Olivia Cheng and Siaw Hew Wah | China Change
Keeping the memory alive: the June 4 Memorial Museum
Who will maintain the historical record and collective memory if, one day, the people of Hong Kong forget the events of June 4?
Before 1997, a Netherlands-based international organization supporting social movements once offered funding for the Hong Kong Alliance to archive and make backups of documents from the 1989 democracy movement. This year, in an ominous twist, the same organization has come knocking again in 2021, and this time around it felt like the end was near, given the menacing National Security Law.
On July 18, 1989, the Alliance created its Center for Materials on the Chinese Democracy Movement (中國民主運動資料中心).
Current Standing Committee member Mak Hoi-wah (麥海華) remembers that the Center was located on the third floor of the Portland Building (砵蘭街大廈) on the street of the same name. The room, only over 200 square feet, was used for meetings. Father Louis Ha Ke Loon (夏其龍), then an Alliance standing committee member and director of the Hong Kong Catholic Social Communications Office (香港天主教社會傳播處), was a man of foresight. He had a habit of saving newspaper clippings, and as a result, had already accumulated a large selection of historically relevant materials from the beginning to the end of the democracy movement in China. It was also Ha’s idea to compile the four-volume Album of the 1989 Chinese Democracy Movement (《八九中國民運專輯》). It included about a dozen newspaper front pages, advertisements, photo collections, and such from the period between mid-April and the end of June 1989, compiled by a group of more than 30 volunteers working at an expedited pace. The Album was published on November, and the Center continues to operate today, its main work being the management of relevant historical documents.
Mak, who in the era of the national security law is chairman of the Alliance’s June 4th Museum Management Committee, says that the Alliance has no way of preserving physical artifacts from 1989, such as the bullet that hit student leader Zhang Jian (張健) in the leg during the Tiananmen massacre. He had once considered using 3D printing to copy the bullet, but shelved the idea due to the lack of authenticity.
Since 2012, the June 4th Museum has set up two temporary exhibition halls. Thanks to crowdfunding, it was able to establish its first permanent venue in Tsim Sha Tsui (尖沙咀). But the property owner filed a lawsuit against the Museum for allegedly using the space for non-contracted purposes, and evicted it. After a three-year hiatus, the Museum relocated to its current location, where it reopened in 2019. Since then, it has met with repeated interference from pro-establishment groups, such as having salt water splashed on the premises to prevent the opening of a permanent museum. Currently, it is closed on weekdays and not open to the public when there are no special exhibitions on display.
This year , from May 31 to June 6, the June 4th Museum produced a recreation of the scene at Tiananmen in 1989, as part of an exhibition titled “The 1989 Democracy Movement and Hong Kong” (八九民運與香港), for Hongkongers to lay flowers.
This year , the June 4 anniversary parade and rally were banned. The June 4th Museum was originally scheduled to operate until 10 p.m. on the night of June 4, but after 550 people visited the museum in three days, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (食環署) ordered a temporary closure on the grounds that the facility had not obtained a public entertainment license. Tsoi Yiu Cheong (蔡耀昌) suspects a political motive behind the Department’s decision.
With the physical location of the Museum under threat, the Alliance has sought breathing room in cyberspace. The online “Remembering Tiananmen: A Human Rights Museum” (六四記憶・人權博物館) was crowdfunded, receiving more than 1.6 million HKD in donations from 1,866 supporters — enough to complete the project and set up a professional team to conduct research, manage archives, and perform technical and vocational duties necessary for documenting and displaying the history of the 1989 democracy movement. They would design an interactive online exhibition, reconstruct the democracy movement’s discourse of resistance, and make available the source code of the Museum for the benefit of other social movements. To protect itself against cyberattacks, the museum has servers in both Hong Kong and abroad. Mak Hoi-wah, who curates content for the project, hopes to collect hard-to-find records of the democracy movement from different parts of China and apply them to the UNESCO Memory of the World program sometime around these years, Tiananmen anniversary. His attachment to this mission is his reason for staying with the Alliance: “The least I can do is finish this job.”
