Contrary to their intention, commemorations of historical events are more often reminders of the power of forgetting: either official ceremonies that gradually lose their meaning, becoming public holidays like any other, or gatherings of tiny bands of militants or mourners, whose numbers dwindle to nothing as the years pass. In Los Angeles, you can see both kinds. If you ask people what Memorial Day stands for, virtually no one, not even professors of history, can tell you. As for the other sort, I myself stand every summer with a small band of friends outside the Chinese consulate in downtown Los Angeles, holding placards scarcely anyone notices. But what we commemorate has, unusually, not been forgotten elsewhere. It is now 18 years since soldiers and tanks entered Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Yet every year since then, on the night of 4 June, tens of thousands of people gather in Hong Kong and, whatever the weather, light candles in memory of what happened then, and those who died as a result of it. I don't think any other mass commemoration has lasted so long. But what is remembered so powerfully in Hong Kong cannot even be mentioned on the other side of the border that separates the Special Administrative Region from the rest of the People's Republic of China.
LRB 5 July 2007 | PDF Download