On Hong Kong’s Tiananmen Museum

On Hong Kong’s Tiananmen Museum

A replica of the Goddess of Democracy in the June 4th Museum (courtesy of Denise Ho)

Last Saturday, April 26, marked the official opening of Hong Kong’s June 4th Museum, the world’s first permanent exhibition on the 1989 Tiananmen student movement. On the eve of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the pro-democracy protests and Beijing’s brutal crackdown, the museum—sponsored by the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements—opened with another kind of protest on its doorstep. Opponents of the museum rallied outside the entrance, and the international news media portrayed the moment as emblematic of the contention over Tiananmen’s commemoration. But two days later, the Foo Hoo Centre on Austin Road where the exhibition is housed shows no sign of the controversy. The tarnished tile office building, sandwiched between two bars advertising Corona and Carlsberg, is barely noticeable compared to the sprawling Hong Kong History Museum across the street.

Make no mistake: the June 4th Museum is a decidedly political monument. At first glance, the curation of the 800-square-foot exhibition on the fifth floor follows the conventions of contemporary museology. It has a timeline of events starting with the public mourning of liberal Party Secretary Hu Yaobang that sparked the movement. The display embeds QR codes into its text to allow visitors to download historical documents. A narrow passageway serves as a screening room for the videotaped oral histories of the bereaved Tiananmen Mothers. At the exhibition’s core is an interactive multimedia display, a projected map of Beijing that marks the sites of violence and death.

On closer inspection, the museum is an activist text. On the first panel the victims of Tiananmen are described as martyrs. The museum’s mission statement, reprinted in the pamphlets, lists its goals as rehabilitating June 4th and replacing one-party rule with democracy. In addition to postcards, the gift shop offers T-shirts in support of the Tiananmen Mothers, free bookmarks in honor of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, and USB drives pre-loaded with historical documents. Lee Cheuk-yan, organizer and chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance, explained in an interview with Voice of America that the museum was designed to inspire two impulses. The exhibition, laid out like a labyrinth, should first prompt despair, Lee said. But as the implied mainland visitor exits past a shelf of Tiananmen-related books and then a replica of the Goddess of Democracy, he or she should feel a surge of hope. The visitor, Lee hopes, might return to China—perhaps with USB drive in hand—to “strive for democracy.”

The organizers also intend for the June 4th Museum to be a public space, although—opening day controversy excepted—it is unclear how it will function as such. Its lack of open space means that visitors can do little more than walk through, and on the day I visited, conversation was limited: only one person was quietly translating for his companion.  One feature of the exhibition space that commentators haven’t noted is a slender horizontal length of chalkboard that runs across the timeline. Mimicking the “big character posters” that have been part of China’s political protest repertoire for almost a century, the chalkboard invites visitors to leave  ephemeral comments. On this quiet Monday afternoon, one such comment read, “The Party is like a wave of foul water. In the long river of history, it will quickly disappear without a trace.” It was unclear whether this and other statements were written by museum organizers or by visitors; a test of the museum as a true public space may lie in whether alternative views can also be chalked.

Ultimately, Hong Kong’s June 4th Museum is as much about memory as about history. Running parallel to the Tiananmen timeline is a facing wall that describes efforts in Hong Kong and among overseas organizations to “never forget June 4th.” The exhibition’s final section includes a poster advertising this year’s upcoming demonstration and vigil. A few steps away, the Goddess of Democracy is flanked on one side by images of Tiananmen and on the other by a wall-sized photograph of Hong Kong’s Victoria Park, innumerable candles flickering in the dark. Only in Hong Kong, the museum suggests, can this sort of remembrance take place.

The fate of the June 4th Museum remains to be seen. The controversy leading up to its opening pitted other tenants of the office building against the Hong Kong Alliance, and members of a self-styled 6.4 Truth Group—which parrots the official Communist Party verdict that the student movement was a riot and a threat to China’s economic development—against the museum’s supporters. Whether and how the museum’s opponents are politically motivated, however, may ultimately matter less than the logistical difficulties it faces: the museum is difficult to find; its space is so cramped that visitors clog the exhibition’s maze; texts are so far not translated into English; and it altogether lacks the facilities to be a real public space. Finally, the June 4th Museum’s activist bent may hinder it from gaining mainstream acceptance. But if the Alliance’s goals of openness and democracy are one day achieved, there will be a true public reckoning of the Tiananmen student movement; perhaps, in this way, the current June 4th Museum is designed for obsolescence.

Denise Y. Ho is an assistant professor in the Centre for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

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