I’m walking across campus with two of my kids when they point to a long black poster set between some buildings. They say something I don’t catch.
“Huh?” I’m tired and hot. It’s late May and Hong Kong’s mild spring is beginning to give way to the sort of weather that glues your shirt to your body the second you walk out the door. All I want to do is get back to the flat, crank the AC, and lie on the couch with a remote control and something cold and wet.
“It’s a six,” Lucy says, who would know, because that’s her age. She points to a Chinese character in large white paint. Then she moves her finger. “And a four.”
“Yeah,” says Will. “A six and a four. But just them. It doesn’t mean anything.”
“Maybe it’s sixty-four,” I say, leaning my body in the direction of home, hoping they’ll get the hint. But they stand their ground.
“No,” says Will. He’s nine, and knows Mandarin better than his sister. “Then it would be six-ten-four.”
“It doesn’t make any sense,” Lucy says, repeating her brother.
But it does, of course. Earlier that same month, the members of the faculty office I’ve been with during my year in Asia were planning a meeting to coordinate a number of task force working groups. In total, fifteen people would need to be invited, and it was turning out to be difficult to find a day and time that worked for everyone.
“What about the second week of June?” said K.S., the acting director of the program.
“I have a two-day workshop,” I told him. “How about the first week?”
Everyone looked at their planners. “The first?” said William.
“I have a practicum,” K.S. said.
I shook my head. “At a conference at Poly. What about the fourth? My book is blank on that day.”
William’s head shot up. He stared at me. K.S. actually laughed. “You can come that day,” he said, “but I won’t be here.”
Twenty-one 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-even-semi-famous alternative rock quartet, Don’t Kick the Baby. My high school friend Steve was visiting that spring, and he and I were having a grand old time, going up to St. Aidan’s College to flirt with English girls and drink beer, then stumbling down to the city center in the wee hours to stuff our faces with greasy kebabs and raw onions.
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 that year, and I remember Steve and I leaping up and actually slapping high fives, sort of a bizarre response for two would-be hippie peace freaks.
And there was this thing in China, these students protesting in this square we’d never heard of before. 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 the Soviet Union. And there was Lech Walesa in Poland, and the solidarity movement. Quietly but steadily, the world was changing — oppressive regimes were coming down. The world was becoming a better place.
Early during our stay in Hong Kong, our neighbors Anita and Colin took us to Victoria Park, down on Hong Kong Island, to celebrate the Mid-autumn Festival. Glowing red lanterns hung everywhere and families wandered from stage to stage, taking in the Peking Opera, the shadow puppets, the traditional dance shows. There was popcorn, the first we’d had since coming to Asia, slightly burned and sticky with sugar.
“We do this in the fall,” our friend, 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 for a moment too long.
Her voice dropped in pitch, but not in volume. “Tiananmen Square,” she said. “Tiananmen Square.”
So on June 4th, 2010, our family piles into Anita’s car, along with her husband Colin and their two kids, to head back down to Victoria Park. We’d told our kids 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 to the Island, Anita talks about the original vigil, twenty-one years ago, about how nearly twenty percent of Hong Kong’s population showed up, spontaneously, the night after the massacre, protesting the slaughter of students by soldiers of their own country. Anita is not one to show emotion, and she does not get choked up as she speaks of these events. Rather, you can tell that she’s proud of Hong Kong, of how this tiny region that knew it would be handed over to China a mere eight years later, 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 pair of speakers. We’re directed into a roped off area in a slightly damp field. Over the trees and in every direction you can see that famous Hong Kong skyline, Lego-block apartment buildings stretching up like fingers, flickering with the blue lights of a hundreds of televisions. Opposite them stand dozens of glass-and-steel bank buildings and corporate offices, many of them trimmed with flashing neon lights.
“Where are we?” I say to Anita. There’s no stage, no microphones, no video screen—just grass and people and a lot of speakers. “Is this the main venue?”
She shakes her head. Overflow, she says. We arrived too late. The main event is off to the right, in front of us, near a stadium. There, she tells me, there’s a stage and microphones and huge 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 whine of sirens. It’s a sampling, of course, and the song is a protest song — of course. Once that tune finishes, another begins, less bass and drum 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. It’s all in Cantonese and Putongua, the Beijing dialect of Mandarin, 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 in the People’s Republic isn’t so much illegal as just not done. This matches something one of my colleagues from the mainland had told me earlier in the day as we were strolling past those black banners on campus.
“Does anyone up there discuss what happened?” I’d asked.
The words weren’t even out of my mouth before Anna cut in: “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 is discussing it. No one does.”
That very morning, the South China Morning Post had carried a story about witnesses to the massacre. It described how, over the years, they’d struggled to cope with what they’d seen — legs crushed by tanks, brains splattered onto the hands and clothes of university classmates — all the while having no outlet to express their anger. Many, the newspaper said, protested by pulling on the same black shirt they’d worn that night in 1989; others simply wore white, the traditional color of mourning in China.
Now, tonight, we sit on a sheet of narrow plastic Anita brought to protect us from the damp ground and 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. Behind her plays a single erhu, the traditional two-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.
