Torches and T
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Torches and T

May 21, 2023

Annual vigil replaced by pro-Beijing carnival but some still manage to mark massacre amid heavy police presence

For the past three years, Hong Kong authorities have gone to great lengths to stop people from lighting candles in Victoria Park and publicly commemorating the Tiananmen Square massacre – an annual tradition tens of thousands of residents had kept alive for three decades since the bloody crackdown in 1989.

This year, the city took it a step further. On Sunday, in place of a mass vigil was a patriotic carnival held by pro-Beijing groups, celebrating the city's return to Chinese rule with food booths, and dance and music performances. Colourful banners urged carnival goers to "taste the joy". Instead of candles, volunteers handed out plush toys.

For Yu, a university student in her early twenties, the sight of the fun fair was a reminder of how far Hong Kong has fallen in recent years amid a national security crackdown.

"They are deliberately occupying the space to mark their territory," said Yu, who wore black and spent hours walking around the park on Sunday evening.

She said she had noticed how the number of people who visited the area had dwindled, especially compared with 2020, when thousands toppled barriers and stood in the park in defiance of a public gathering ban. This year, far fewer made any visible gestures to show solidarity, whether it was turning on their phone torch or wearing a shirt with a protest slogan. With officers out in large numbers, "you truly feel as though we are the minority", she said.

There are reasons why people dared not test the law. On Sunday, even the most subtle signs of protest drew scrutiny from patrolling officers.

Veteran activists, including Chan Po-ying, the head of the League of Social Democrats, were seized moments after setting foot in the area. A group of seven who stood in a circle and prayed next to the park were stopped and searched by officers, who questioned what they were praying about. Police even impounded a sports car with the licence plate US8964, numbers which represent the date of the Tiananmen crackdown, citing the embossed licence plate and brakes as reasons.

By the end of the night, city authorities had detained 23 people for "breaching the peace", including a 53-year-old woman for allegedly "obstructing police officers on duty". She fell to the ground while arguing with police officers, who then dragged her into a police vehicle. "It was absurd. All she did was display a candle on her phone," said a friend who was with her at the scene.

Despite the Hong Kong government's attempt to snuff out the flames, some residents remained determined to keep memories alive.

From her jail cell, Chow Hang-tung, a former organiser of the vigils, went on a 34-hour hunger strike to commemorate the 34th anniversary of the killings. Others found more creative ways, betting on 8964 in horse races so that the sensitive numbers became the top bets, the Mingpao newspaper reported.

A man in his forties, surnamed Yuen, who was stopped and searched by officers near the park on Sunday, said: "The only tactic in their playbook is intimidation. It doesn't work if you don't give in to fear." He said they questioned him about his black T-shirt, which bore the words: "People will not forget", and threatened to detain him if he did not leave the area.

But he was undeterred. "I used to wear this to the vigil on 4 June every year. And I’ll keep wearing it," he said.

Across the park, music blasting from the speakers of the fun fair did not stop Tsang, a stage actor, from carrying out a sobering ritual of her own. She sat on a bench and read the script of May 35th, a 2019 play about China's erasure of the tragedy from its history.

While other protesters found the carnival offensive, she saw it as another form of remembrance. "In a way, they also cannot forget this date. In fact, they have to prepare for this even earlier than we do," she said.