We arrived at the coffee shop and nipped into the loos to change out of our work clothes into our democracy t-shirts: mine was white with a black and red outline image of the tanks in Tienanmen Square, white Chinese characters and black English lettering reading ‘Support the Mothers of Tienanmen‘. It was 14 years since the democracy protests in Beijing had been brutally crushed on June 4th by the Chinese government. We were living in Hong Kong at the time – that beating heart of capitalism, a place where, outsiders assume, no one cares about anything except money, and politics is not important. The year before Hong Kong had been ‘handed over’ to China, or ‘returned’ as the Chinese government put it. You’d think this would be the last time that anyone in Hong Kong would want to remember Tienanmen Square.
Far from it. As we wandered into Victoria Park, past the Urban Council-run tennis courts and the soft drinks vendors, we searched and searched for a spare bit of grass to stake out with our candles and our picnic dinner. The place was packed. Middle-aged women had come straight from work via the market – veg for their dinner spilling out of string bags, aching feet slipped out of shoes and stockings pulled off so that feet could feel the cool air and the soft grass. Students came straight from college in chattering groups, swinging their book bags. In front of us were a mother and father with two little girls who were wearing ballet outfits – they had come straight from their after school ballet club, and during the evening, in between singalongs and speeches they bent their heads to their notebooks and got on with their homework.
It was an evening of memorial – in front of a replica statue of the Goddess of Democracy, students enacted plays and re-enacted moments from the Beijing protests, writers read poems and witnesses recalled events in the square, a mother of one of the students killed told her story, and democracy campaigners spoke passionately, taking us from re-membering the past to looking to the future. We sang songs of courage from that time, and new songs of hope. The evening was powerful and stirring, and I remember that as we left the park we shook the hands of strangers and picked litter together in a collective act of respect for this public gathering place.
But my most abiding memory of that evening is of the ordinariness of everyone in that park, and of the way that they brought their lives with them that evening; that this commemoration, this memorial – unique as the only public demonstration commemorating Tienanmen to take place on Chinese soil – was so much a part of everyone’s daily lives. The powerful proof that the cynical foreigners were wrong, and that Hong Kong people, like people everywhere, believe they have a right to democracy.