The woman finishes, and then there’s another protest song, more mainstream pop this time, with a rousing chorus that, each time it occurs, seems to swell the collective 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 goings on, I can see his mouth stretch with each rounded “O,” and pull wide with every “E” sound. All around us, you can hear people singing heartily, lustily, almost joyfully — voices filled with that same note of pride that Anita’s held in the car.
They pass out candles. The kids are fascinated. They drip wax onto their fingers, into the grass, onto the plastic, trying to build wrinkled castles out of the melt. The next speaker is the wife of a dissident who was jailed for railing against the government after a recent round of earthquakes and collapsed buildings in China. After her is someone younger. He speaks earnestly and eloquently for a while, then breaks into a call and response, shouting phrases to the crowd, who holler back sixty thousand times louder. Every time this occurs, in the bare second between the shouts of the crowd and the next call of the speaker, you can hear the 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 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 the economy under control, and which seems to be making the right decisions, at least for the moment: China’s economy has grown between six and ten percent every year for the last decade. For the most part it was unscathed by the recent banking crisis. And it only knows the concept of trade imbalance from the grip end of the pistol. Who wouldn’t want to dance with that guy?
But then there is Tiananmen Square. Maybe it would be different if the Chinese government demonstrated some regret for what, in the People’s Republic, is simply referred to (if it is referred to at all) as “the 1989 incident.” Almost immediately after the death of Mao, for example, the Cultural Revolution was declared an unconditional failure, and Mao’s wife and her cronies were prosecuted for its execution. Twenty-plus years after Tiananmen, however, there’s no move to revise history, no attempt on the part of the government to redeem itself by admitting over zealousness in attacking unarmed students with machine guns, shooting them down as they attempted to flee on their bicycles. Indeed, almost the opposite seems true: consider the recently published diaries of Li Peng, the premier during Tiananmen, in which he says, repeatedly, that he was prepared to die in order to stop the protesters.
Statistics are always difficult to read, particularly when trying to discern motive, but it’s worth noting that between 1990 and 1994, the number of people emigrating from Hong Kong never dropped below 50,000 per annum. This is almost ten times higher than the rate prior to 1989. That said, it should also be mentioned that there are those in Hong Kong who are unapologetic about their big brother to the north: in an attempt during the spring of 2010 to embarrass the PRC into allowing Hong Kong full democracy, a number of liberal politicians resigned from their posts, forcing midterm election as a de facto referendum on one person, one vote. Turnout for the maneuver was so low that even democracy-leaning supporters declared it a fiasco.
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, the crowd roaring its approval (albeit in a reserved, Hong Kong kind of way).
Then a student from Chinese University steps up to the microphone. The Chinese University of Hong Kong, 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 70th, more or less, internationally. It’s a beautiful place, nestled on and around a range of mountains over looking To Lo Harbor, in the northeastern territories. The students there are smart and engaged; strolling across campus even on a Friday night you’ll see clusters of them walking arm in arm, 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 tonight’s vigil. The council, led by a university president who is largely seen as pro-Beijing, declined. “The University,” he argued, “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 declaration is patently absurd: disallowing political activity is itself a political action. And the crowd knows it: when the young man from Chinese U repeats these words at the vigil, tens of thousands of voices roar with laughter.
Between speeches and songs, the announcers keep telling everyone how big the crowd has grown: 60,000 people, 90,000 people, 100,000 people. The police have now closed down streets to allow the overflow. The police started to turn people away, but have changed their minds. The police now estimate 150,000 people!
It is a night of numbers. I realize, for instance, that the protesters who were killed were the same age as Steve and I that spring in England, that had they lived they might now be stockbrokers and literature professors and proud parents of their own children. How this could have eluded 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 in tone, 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 on everyone’s mind, even if at the back, lingering like an uninvited guest. I’m sure, too, that 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 thirty-seven, the number of years until the handover. By this math, Enya, in Anita’s lap, will be forty-three when Hong Kong becomes fully a part of the PRC, exactly Ellen’s age now. And Angus, Enya’s brother, will not even be forty.
Then the math continues, adding thirty-seven to the age of the parents. Thus, I would be eighty-one, likely not around, and Anita, younger than me, would be in her late seventies. And of course this second calculus has nothing to do with self-preservation; instead, it’s all about the desire, projected forty years out, to protect the wee ones sitting now in their laps, dripping wax into the darkened grass, holding their fingers above the flames, trying not to get burned.
Lok Say was first published in The Laurel Review, Volume 46 Number 1, 2012
Paul Hanstedt is an educator, writer, traveler, and father of three. Raised in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, he flew to Africa at the age of 20 to meet a friend and promptly got lost. He’s been getting lost ever since, having visited thirty different countries on four different continents, and living for extensive periods of time in Durham, England, and Hong Kong, where he took his family in 2009 as part of a special Fulbright program looking at general education. He has been a professor of English and creative writing for fifteen years and is the editor of the national literary journal The Roanoke Review. His work has appeared in Puerto Del Sol, Confrontation, Writing on the Edge, the Beloit Fiction Journal, MLA’s The Profession, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Brain, Child, for which he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His memoir of his family’s sojourn in Hong Kong was published in 2012: Hong Konged: One Modern American Family’s (Mis)adventures in the Gateway to China.