Faint fluorescent tubes flicker for a few times before gradually lighting up the shadowy stage where a gaunt 80-year-old woman, Siu Lam, silently walks across her bleak, empty flat to check the Chinese paper calendar. It is a few days before June 4, the date when Lam lost her son, a teenage protestor in the student-led demonstrations for democracy and anti-governmental corruption in Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
June 4 is one of the most politically sensitive dates in modern Chinese history. It marked the last day of a democracy movement that kicked off on April 15, 1989. For six weeks, protesters led demonstrations, hunger strikes and an occupation of Tiananmen Square. It all ended in bloodshed when the Chinese government declared martial law and sent military troops with assault rifles and tanks to fire at the demonstrators. To this day, Hong Kong is the only place in China where the massacre is commemorated openly, and tens of thousands of people gather every June 4 in Victoria Park to mark the date with a candlelit vigil.
Anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 people died in the massacre. It is difficult to determine the true number because the Chinese government remains determined to wall off both the public and the world from the crackdown. Images of “Tank Man”—the unidentified man who blocked a tank from leaving the square the day after the massacre—are erased from Chinese social media. Both Chinese and foreign researchers find China’s official archives increasingly restrictive when it comes to academic articles deemed problematic by the government. This past May, Wall Street Journal correspondents Charles Hutzler and Chun Han Wong reported that Chinese President Xi Jinping and his allies described the internet as “an ideological battlefield where the Communist Party must prevail to expand China’s influence over international public opinion.”
He said that just before the 30th anniversary of the crackdown. In response to China’s prevailing historical nihilism, Hong Kong playwright Candace Chong Mui-ngam has joined hands with Stage 64, a non-profit theatre company dedicated to the memory of June 4, founded by theatre enthusiast Lit Ming-wai. Chong has titled her latest stage production 35th May – the date that must not be named and cannot be searched online in China. The play premiered on May 3 and tickets sold out three hours after their release. Five reruns were staged in July to meet public demand.
It hasn’t been easy for Stage 64 – the company has had a long battle to reach where it is today. Lit is a physiotherapist by day, and a devoted participant in the annual vigil. “Every year, the ceremonial routine involves bowing and offering flowers to the victims,” she says. “But we’re not doing enough.”
A decade ago, at the vigil, Lit met social worker Cheung Ka-wan as well as James Cheung, an experienced playwright and the founder of Pants Theatre Production. On the 20th anniversary of the crackdown, in 2009, the trio decided to put on the show Edelweiss (在廣場放一朵小白花) to introduce the 89 Movement and June 4 to the general public. It tells the fictional story of Ella, a Hong Kong journalist assigned to Tiananmen Square, where she met students from Beijing and Sichuan who participated in the hunger strike. Featuring news footage of the crackdown, original music and the songs of the democratic movement, Edelweiss received positive reviews, and the troupe was also invited to restage the show in local secondary schools. “We thought that merging civic education and performing arts was a great way to raise awareness of China and its special administrative region’s democratic development among the general public, especially youths,” says Lit. The play’s success inspired the three to register Stage 64 as a non-profit performing arts company.
While Stage 64 dedicates all its productions to commemorating June 4, Lit is glad to observe that in the past decade there had been quite a number of local plays with a political bent. For instance, the 2015 black comedy Banner Stuck on Lion Head, by Arts Options, references the yellow banner that read “I want true democracy,” which was hung by ten rock climbers on Lion Rock in 2014, during the height of the Umbrella Movement.
Since the handover of its sovereignty from the UK to China in 1997, Hong Kong has been entitled to 50 years of civic freedom and political autonomy under the One Country, Two Systems arrangement. But maintaining this guarantee has been difficult. Although the Basic Law—often described as Hong Kong’s “mini-constitution”—calls for the popular election of the city’s Chief Executive, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee in Beijing ruled out universal suffrage for the chief executive poll in 2007 and the Legislative Council election in 2008. This was followed by a white paper issued by China’s State Council in 2014, which said that while Beijing was committed to universal suffrage for Hong Kong, it opposed “unpatriotic” chief executive candidates, setting up a requirement for pre-screening that was widely opposed by the public. When police fired tear gas on students protesting against the white paper, it sparked a 79-day occupation of several major thoroughfares that came to be known as the Umbrella Movement.
