HONG KONG – To find the world’s only museum chronicling the brutal crackdown on the 1989 Tiananmen protests, look for the skinny office building wedged between a Tibetan-themed pub and a sports bar on the edge of a Hong Kong tourist district — and take the elevator to its tiny fifth floor.
With nothing to indicate its location, aside from a listing in the lobby directory, passers-by may not know that this houses the June 4th Museum, dedicated to preserving the memory of one of the darkest periods in China’s recent past, through photographs, artifacts, videos and written testimony.
Yet a steady stream of visitors, many of them from mainland China, has been trickling in since the museum opened in April. The interest shows that even though authorities have deleted the events from China’s official record, memories flicker on in Hong Kong.
Twenty-five years on, the protests remain a taboo topic in mainland China, and Beijing has never given a full account of what happened during the crackdown that killed hundreds, possibly thousands. But in Hong Kong, which retains Western-style civil liberties unseen on the mainland, the memory of the Tiananmen protests is just one of many reminders of how the city’s differences with China continue to widen 17 years after it ceased to be a British colony. Every year the city holds a candlelight vigil to commemorate the victims that’s attended by tens of thousands, with numbers rising in recent years.
But otherwise, Hong Kong residents are more worried about the hordes of mainland visitors buying up everything from baby formula to luxury apartments.
“The world memory of it is fading and the younger generation doesn’t know of it in China, where it’s also banned,” said Lee Cheuk Yan, chairman of the Labour Party and head of the pro-democracy group that operates the museum. “So we think it’s very important for us to preserve this historical truth.”
Lee said the museum aims to challenge the Communist Party to overturn its official line that the mostly student-led protests were a “counterrevolutionary riot.”
His group, the Hong Kong Alliance In Support of Democratic Patriotic Movements in China, bought the space for nearly 10 million Hong Kong dollars ($1.3 million). But in a sign of the discomfort felt by some businesses about being associated with the Tiananmen protest, the building owners’ committee is taking the group to court. The committee says the office’s use as an exhibition hall violates regulations and that visitors would swamp the building’s two small elevators.
Lee is undeterred. “We are confident about our legal position,” he said.
But committee member Yeung Cho-ming, secretary-general of a plastic manufacturing trade group, told a newspaper in April that the museum is “definitely a political problem” and that they were afraid it would “bring us trouble.”
The museum, just 75 sq. meters (800 sq. feet), is hidden away on the fifth floor of the nondescript Foo Hoo Center in Kowloon’s Tsim Sha Tsui district.
Staffers say they see about 200 visitors a day on weekdays and 500 on weekends. About half are mainland Chinese.
The museum features a timeline of events, black-and-white news photos of scenes from those tumultuous days, including the famous shot of “Tank Man” — the lone protester who stood in front of a line of tanks.
Archival news footage of the student leaders is broadcast continuously on a computer tablet mounted on a wall. Another tablet shows a documentary in English. Nearly all the other exhibits are in Chinese.
A labyrinthine layout reflects “the maze which is the China of today,” according to its website.
Visitors walking down an L-shaped section turn into a brightly lit passageway before emerging in front of a 2-meter (6-foot) tall replica of the “Goddess of Democracy” statue that was famously erected by the protesters. A copy of the statue also appears every year at Hong Kong’s annual vigil.
A small screening room shows video interviews with parents talking about their sons or daughters killed in the square.
The museum’s 100 artifacts, 16,000 photos, 33 rolls of microfilm and hundreds of books and magazines will be rotated regularly. Visitors can write messages of support on a narrow chalkboard running the length of the wall.
Souvenirs on sale include USB memory sticks — some unmarked, others with logos — loaded with photos, documents and videos relating to the crackdown, as well as T-shirts, mugs and miniature “Goddess of Democracy” statues.
Penny Leung, visiting from Malaysia, was a high school student in Hong Kong in 1989. She said the museum was an important counterpoint to Beijing’s influence, which has been growing since it regained control of the city from Britain in 1997.
“Everyone should come, to see history, to view the truth because the Chinese government has been concealing the truth. They do not have the guts to face history,” said Leung, 42.
Wei Ying-jun, a photographer from Shanghai, said it was important to keep the memory of the protests alive.
“Nowadays in fact, mainland people in public situations, even so-called intellectuals at lectures, will skip over this part of history,” said Wei, 35, who said as a boy he was only dimly aware of what happened during the crackdown and afterward. He said his interest grew at university, where has was able to find more information on the school’s internal network.
He said he was disappointed that officials had tried to sweep the protests under the rug.
“These events happened,” Wei said. “It is a fact. But you can’t treat it as if it didn’t happen.”