Beijing, China – Anyone entering the June 4 Memorial Museum in Hong Kong must pass through a narrow corridor, one that gets increasingly narrower the further they walk. The passages are an intentional manipulation of space meant to recreate the sense of oppression that students and activists in mainland China felt and protested against during the Tiananmen Square protests in the summer of 1989.
Visitors stroll through the displays, visualisations echoing the events leading to the massacre, before reaching a replica of the Goddess of Democracy, a figure resembling the Statue of Liberty that was erected by the agitators in the final days of the protests only to be destroyed by troops on that fateful day of June 4.
When Xin moved to Hong Kong from mainland China to continue his graduate studies, he was resolute to visit the museum, the world’s first, and only, permanent exhibition space dedicated to the Tiananmen Square massacre.
A student of Chinese history, Xin remembers his parents telling him vaguely of an event in 1989 that had taken place in Tiananmen Square when they themselves were students. He wanted to visit the museum and find out what had really happened back then.
Memories materialise in the museum
The crackdown on the Tiananmen Square uprising – when civilian protesters demanded an end to corruption and a greater say in government, to which the state responded by sending army tanks down the wide streets of Beijing – reportedly resulted in more than 1,000 deaths.
The revolt is a taboo topic in mainland China and discussion of it is censored, often heavy-handedly. On its previous anniversaries, search terms related to the uprising had been blocked from social media platforms such as Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. There are no mentions of the incident in Chinese textbooks and, as a result, many young Chinese grow up unaware of the uprising.
The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China had been organising candlelight vigils in Hong Kong on every June 4, in memory of the victims of the Chinese government’s crackdown, drawing in crowds of up to 150,000 people.
In 2014, as the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests neared, the alliance wanted to establish a permanent venue to commemorate the events of that day.
Lee Cheuk-yan, a former chairman of the alliance and currently a member of the Hong Kong Legislative Council, says there was a need to “educate” people about their past and to ensure the event wasn’t erased from memory. There seemed no better place for it than Hong Kong, which was returned to Chinese authority by the British in 1997 but, as a semi-autonomous city, enjoys more freedoms than the mainland.
The alliance purchased space in the Foo Hoo Centre, in the crowded shopping district of Tsim Sha Tsui, for nearly $1.25m to make it possible, but troubles began concurrently.
The corporation that owned the building complained that the land use deed issued to the alliance prohibited the use of the commercial complex for exhibition purposes. They served a notice to the museum’s owners, citing disapproval of the volume of visitors in light of safety regulations. A lawsuit was brought against the alliance to have the museum removed from the building.
According to Hong Kong law, all land belongs to the state and any lease is accompanied by detailed usage prescriptions. Professor Lou Jianbo of Peking University, an expert on the region’s property law, explains that the building owners have a strong case since the museum violates the designated land use.
However, Louisa Lim, a professor of journalism at the University of Michigan who wrote the book, The People’s Republic of Amnesia – an investigative look at the Tiananmen Square massacre, notes that “the campaign against the museum began by complaining about the number of visitors before it had even opened”.
Alliance members argue that the lawsuit has little to do with property regulations, as one corporation member, Yeung Cho-ming, had told the South China Morning Post that “the [Tiananmen Square incident] is sensitive and contentious”, and that the corporation fears the museum will bring it “trouble”.
Multiple attempts by Al Jazeera to reach members of the owners’ corporation for comment on the situation were unsuccessful.
Keeping visitors away
From April 2014 to January this year, the museum received about 20,000 visitors, according to museum officials.
In the first year of the museum’s existence, nearly half of the visitors were from the mainland.
Yet, in the second year of its opening, the number of mainland visitors dropped to 30 percent. The museum owners say that scaremongering by the owners’ corporation were keeping potential visitors away.
“They instituted a policy of identification checks only for people on our floor of the building and asked them to state the purpose of their visit,” says the present chairman of the museum’s alliance, Albert Ho. “This inhibited and scared away mainland visitors.”
Ho says security guards at the building demanded that the museum owners divide large tour groups into smaller ones, keeping some waiting outside. One security guard at the building told Al Jazeera that the owners’ corporation had ordered them to do so in adherence to fire safety regulations. To avoid dangerous crowding of the elevators and fire exits, they said they had to limit the number of visitors to 20 at a time.
“Every time this happened, it was a losing situation for us,” remarks Ho. “Which guest is going to wait and see how the dispute is resolved? They’d run away before that.”
The alliance is now running a crowdfunding campaign with the intention of gathering approximately $400,000 to be able to change their venue. However, the response to their campaign has been tepid so far, and the organisers are lagging behind their target, museum staff told Al Jazeera.
The alliance hopes to use the money raised, along with the proceeds from the sale of the existing property, to move into a bigger, standalone space. “We are very determined to ensure there is always a June 4 museum in Hong Kong,” says Ho.
When Xin, the history student, visited the museum recently, he was also asked for his identification card by the building security guards.
He refused to fulfil the security guards’ requests, arguing on a technicality that, as a newly arrived student, he didn’t have proper identification yet and muscled his way in.
While eyeing the numerous displays, he gapes at one showcasing a People’s Daily editorial that had brandished the student protests as unconstitutional and chaotic.
Coming out into the sunlight after his visit, Xin says: “I’m going to urge all of my mainland friends to visit the museum while it’s still open.
“It is an honour for me to live in the same country as those students who fought for my people.”