This is the thorny political context in which Stage 64 exists. Lit is surprised the company has managed to last for a decade. “There were many times when we were about to give up, shut down and give in,” she says with a sigh. “In Hong Kong, theatre is definitely not as popular as television.” The company depends largely on donations and ticket sales from a niche group of theatregoers. “Our dedicated crew doesn’t earn much,” she says. “But everyone is never doing it for money. Our lighting designer Billy Tang even covers some production expenditures with his own pocket.”
Stage 64’s overt focus on such a sensitive subject has made some cast members take a second thought about performing. One year into their operations, the company was preparing for a comeback of Edelweiss, with a venue booked and tickets on sale – but two months before the show, some cast and crew members were advised to withdraw from the performance on the grounds that the mainland Chinese job market would close the door to them.
It was a desperate moment, but Hongkongers rallied to the company’s side. Lit held an open audition, which was attended by many professional actors and actresses. What seemed like a disaster turned out to be an opportunity for Lit to accumulate a wide network of theatre people when previously she could only invite artists she knew for the productions. Some of those who auditioned even offered to help whenever Stage 64 needed it. “A lot of people heard of this and came to see the show to support us, and that year we unexpectedly had a full house,” recalls Lit.
Since then, Stage 64 further produced seven more plays, many of which weave references to Hong Kong’s contemporary political situation through their treatment of June 4. This year, 35th May has been a huge success, as Stage 64’s committed audience members spread the world to their families and friends. Having well-known local scriptwriter Chong pen the piece also led to a surge in the number of attendees this year.
The play focuses on the indelible pain of a pair of aging parents who lost their son to the massacre 30 years ago. For Lit, storytelling through the theatre is a powerful means to make sure that this chapter of dark history won’t be forgotten. “Stories turn unfeeling historical facts and numbers into flesh and blood,” she says. “Jit Jit isn’t just one of the many victims; he loves the cello, he’s a classmate to his caring friends, and a son who had loving parents. Imagine if you knew these victims personally, you would care more about them. It’s humanism that Stage 64 tries to cast light on.”
35th May focuses most of all on the pain felt by the parents of the Tiananmen victims, reflecting on their right to openly grieve their victims and their desire for the Chinese government to acknowledge and investigate the massacre. When Chong was writing the play, she took the risky move of travelling to Beijing to speak with the so-called Tiananmen Mothers, who lost children in the crackdown, in order to channel their voices through her characters. The result is a deeply emotional play, transitioning from sarcastic criticism of Chinese authorities and the parents’ helplessness in seeking justice, to a mother’s bereavement and a father’s guilt of being a coward who could not stand up for his family. “Even if I’m not related to the victims, I cry at every show and every time I read the script,” says Lit.
Lit originally planned for 35th May to be Stage 64’s final production. “Staging a play takes a lot of time, capital and effort, and we’re all rather exhausted,” she says. But that was before the protests against a bill that would enable extradition to mainland China, which have since morphed into a broader movement calling for greater democracy, accountability for police brutality and the resignation of Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Faced with an unyielding government and aggressive police, the protests have often spiralled into shocking violence. With Chinese state media railing against the protests, and highly publicised drills from the People’s Liberation Army and paramilitary forces across the border in Shenzhen, many in Hong Kong are filled with a sense of dread for the future. “Some say this is the Hong Kong version of June 4,” says Lit.
The protests have convinced her that it is more important than ever to call on people’s conscience, and she is now determined to keep Stage 64 up and running. This year, its latest production Xiaobo and Liuxia (大海落霞) had been staged in 42 secondary schools across Hong Kong from April to June. 35th May will also be adapted for school tours in 2020. Three decades after the massacre, Lit feels June 4 is more relevant than ever. Every year, it serves as an opportunity for Hongkongers to reflect on their identity and to question the values that underpin it. “June 4 is a historical lesson to be learnt from for many generations to come,” says Lit. “It’s crucial that we guard the light of our candles. And art can offer this kind of hope to people.”