For the second year in a row, the sea of candlelight that once illuminated Hong Kong’s Victoria Park has been extinguished every June 4, as authorities sought to end all public celebrations of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre from the city – the last place in China-controlled territory where they were held.
But a heavy police presence on Saturday failed to deter some Hong Kong residents from approaching the park and defiing their own memorial events – by raising electronic candles and phone lamps or quietly singing remembrance songs.
“It’s heartbreaking to see[Victoria Park]like this,” said a woman named Lau, who came to the garden with a bouquet of white and red roses and electric candles.
“Hong Kong has sunk very quickly into a police state,” said Lau, a longtime volunteer with the Tiananmen Mothers Campaign, a group that supports the families of the victims.
For three decades, Hong Kong has mourned the victims of China’s bloody military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters with a candlelight vigil on the night of June 4 attended by tens of thousands of people pledging never to be forgotten.
But since 2020, the Hong Kong government has banned the event citing the risks of the coronavirus – although many Hong Kong residents believe this is just an excuse to clamp down on public opposition demonstrations in the wake of pro-democracy protests that swept the city in 2019.
On Friday, a government statement said that large parts of Victoria Park would be closed from Friday night until the early hours of Sunday “to prevent any unauthorized gatherings affecting public safety and public order, and to prevent the risk of transmission of the virus due to such gatherings.”
It came a day after police warned that residents risked committing the offense of “unlawful gathering” if they showed up in the park – even if they were alone.
Throughout Saturday, large numbers of police were patrolling the park and the adjacent shopping district of Causeway Bay.
Among those stopped and searched were people wearing black – the color of protest in Hong Kong, carrying flowers or walking with their phone lamps on.
Police later confirmed that they had arrested five men and a woman, aged between 19 and 80. One of them was accused of possessing an offensive weapon. Three accused of obstructing the officers. One of them was said to have incited others to join an unauthorized gathering. It was not clear why the sixth person was charged.
Police also cordoned off an area in a nearby shopping street where pro-democracy activists had gathered in previous years to promote the vigil, and sent some passersby for searches.
However, some people were determined to visit the park and make their own little gestures to commemorate.
Lao, a Tiananmen Campaign for Mothers volunteer, holds an electric candle for a photo in front of a fortified soccer field. She said she and her colleagues had been handing out electric candles to Hong Kong throughout the afternoon – in keeping with the group’s tradition.
“I believe the vigil is the most important symbol of Hong Kong people’s pursuit of freedom – it shows the world our unwavering resolve. I believe we all have a candle lit in our hearts tonight, regardless of whether we choose to go out or not,” she said.
After dark, police closed off more areas of the park, driving residents out through advanced cordoning crews. Eventually all entrances were closed, only allowing people to leave the park.
Inside the park, two women sang “Democracy will triumph and return,” one of the traditional songs of a protest stand, as they walked down a jogging path. The police followed her not far away, and pressed forward on the collar line.
Brian, a man in his thirties dressed in all black, turned on his phone’s flashlight at 8 p.m., the traditional light time. He did so despite being searched by police while sitting in the park earlier in the evening, when officers recorded his identification number. He said he was willing to pay the price.
“The government doesn’t want us to tell the truth. If we don’t come out, I worry that future generations in Hong Kong won’t know about June 4 anymore,” he said.
Outside the park, people no longer able to enter walked into the nearby streets, some lit by their phone lights.
Joe, 46, brought his 11-year-old daughter to the park, but was not denied entry. Instead, they stood at a bus stop across the road, each holding an electric candle.
“Candles are a symbol of Hong Kong’s memory, but now it seems that even her pregnancy can be dangerous,” he said.
Nevertheless, he was happy to bring his daughter with him. “I want to tell her what happened at that time, as much as I can,” he said.