Every year, the curatorial team discusses ideas for new exhibitions, including the tenth anniversary of the death of Szeto Wah (in 2011), the life of Hu Yaobang, and more. In 2019, the June 4th Museum held — in addition to a special exhibition on the fifth anniversary of the Umbrella Movement — an exhibit called “Walking at the Forefront Against Totalitarianism: From ‘8964’ to the Anti-Extradition Movement’” comparing the pro-democracy movement in 1989 and the massive protests that took Hong Kong by storm 30 years later. Mak Hoi-wah said that the management committee unanimously agreed to the idea pitch. “As a museum in Hong Kong, its own life depends on the continuation of social movements here in Hong Kong.”
It’s clear to see that even with the anomaly of the pandemic obfuscating the reasons for the drop in visits to the museum, the number of mainlanders has fallen the hardest. According to Mak, 15 groups visited, including parliamentary offices, churches, social movement organizations, youth centers, and so on. In the past, teachers led groups of secondary school students to see the Museum. Today, many students and their parents visit outside of school trips. And Mak remains convinced that the Museum is an important bastion in the fight to defend the memory of 1989.
The last vigil
Szeto Wah, in his memoir River of No Return, once wrote: “I used to tell Tung Chee-hwa (董建華, the first Chief Executive of Hong Kong SAR) that if the government doesn’t approve of us to gather at the Victoria Park, I will sit alone with a candle in my hand at the park and call for people to join me. Let’s see how the government deals with this. I never worried about the government using the approval process to suppress us.”
But that was what eventually happened. In 2020, in the name of reducing social gatherings, the authorities in an unprecedented move declined to issue a Letter of No Objection for the June 4 vigil at Victoria Park.
After people walked into the park, 26 pro-democracy activists were accused of participating in the “illegal” gathering. They went on the defense in two groups, and 11 of them were the Alliance’s standing committee members, including 8 current members. Albert Ho and Richard Tsoi faced charges of “inciting others to participate in unauthorized rallies.”
During the hearing of Joshua Wong and three others, the judge read the case and estimated that around 20,000 people had gathered that night. Leung Kam-wai (梁錦威) said he heard people shouting “end one-party dictatorship, create a democratic China,” and “Liberate Hong Kong, a revolution of our times.” It was the most mesmerizing scene that Leung had seen in recent years, he described it simply as “extraordinary.” The Alliance was at one point accused of “monopolizing” the movement, but the circumstances of shared resistance dissolved the misunderstandings with the localists and helped bring the two camps together. “Because of what happened after 2019…we are facing suppression together, and because of that we are now able to understand, support, and cooperate with each other,” Leung said.
Everything was normal until that normality was no more. In February , during the Lunar New Year Fair at Victoria Park, the Alliance planned their usual activity of selling flowers at street stalls. But this time, they were stopped before they could begin. The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department initially only demanded the removal of banners calling for donations to support the activists charged for last year’s June 4 vigil but eventually canceled the contract altogether. The Alliance was forced to pack up. At 7 a.m., Leung sought help from Clarisse Yeung Suet-ying (楊雪盈), chairwoman of the Wan Chai District Council, to help dispose of the remaining flowers.
“During a time of peace and calm, you may think that holding onto rituals is outmoded,” Lo Wai Ming (盧偉明) said. “But in the moment of peril, even [something as insignificant as] ritual can be a blessing of its own.”
Alliance leaders were imprisoned, threatening the transmission of memory
The remaining defendants in the June 4 case will have their hearings on June 11 [this part of the Stand News original feature was published on June 2, 2021– China Change editors]. All eight of the Alliance Standing Committee members have cases opened against them.
On April 30, the night before Joshua Wong Chi-fung (黃之鋒) and three others pleaded guilty, Chow Hang-tung (鄒幸彤) invited Figo Chan Ho-wun (陳皓桓) to drink until well after midnight. Nevertheless, she got up at 6:30 in the morning to stand with Albert Ho, Leung Kam-wai, and Tsui Hon-kwong (徐漢光) outside the court, holding placards of support bearing the line “It is no crime to light a candle.” Receiving the number “64” on her waiting ticket to enter the court, she remarked, “that’s the invisible hand of destiny at work.” Then, apologetically, “Our Alliance should have taken full responsibility for this situation, but the fact that so many people have been implicated is regrettably beyond our control.”
