Avant garde street performance, politically charged theatre, pro-democracy music and poetry— powerful works of art dealing with China’s bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown that were once commonplace in Hong Kong have all but disappeared in recent years.
For decades, tens of thousands of people gathered annually in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park for a candlelight vigil marking June 4, 1989, when Chinese troops moved into Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to quell peaceful protests calling for reforms.
Hundreds, by some estimates more than 1,000, were killed in the crackdown.
Any mention of the day—let alone commemoration—has long been forbidden in mainland China, but the massive turnout every year in Victoria Park stood as an enduring symbol of the special freedoms Hong Kong enjoyed, even after its return to Chinese rule.
But since Beijing imposed a national security law on the city in 2020 to quash dissent, authorities have suppressed public events mourning the Tiananmen crackdown, and artistic output commemorating the pivotal day has shriveled.
Hong Kong artist Luk Ming remembers how more than a dozen people took part in interpretive performances in the bustling district of Causeway Bay on the anniversary’s eve in 2009.
“The performers were not artists, but the everyman – there was a taxi driver, a teacher, and so on,” Luk told AFP, using a pseudonym due to fear of repercussions.
As part of the “Our Generation’s June 4” art project, some performers had covered their bodies with yellow paint—a color associated with the city’s pro-democracy camp—as a representation of “freedom and hope,” Luk said.
“People were proactive then… with many trying to tell others about the crackdown lest we forget.”
Though a few hardcore artists might try to sustain the tradition, he added, “will they continue to put it out there under so much uncertainty?”
Just last year, on the day before the anniversary, artist Chan Mei-tung was bundled into a police van mid-performance for “misconduct in public places” and detained overnight.
The offending piece had seen her whittle a potato into the shape of a candle – once distributed by the thousands at the annual Tiananmen vigil – and hold a lighter to it.
In 2019, Hong Kong was rocked by massive, and at times violent, protests over an unpopular bill that morphed into a months-long movement calling for broader democratic change.
The ensuing crackdown saw more than 10,000 people arrested, though more than 6,000 have yet to be formally charged.
Meanwhile, three organizers of the annual Tiananmen vigil have been charged with “incitement to subversion” under the national security law – an offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison.