The world’s first museum dedicated to the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square opened in Hong Kong last Saturday to mark the 25 year anniversary. Named the June 4 Memorial Museum, it hopes to educate the millions of mainland tourists who visit Hong Kong each year.
The violent suppression of student protests in Tiananmen Square remains a taboo topic in mainland China, banned from official discourse. Beijing considers the weeks of peaceful protest by students and workers a “counter-revolutionary” revolt and defends its decision to send in the army. To this day no official numbers of the death toll have been released and many young Chinese in particular are unaware of its occurrence.
Index visited the museum a few days after its launch. Located in the busy district of Tsim Sha Tsui, the bustling side streets of Hong Kong’s main Korean centre, the museum sits on the fifth floor of a commercial building. Inconspicuously sandwiched in the throngs of bars and Korean fried chicken joints, discretion is key. It’s easy to walk past the museum if you don’t know what you are looking for and signs of its existence are only given at the floor directory located by the elevator.
A curator at the museum tells Index that since its opening the museum has received around 300 visitors per day, with an even split between mainlanders and Hong Kong residents. At the time of our visit, there were mostly Hong Kong residents in attendance, with a sprinkling of mainland visitors. It’s also packed. Despite being a normal weekday and an hour before closing time, a queue weaves out the door. The sense of eagerness to discover something is palpable amongst the patrons.
The space is modest – 800 square feet in total – with both people and information meticulously squeezed in. School children browse through books and pamphlets found on a bookshelf. Some pose for pictures with a Goddess of Democracy statue located by the entrance. The statue is a replica of one created by the protesters in the days before the crackdown.
Copies of newspaper clippings, photos, videos and an interactive feature on the configuration of the protestors at Tiananmen Square, which went on for a month, are all on display. The centrepiece is a video of the Tiananmen Mothers, a group of activists personally affected by the protests, some of whom lost children or relatives in the crackdown. Testimonies given in the clips go through the agony of losing a university-aged child, and the subsequent upset of being forced to lie about the way their children died. They have been forbidden by the government, then and now, to reveal the truth.
One young woman, a tourist from mainland China, is visibly in tears as she watches the documentary. Others are less moved and some attendees have criticised the museum for not being sombre enough. A couple, also from the mainland, fiddle with the interactive feature found in the centre of the museum before the man, seemingly bored, says he wants to leave.
That visitors are here however, is a feat in and of itself. While free speech is protected in Hong Kong in theory under the One Country Two Systems agreement, closer ties to the Chinese mainland in recent years have led to incursions on free speech, as Index recently reported. In the weeks leading up to the museum’s unveiling many were sceptical about whether it would open at all. Occupants of the same building called for its closure, citing safety concerns. The museum’s backers believe Communist Party officials were behind these efforts. In another incident, Yang Jianli, a US-based activist who participated in the protests in 1989, was refused entry to Hong Kong to attend the opening ceremony. The launch was greeted by more protests from pro-China demonstrators.
Over in a small area by the exit, memorabilia is sold. USB memory drives are also available upon enquiry containing information and images related to the killings. Museum founders hope visitors will smuggle these over the border into mainland China, and in so doing force the Communist government to admit its crimes. They might be an overly optimistic aim, but at least the June 4 museum is confronting China’s recent past in an honest, open way.