A week later, Joshua Wong and others ended up being sentenced to between 4 and 10 months, to everyone’s surprise.
In front of the spotlight, Chow criticized the court as having “completely erased the line between violent assembly and peaceful assembly.” She continued that freedom of procession and assembly is a human right, and the government can still hold public events and has the responsibility to coordinate with the organizers to promote peaceful assemblies.
“The message from the court trial is that all assembly and political expression needs to be nipped in the bud. This is wrong, it is not in line with the international norms of human rights, and it is not in line with the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed in our Basic Law, [which serves as] our constitution. Expressing political opposition is not a crime.”
She added: “The judge has repeatedly emphasized that no one has more freedom than anyone else, but that all those who express political opposition will lose their freedom.”
Since then, the pro-establishment outlet HK01 cited sources as saying that there would be a large-scale arrest operation of protesters marking the Tiananmen anniversary in Victoria Park, and that the action would be carried out with unprecedented severity. On May 29, after an appeal to allow the rally was dismissed, the Security Bureau issued another statement warning the public not to participate in, promote, or support the June 4 march and rally, lest they break the law.
The Alliance stopped all publicity efforts, stating that members of the Standing Committee and volunteers would not enter Victoria Park in the organization’s name.
Back in mid-May, the Alliance standing committee members invited the media to cover its routine meeting. On camera, vice chair Albert Ho is seen seated in the center presiding over the discussion. Smiling, he said, “The chair (the imprisoned Lee Cheuk-yan) is on a long vacation, and the vice chair is about to go on an extended vacation as well.” Everyone laughed, then he quickly flipped through the agenda and held the meeting as usual.
That night, the crowd debated for three hours over this year’s June 4 arrangements. Wong Chi-keung (黃志強) recalls it began at 7 p.m. and lasted until 10, and ended without any decision.
Everyone had their own positions. Mak Hoi-wah and others believed that so as to preserve a “force-in-being” and avoid decimating the Alliance, members should not enter Victoria Park. Tang Ngok-kwan (鄧岳君) and still others advocated going to the park — and bearing any consequences — as individuals.
At the time of the interview in early May, Albert Ho had already foreseen that he would be imprisoned for his role in the October First National Day protest march in 2019. He thinks that the decision about this year’s vigil should be decided by people not associated with the Alliance. “The police don’t approved on this, so I think we shouldn’t do it, because even though we are not afraid of going to jail, we don’t want our volunteers or others to not be aware of the circumstances, come and participate, and end up in court proceedings over the next 12 months with three to four months in jail.”
As a lawyer, Ho often receives legal inquiries and often visits the prisoners, such as Lee Cheuk-yan, Jimmy Lai (黎智英), or Andrew Wan Siu-kin (尹兆堅), who was involved in a June 4 anniversary case from 2020. “Many people were charged, all of them from the Alliance… A lot of comrades in arms, a good number of people younger than me, and those with less experience than me were all locked up, and I felt terrible. It wouldn’t be so bad if they put me in jail.”
On the day his appeal was rejected, Richard Tsoi, who had been sentenced to imprisonment in the case of the October First National Day march but had this commuted to a suspended sentence, affirmed: “I must return to Victoria Park in the future.” Chow Hang-tung posted on Facebook to declare that she would personally keep her promise, and “light a candle where everyone can see it.”
She would not allow the faith that the Alliance had held onto for 30 years to be extinguished on her watch. “If they want to come, they will come, and if they want to ban it, they will ban it. We ourselves have no reason to back down.” She said, “Everyone who insists on mourning June 4 does so in the way they are most capable of and comfortable with.”
None of the imprisoned Standing Committee members have resigned. Leung Kam-wai mentioned that although at the regular meeting, in light of the risk posed by the National Security Law, the committee once considered disbanding the group, the proposal was quickly shot down, and everyone unanimously decided to hold the line, even if this would bring greater and more foreseeable personal repercussions.
