, our corral is filled up, and a pair of attendants pull a strip across the entrance, making sure we don’t get too packed in, directing traffic to the next area. This is Hong Kong, after all: we will protest, yes, but it will be orderly. For once, this sense of over-control doesn’t bother me.
“Where are we?” I say to Anita. “Is this the main area?”
She shakes her head. Overflow, she says. The main area is off to the right, in front of us, nearer a stadium. There, she tells me, there’s a stage, and microphones and huge video screens.
I’m about to ask her another question when there’s a shift in the music blaring from the loudspeakers. The pounding bass and grinding guitars pull back a little, and over them, digitally mixed, we hear the rapid fire of machine guns, the grind of tank engines, the roar of sirens. It’s a sampling, of course, and the song is a protest song, of course. Once that tune finishes, another starts, less bass and drums heavy, but its to-hell-with-you tone is evident even for people like me who can’t understand the words.
And then the speakers begin. Its all in Cantonese and Putonghua, which seems funny to me—why use the language of the oppressors?—but Anita tells me that mainlanders come down to Hong Kong for the commemoration each year, that remembering the massacre isn’t so much illegal in the PRC as just not done. This matches something one of my colleagues from the mainland told me earlier in the day, as we were strolling past those black banners on campus.
“Does anyone talk about what happened?” I asked her.
The words weren’t even out of my mouth before she was saying, “We do not talk about this. No one talks about this.” She paused, her eyes ahead of her as we walked. Then she said: “At Peking University, every year people show up on campus around this time to see who’s talking about it. No one does.”
This morning’s paper carried a story about witnesses to the massacre who’ve struggled over the years, trying to cope with what they saw, and having no outlet or way to express their anger. Many protest quietly: wearing a white shirt, for instance, the traditional Chinese color of mourning, or pulling on the same black shirt they wore that night, still stained with the blood of protestors.
Now, tonight, sitting on our strip of narrow plastic, we listen to the mother of one of those killed as she tells her story. Her voice is elastic, not quite lively, but gentle and rounded, restrained but full of emotion. Her pitch never changes. Behind her plays a single erhu, the traditional Chinese stringed instrument that can sound like an Appalachian fiddle or a mournful ghost, calling from the salt marshes. Over the year I’ve come to appreciate the erhu, but listening to it now, bending its way behind this woman’s voice, I can feel moisture gathering beneath my lids, and I realize I love this instrument, and will probably never hear it again without thinking of this place, this murmuring crowd, the glowing skyscrapers around the park, windows 40 stories up flickering with the blue-gray light of televisions.
The woman finishes, and then there’s another protest song, more mainstream pop this time, with a rousing chorus that, each time it comes, seems to swell the chest of the crowd. There’s a photographer in front of us, a lanky kid with long hair and an oversized t-shirt, and as he focuses his massive lens on the flickering candle glow, I can see his mouth stretching with rounded “O’s” and pulling wide with “E” sounds. All around us, you can hear people singing, heartily, lustily, almost joyfully.
They’ve passed out candles now, and the kids are fascinated, dripping wax onto their fingers, into the grass, trying to build wrinkled castles out of the melt. The next speaker is the wife of a dissident who was jailed for speaking out against the government after a recent round of earthquakes in China. After him is someone younger, who speaks eloquently and earnestly for a while, then breaks into a call and response, shouting phrases to the crowd, who holler them back, 100,000-fold. Each time, in the bare second between the shouts of the crowd and the next chant of the young man, you can hear a booming echo off the buildings around the park, all those voices rolling off of glass and steel, sounding not quite human but unquestionably holy.
It has to be hard to be a Hong Konger when it comes to the subject of China. On the one hand, being linked to the PRC is like being the prom date of the coolest guy on campus. Everyone knows China is rising. Everyone knows what’s coming will almost undoubtedly be China’s century. It has the resources, it has the labor, it has a strong centralized government that can keep businesses in line and keep the economy under control. Its economy has grown between 6 and 10 percent every year for the last decade. It was unscathed, mostly, by the recent banking crisis, and it only knows the idea of trade imbalance from the grip end of the pistol.
Who wouldn’t want to dance with that guy?
