Avant garde street performance, politically charged theater, pro-democracy music and poetry — powerful works of art dealing with China’s bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown that were once commonplace in Hong Kong have all but disappeared in recent years.
For decades, tens of thousands of people gathered annually in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park for a candlelight vigil marking June 4, 1989, when Chinese troops moved into Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to quell peaceful protests calling for reforms.
Hundreds, by some estimates more than 1,000, were killed in the crackdown.
Any mention of the day — let alone commemoration — has long been forbidden in mainland China, but the massive turnout every year in Victoria Park stood as an enduring symbol of the special freedoms Hong Kong enjoyed, even after its return to Chinese rule. But since Beijing imposed a national security law on the city in 2020 to quash dissent, authorities have suppressed public events mourning the Tiananmen crackdown, and artistic output commemorating the pivotal day has shriveled.
Hong Kong artist Luk Ming remembers how more than a dozen people took part in interpretive performances in the bustling district of Causeway Bay on the anniversary’s eve in 2009.
“The performers were not artists, but the everyman — there was a taxi driver, a teacher, and so on,” Luk said, using a pseudonym due to fear of repercussions.
As part of the “Our Generation’s June 4” art project, some performers had covered their bodies with yellow paint — a color associated with the city’s pro-democracy camp — as a representation of “freedom and hope,” Luk said.
“People were proactive then... with many trying to tell others about the crackdown lest we forget.”
Though a few hardcore artists might try to sustain the tradition, he added, “will they continue to put it out there under so much uncertainty?”
Just last year, on the day before the anniversary, artist Chan Mei-tung was bundled into a police van mid-performance for “misconduct in public places” and detained overnight.
The offending piece had seen her whittle a potato into the shape of a candle — once distributed by the thousands at the annual Tiananmen vigil — and hold a lighter to it.
‘SAFEGUARD A MEMORY’
In 2019, Hong Kong was rocked by massive, and at times violent, protests over an unpopular bill that morphed into a months-long movement calling for broader democratic change. The ensuing crackdown saw more than 10,000 people arrested, though more than 6,000 have yet to be formally charged.
Meanwhile, three organizers of the annual Tiananmen vigil have been charged with “incitement to subversion” under the national security law — an offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison. There has also been what amounts to an erasure of Hong Kong’s public memorials to Tiananmen: a museum run by the vigil’s organizers was shuttered, monuments were removed from universities and dozens of books about the 1989 crackdown were pulled from libraries.
For the fourth year running, June 4 is expected to be a neutered affair. Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee (李家超) has issued vague warnings that “any act that is in breach of the law” will see police enforcement. Given the climate in Hong Kong, some artists have transplanted their works to more receptive soil.
For the past three years, Lenny Kwok, a Hong Kong musician who has organized commemorative concerts since 1990, has hosted an operetta marking the anniversary in Taiwan.
A mixture of music, poetry and storytelling, the show will open this year in a Taipei park with the reading of a poem by Nobel laureate Nelly Sachs, who fled Nazi rule during World War II.
“All the nations are ready to rise up from the map,” the poem begins.
Kwok said he believes the desire for freedom and democracy in both Hong Kong and Taiwan is closely connected to the Tiananmen incident.
“We are here to safeguard a memory that is being gradually erased, rewritten and re-interpreted,” he said.
‘CONNECT WITH ART’
Taiwan will also see a performance of 35th of May, a stage drama by Hong Kong playwright Candace Chong, on the anniversary weekend. The play — its name a coded reference to June 4, mentions of which are censored in China — follows an elderly couple’s decision to openly mourn their son who died in Tiananmen Square after decades of grieving silently. It debuted in Hong Kong in 2019, but the troupe that originally produced it, Stage 64, disbanded two years later.
Stage 64’s founder Lit Ming-wai translated the script from Cantonese — Hong Kong’s native tongue — into Mandarin and English for Taiwanese audiences. She said she still felt the “boundaryless power” of Hong Kong’s security law, even when publishing the script in Taiwan.
For example, the play’s original tagline — “Unveil the memories once displaced; confront the abnormal red line” — was changed due to legal concerns from the publishing house. It is now “On the 35th of May, let’s meet in the open.”
The six showings have been booked out by more than 1,000 people. Taiwanese director Chung Po-yuan (鍾伯淵) said he hoped the play would push the audience to reflect on the island’s authoritarian past, while thinking about their future in the face of China’s claim over the self-ruled democracy.
“If we lose our guard, it may recur in the future,” Chung said.
For more than four decades, all students in Taiwan, up to the university level, were mandated to take “Sun Yat-sen Thought” (國父思想) classes. Based on the Republic of China founder’s Three Principles of the People political ideology, they also contained anti-communist sentiments and patriotic Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) propaganda. After the lifting of martial law in 1987, students began calling for more academic freedom and for schools to be free of government interference. On Sept. 19, 1990, representatives from eight departments at National Taiwan University (NTU) released a joint statement asking the Department of Education to make the course an
When Japan’s military got word about Operation Causeway, an all-out invasion of Taiwan the Americans were considering in 1944, they set about preparing their defenses. In one location in the south, an enormous complex of bunkers, tunnels, pillboxes and command posts was dug into a mountain overlooking the beach where it was anticipated the Americans would try to land. This reminder of the bloody invasion that could have been now lies abandoned but mostly intact in Pingtung County’s Fangliao (枋寮) Township. After sitting dormant for decades, this complex — known as the Stone Barracks (石頭營) in Chinese — found itself in
At the Brics summit in South Africa in August, Xi Jinping (習近平) made headlines when he failed to appear at a leaders’ meeting to deliver a scheduled speech. Another scene also did the rounds: a Chinese aide hurrying to catch up with Xi, only to be body slammed by security guards and held back, flailing, as the president cruised on through the closing doors, not bothered by the chaos behind him. The first incident prompted rampant speculation about Xi’s health, a political crisis or conspiracy. The second, mostly memes. But it perhaps served as a metaphor. Xi has had a rough few
A recent report by TaiwanPlus presented a widely believed factoid about solar photovoltaic (PV) power farms: “they take precious land away from agriculture.” Similarly, a Reuters piece from August last year contends that agricultural land in Taiwan is precious and that “there is little room for sprawling wind and solar farms, which take up significantly more space than conventional energy sources.” Both of Reuters’ claims are false. There is plenty of room in Taiwan for all the renewable energy systems we need. Our problem is not a lack of land, but Taiwan’s crazed land management policies and programs. An excellent