Five or six years ago when Chow Hang-tung often traveled between Hong Kong and mainland China to participate in the rights defense movement, she once left a letter in advance, to be delivered to her family in the event that something happened to her. Nowadays, her mother told her, “you have a good chance of going to prison,” calling her “selfish” for only pursuing her own ideals. But compared with the torture and secret detention that Chinese human rights activists face, political prisoners in Hong Kong can still write letters and speak out from behind bars.
“Prison is not the end. To put it bluntly, while you’re in jail you can still call upon others to go to Victoria Park to commemorate June 4,” she said, “while our allies in China would go on hunger strike when they are in prison. Things are better in Hong Kong than in mainland China. You can write letters and articles, and still have the ability to communicate; you just can’t see people.”
Though candlelight may fade, the spirit is not extinguished.
After June 4 this year, Mak Hoi-wah and the other seven members of the Standing Committee will face trial, with their future uncertain each step of the way. What would happen in the event that the Alliance itself is banned? “Then Hong Kong will be finished. There will be no freedom and no different voices in Hong Kong. [It means that ] even an organization that advocates peaceful, rational, and legal resistance cannot exist.”
Mak said, “they’re afraid of you assembling, that you’ve got an icon, that you’ve got an event to be involved in, that you’re giving people a voice, that’s exactly what they’re afraid of.”
This year, as the anniversary of June 4 draws near, the prospect of vindicating the 1989 movement seems further out of reach than ever before. Various media reports indicated that the police would deploy 3,000 police officers in Victoria Park, at the East Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade (尖東海傍), around the PRC’s Hong Kong Liaison Office, and other key areas on the night of June 4; anyone wearing black clothes, wearing masks, and lighting candles would be treated as being involved in an illegal gathering. Chairman Lee Cheuk-yan, who was held in the Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre (荔枝角收押所) wrote to the media the other day, calling upon the public to “gather points into lines and lines into planes,” mourn anywhere and upload photos of candlelight on the internet. Meanwhile, Lee himself vowed to fast for one day in his prison cell, light a cigarette instead of a candle, read aloud a statement, and sing the song “Flowers of Freedom” (《自由花》). In 1993, when the pro-democracy activist Wang Xizhe (王希哲) was released and met with reporters, he sang the song “Sailor” (《水手》) when he met reporters. Later on, Alliance members invited lyricist Thomas Chow (周禮茂) to rewrite the lyrics, and “Flowers of Freedom” was born.
“For Freedom” (《為自由》), written in the heat of the 1989 pro-democracy movement, speaks to the unstoppable ambition of freedom, while “Flowers of Freedom” is about remembrance: the past may have receded afar, but candlelight burns and faith remains strong.
‘Remember there is a dream that will never die!’
Over the last 30 years, Wong Chi-keung (黃志強) was particularly stricken by the June 4 candlelight vigil of 2013. A sudden violent storm cut off all electricity powering the lighting and the audio system, yet tens of thousands of mourners opted to stay.
On that dark night with pouring rain, everyone held up colorful umbrellas and did their best to protect their candlelight. In the crowd, someone started singing Flower of Freedom: “remember there is a dream that will never die! No matter how hard the rain hits, freedom will still blossom…” But for Wong, it had a warming effect in the chilly downpour. He had never heard “Flowers of Freedom” sung so spontaneously by the crowd, without any choreography.
With no more vigil, would such a burst of Flowers of Freedom become the swan song? “Who knows,” Wong laughed. “You just may hear someone singing it in a sudden downpour.” He believes that the memory will live on, “they can ban activities at the one Victoria Park, but they can’t impose that ban on the whole of Hong Kong.”
The red lines and knife blades are closing in on physical activities in the city. Many online gatherings or venues, however, will remain open on the night of June 4, in hopes of gathering a crowd and keeping the light going.
On May 6, standing committee members of the Alliance washed the Pillar of Shame. The lacquer on the faces of the Pillar has peeled off over time. Facing the drizzle, Tsui Hon-kwong (徐漢光) wore his “combat uniform” from the tenth anniversary of June 4, with “redress June 4” written on the chest. He assured all present that he would work hard to keep up the people’s morale, “We will persevere until everyone is arrested and there’s no one left to stand up, when that happens we’ll sing a song in Stanley Prison,” he laughed.
Which song? A reporter asked. Tsui widened his eyes, “Flowers of Freedom, of course!”