My first memories of Tiananmen were formed in London: I was six, it was June, 1989, we were in a small hotel room, and it was my first family vacation. My father was in London for work, we had tagged along. I climbed a tree for the first time at a family friend’s orchard; I was so shocked to discover apples and oranges grew on trees. Then: one morning, my father watching the news. His face, creased with worry. I crawled out of bed and peeked at the television:
People. There were so many people on the screen they filled it completely. Flags, banners, people shouting, people angry. My father, his face creased with worry.
I didn’t hear about Tiananmen again until I was a teenager, trying to find out more about the world through the books in my father’s study. My father is the son of Shanghainese immigrants: a young nurse fleeing war who ended up on a ship to Singapore and a clerk sent to Nanyang by the Bank of China in 1937, missing the Japanese invasion of Shanghai by a few weeks. My grandparents only spoke Shanghainese, but my father and his brothers were raised by a Cantonese amah and sent to English-medium schools, the way kids from families with means were raised in Singapore in the 1960s and 70s, and as a result speaks almost perfect Cantonese but no Shanghainese.
Language became a barrier between him and his parents, but as an adult, he studied Chinese fervently, spending weekends reading the dictionary, memorising proverbs—and marrying my mother, a Chinese-educated girl whose father was memorialised in Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs for being the man who shamed him into improving his Chinese. Through language, I think, he was trying to find a way back to the parents he never knew.
My father’s study had shelves of books on China, mostly written by Americans and Europeans. These were the first books I read on China, and the first time I read about what happened at Tiananmen: Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s China Wakes, Orville Schell’s The Gate of Heavenly Peace. There was something quixotic, almost beautiful about the China that I discovered in my father’s books. They filled me with a strange sense of longing towards this place that was not my home, not even my father’s home, but a strange, faraway place my grandparents had left in their twenties.
But I struggled to reconcile the China they wrote about with the China I knew. By then, I had visited Shanghai several times with my family. These were the boom years in the nineties—and everyone was busy making money. Meal times were always hurried. Over lunch we would have lunch with one aunt, telling us to buy an apartment before it became too late (imagine if we had), without finishing her meal she rushed off to close a deal. Over dinner another relative would complain about not receiving fair compensation for moving from central Jing’an to the city’s outskirts, later, his cousin would complain that branch of the family hadn’t divvied up the spoils equally.
The more I learnt about China, the more fascinating it got. It became a source of my identity: while other kids at school stuck posters of Jamie Redknapp, Robbie Fowler and Backstreet Boys on their lockers, I cut out a photo of Wang Dan and stuck it front and center on mine. I don’t even remember the first time I came across the name ‘Dan Wang’. But in those years he was always on the news: for being one of the first few Tiananmen student leaders who hadn’t fled to the West, for standing trial, for accepting his prison sentence. Wang Dan was the first person I thought of when, as an intern at Time Magazine a few years later, I was tasked to find and interview Chinese dissidents after the release of the Tiananmen Papers. My voice shook as I called him in Boston, and I was taken by the firmness of conviction I could detect under his gentle, soft-spoken manner.
No self-respecting Singaporean teenager in those days was interested in China: but I was. I could not go back in time and protest on Tiananmen Square (and how I wished I could), but I could stick Wang Dan’s face on my locker. It was my identity. It was what made me unique. Perhaps I too, had inherited my father’s sense of loss and longing towards a homeland that would never be mine.
I became a student of Chinese history and literature, studying under the very names I had admired as a teenager. At UC Berkeley I met and studied with luminaries like Orville Schell and the inimitable Fred Wakeman. At twenty years old I was positive I was going to become a Chinese scholar. But something was going on subconsciously the more time I spent in America, studying with these so-called doyens of modern China. I visited their sun-filled houses in the Berkeley hills, met their families, heard their youthful stories about spending time in Beijing, how they met their (Chinese) wives…and none of it felt like China.
Was it then, perhaps, that something inside me changed? I began to realise that everyone has competing visions of what China is and what China should be. Every single so-called renowned Chinese scholar or student of China, including myself, comes with their own baggage. China will never be made in our image, although we may find parts of it that seem to represent ourselves. But we will always be outsiders.
