Tiananmen Square remembered: How can we forget June 4?

By Tammy Ho Lai-ming

Tammy Ho Lai-ming is the President of PEN HK, a Hong Kong-based writers’ society, and the founding co-editor of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal

By Tammy Ho Lai-ming |

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Against the night, candles shine in remembrance of those who lost their lives on June 4, 1989.

I grew up in a public housing estate in Tuen Mun. My parents were like any others in those days: strict but fair. There were many rules we had to follow, such as not being allowed to watch television after nine o’clock at night. It was a rule that my sisters and I were so used to we hardly noticed it.

One night, however, we were made aware of the rule once again, because it was broken. I don’t remember what the weather was like that night in Hong Kong or what I was wearing. It might have been my Hello Kitty pyjamas. But I remember I had already finished my homework and packed my textbooks away for school the next day. I also remember the television did not get switched off at nine. It stayed on for hours afterwards.

Flickering on the screen were images of Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The images were unclear and only intermittently divulged what was happening. It was chaotic. It was dark. And loud. Chinese students and citizens fighting for democracy and freedom were being attacked in the streets and murdered. Their voices snuffed out. Their government silencing them with brutal impunity. The horror of this was that the motherland lacked any maternal care. It was the sow eating her farrow.

I cannot pretend I understood everything back then and I don’t know how much of what I remember has been coloured by what I have read and learned, in an obsessive quest for the truth, in the years since. I was only a little girl who one night was allowed to stay up very late, stare at the television, and listen to my parents silently weep. But some images, once seen, are imprinted on the memory, affecting and forever defining your being, whether you wish it or not.

Thirty years on, despite repeated international condemnation, despite countless photographs, reports, and footage documenting that night, there is still no hope of the Chinese government admitting what happened, of owning up to how many people were killed. So many of the fighters for democracy were so young, so full of life, hopeful of a better tomorrow, a better China. Their existence was cruelly caught forever in an abrupt freeze-frame that night.

I am most emotional when I see the aged faces of the Tiananmen Mothers. They thank us Hongkongers for our annual June 4 candlelight vigil. Against the dark night our candles collectively shine, light up the streets, creating a man-made sea of amber, of remembrance. They thank us for remembering on their behalf, on their children’s behalf, to do what they cannot in public.

But how can we forget? How can we dare forget? We remember, so others will also remember, so that that June night is not submerged under a deluge of celebrity gossip, news of tech moguls and TV shows. If a government is unable and unwilling to tell the truth, there will be many more lies, many more decades of self-deception. How can one love a government that cannot be honest?

Edited by Charlotte Ames-Ettridge

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