At the same time, of course, there is Tiananmen Square. Li Peng, the premier during what the PRC refers to as (if they refer to it at all) “the 1989 incident,” recently released his diaries for publication. In them, he says, repeatedly, that he was prepared to die in order to stop the protesters.
Almost immediately after the death of Mao, the Cultural Revolution was declared an unconditional failure, and Mao’s wife and her cronies were prosecuted for its execution. Twenty-one years after Tiananmen, there’s no move to revise history, no attempt on the part of the government to redeem itself by admitting overzealousness in attacking unarmed students with tanks, crushing their legs into the pavement as they attempted to flee on their bicycles.
Numbers like this are hard to read, but from 1990 to 1994, the emigration numbers from Hong Kong never dropped below 50,000 per annum, almost ten times the “normal” rate. Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that there are those here who are unapologetic about the big brother to the north. In a recent attempt to embarrass the PRC into allowing Hong Kong full democracy, a number of liberal politicians resigned from their posts, forcing midterm elections as a de facto referendum on one-person, one-vote. Turnout was so low the maneuver was declared a fiasco, even by those who supported it.
There’s more music. The organizers have passed out programs with words to all the songs and translations of everything that’s in Putonghua. A beloved dissident, dying now of cancer, speaks, and the crowd roars (albeit in a Hong Kong kind of way) its approval. Then a student from Chinese University gets up to speak.
CUHK, founded in 1949 by scholars and thinkers kicked out of the mainland by the red army, is one of the top three universities in Hong Kong, ranked 80th, more or less, internationally. It’s a beautiful place, nestled on and around a range of mountains near Sha Tin. The students there are smart and engaged, and strolling across campus on a Friday night you’ll see clusters of them walking arm in arm and laughing in the dark.
And the students there are—like the founding fathers of the University—politically active. Earlier in the week they had asked the university council to place The Goddess of Democracy—a twenty-foot statue commemorating the sacrifice of the Tiananmen students—on campus following the peace vigil. The council, led by the university’s president, who is largely seen as pro-Beijing, declined, arguing that, “The university should not align itself with actions or activities which project a political position that would compromise the university’s principle of political neutrality.”
Besides being one butt-ugly sentence, this is also patently absurd—disallowing political activity is a form of political activity itself—and the crowd knew it. When the young man from the university repeats these words on Friday night, more than 100,000 voices roar with laughter.
Between speeches and songs, the announcers keep telling everyone how big the crowd has grown: 80,000 people, 90,0000 people, 100,000 people. The police have now closed down streets to allow the overflow. The police started to turn people away, but changed their minds. The police now estimate 150,000 people!
It is a night of numbers. I finally realize, for instance, that the protesters who were killed, were, of course, my age, that had they lived they’d now be handsome women or fathers of small children. How this could have alluded me at the time is bizarre: perhaps because China was so remote from Northern England. Perhaps because what they were doing was so much braver than anything I would have considered, have considered, or likely will ever consider.
Amidst all the Cantonese, I recognize a few words, but only a few: “Lok say,” for instance, both low, the second sharp and short. Six. Four. Of course. The numbers Lucy and Will saw and couldn’t decipher: June 4th, the sixth month, the fourth day.
And there’s this: yi sup yut li. Twenty-one years. Twenty-one years ago.
And there’s this: 2047, the year China takes over Hong Kong for good. It’s a number I don’t hear mentioned, but one I don’t doubt is one everyone’s mind, even if at the back, lingering like a ill-trained guest. Sure, too, I’m certain there’s a quiet calculus that’s occurred in the minds of the parents in the crowd, the people who, like us, have children in their laps playing with the softened wax of their candles. This calculus begins with the child’s age, then adds, 37, the number of years until the hand-over, so that Enya, on Anita’s lap, will be 43 when it happens, exactly Ellen’s age now. And Angus, her brother, will not even be forty.
Then the math continues, adding 37 to the age of the parents. Thus, I would be 81, likely not around, and Anita, younger than me, would be in her late 70s. And of course this second calculus has nothing to do with self-preservation. Rather, it's all about the desire, projected 40 years out, to protect the wee ones sitting in their laps now, holding their fingers above the flames, trying not to get burned, trying to keep safe, as a nation remembers the night its own leaders sent tanks to crush the lives of students whose only fault was to ask for a better life.