As a working adult, I began to spend a lot of time in China. And I wasn’t sure I liked what I saw. By the late 2000s, Shanghai had become a place of enormous wealth, drawing the young, brave and foolish from all corners of the world to seek their fortune. Over lunch in 2008 or so I asked my newly wealthy cousin how he felt about the massive changes going on around him. At some point he told me, 你有志气啊！你表哥当年也是愤青。好！(you have spirit! your cousin was once a revolutionary youth too. great!). The fact that I still remembered, the fact that I was interested in something other than money seemed to stir something in him, and he told me about his student days at Fudan University, leading protests to support the demonstrators in Tiananmen in 1989. He spoke with nostalgia about his earlier idealism, as if it was a part of his past that was missed but irrevocably gone.
Again and again, I encountered the same sense of nostalgia as I met those who had lived through Tiananmen in 1989. I grew close to a former colleague, a Qinghua student who was on the square that June, and met many of his friends who had been there with him, most of them now in senior positions at various state-owned and private corporations. Amongst themselves, they seemed to regard Tiananmen as a battle between youthful idealism and realistic pragmatism. Over drinks one night I asked them about their memories of 1989.
“The most idealistic ones were the ones from Beida (Beijing University).”
“But the only one who’s still idealistic is Wang Dan.”
“You’ve got to give it to him. He’s the only one still fighting the fight. Everyone else sold out.”
“You were always there, weren’t you? Even though you were just helping out at the back.”
“I just wanted to show my support.”
“You were always in the vanguard, leading the Qinghua students.”
That night, I began to wonder if Beida-Qinghua’s rivalry could perhaps be another lens to remember Tiananmen. Beida’s leaders were some of the most prominently featured in the Western press, but today in China, it is the “Qinghua mafia” which dominates the party, the government, and the business world. Another way of reading Tiananmen, perhaps, is the victory of Qinghua pragmatism over Beida idealism.
I wanted to end this essay by talking about something else many people seem to forget when talking about Tiananmen, something I really only began to discover in recent years. And that is the wider, international context of Tiananmen. If you only read about Tiananmen in western sources you would think it was purely inspired by say, American democratic values. But the truth is, Tiananmen was one of the last in a series of democratic uprisings against authoritarian governments across Asia in the 1980s. People power overthrew Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, then Chun Doo Hwan’s military government in 1987. Chinese students were inspired and encouraged by the success of democratic movements in the Philippines and South Korea; most of them probably thought China would be next.
But here’s where the story gets interesting. If you read about the democratic movements in the Philippines and South Korea, the United States actually supported the Marcos and Chun administrations because it was in their interest to do so for their fight against communism. American news media at the time described the students protesting in Seoul as “hooligans and thugs.” And yet, in the summer of 1989, American news media portrayed the students in Tiananmen as heroes. Why? Because they were fighting against a Communist government. Thirty years on, most people talking about Tiananmen seem to have forgotten about the deep, pervasive anti-Communism, anti-China cold war sentiment of that era.
I used to have very strong views about Tiananmen. I still do. It was a national tragedy. In many ways, it was an unnecessary tragedy. But I can’t get my mind past the hypocrisy of news videos criticising students in South Korea one moment, then trumping up the students at Tiananmen as heroes the next. Tiananmen has become a convenient albatross for the West to hang around China’s neck whenever they want to criticise China. And the more they trot it out as a symbol of Western-Chinese rivalry, the more the Party will try to suppress its memory.
It seems to have become of fashion in the Western press to accuse China, the Chinese people of erasing Tiananmen from the collective consciousness. Because in the West, Tiananmen has become symbolic of the struggle between “western” democratic values and “Chinese” authoritarianism. But no one I know in China who was of age in 1989 has forgotten. Everyone remembers that summer. Whether or not they are willing to talk to you about it is another matter. As open as my cousin, my colleague and his friends were with me, I know they didn’t tell me everything. And that’s okay. Everyone remembers differently. Everyone grieves differently. Just because they don’t speak of it or talk about it openly doesn’t mean they don’t remember. It just means the trauma is still too raw.
(Photo Credit: 64memo.com)