Picnic at Victoria
”Justice is left unserved and history continues to be overwritten” Yoyo Chan, writer and translator, writes in her text that is taking place on the memorial day of the massacre at Tiananmen square in 1989. Two friends are visiting Victoria Park to honor those who were murdered that day, twenty-nine years ago. At the ceremony, there are pictures showing guns and tanks and the memory of the massacre leaves behind a charred scar on the white wall.
Want to stay for dinner later? I can make some fufu. Semolina, the one you liked a lot last week. She asks as she gives the steaming imboga a final stir. She switches off the portable gas stove and covers it with a lid before the vegetable stew bubbles and specks her bed within less than an arm’s length away.
Would love to but can’t this week. There is an assembly on the island this evening, so better head off soon. Her friend watches the wooden spoon scrape the bits and pieces of melting beans and browned vegetables down to the stainless steel bottom. Such a huge pot can probably last her for a week.
Where is it? She has only been to Wan Chai and Central on Hong Kong island.
Victoria Park in Causeway Bay. Would you like to come with me? I can spot you. A round trip to the island can easily cost a tenth of the scanty monthly transportation subsidy for someone stripped of the right to work.
No, not that. What for?
For the massacre in China 29 years ago.
Oh, I know, the man who put himself in the tank’s path. She does not know much else, only that many people died, like in all mass slaughters. There is also a similar sort of assembly back home every April, the largest one takes place at a stadium in the capital. But she has never been. The president is there, as far as she knows, the victor of that ugly episode of history would never miss it. The wreath of mourning only gives those in power yet another undeserving halo.
Her friend shows her a panoramic photo of last year’s vigil on her phone. Dots of gold flame surrounded by dark bushes, then by a crammed skyline of tall buildings patterned by cold white lights.
Alright. Let’s do it. She gestures her friend to take a step back, fishes out a square plywood board from beneath the mattress, both of which, along with a couple of hanging pipes and plastic drawers, were found at a refuse collection point close by. She places the board on the other end of the single bed, sits and tilts the pot that is filled almost to the brim to pour a quarter of the stew into a glass container. Then together they set off to Victoria Park.
Victoria Park, Victoria Peak, Victoria Harbour. A beautiful name in honour of the Queen, also of the goddess of victory of ancient Rome. It’s her fourth time riding a double decker, they pick the front seats upstairs but it does not take long to cross the harbour. The vigil will not start until eight. They pick a bench in a garden unaffected by crowd management measures. Afternoon showers have given way to evening breezes. Her friend rips off a corner of the chapatti she made last week and dunks it in the barn-red stew.
This stew is amazing. Who taught you to cook? Your mother?
Her lips smirk and spit out a spotless spoon. The sky is still quite bright but the street lamps are already on. The dim orange beam diffusing from a dome-shaped lampshade overhead profiles her slightly bulging forehead.
I have no mother.
Her friend moves her widened eyes away and to one of the white metal fences sketching down the jogging trail. The silenced transmission of shame grips her throat. Hot acid gushes from below, catches up and turns the chewed-up lumps sour. Her burning ears hear her continue.
I have no father either.
How else can she tell someone from a city untouched by the claws of war and atrocity that she has no parents or family to cook for her? That she has been making food for herself as long as her memory serves her? That perhaps her mother never wanted to conceive her to begin with? There were all means of killing going on around the time she was born, rape was one of them. Stories like this, stories of birth from death, of innocence from violence are here and there.
Cook I must. If I want food, I must cook.
One slow bite after another, they chew quietly and let silence gather. The sharp sweet scent of conifers slits through the bleating of cars halted on the flyover, through the sad lull of summer humidity, through the fading smell of garlic and tomato of the lukewarm stew. The grey-blue curtain of night begins to fall. Let’s move. They wrap things up and walk over.
More and more people in black appear. The crowd soon absorbs and motions them forward as one. Almost as though orchestrated. Year after year, the same place, the same people. They settle somewhere right in front of a projection screen on one of the football fields. A short, grey-haired woman carrying a large cardboard box hands each of them a white candle in a cone cup catcher and a programme leaflet. The bottom banner on the cover page writes: Mourn June 4th, Resist Authoritarianism.
Another one-party dictatorship, she lets out a snigger.
And it’s only getting worse, her friend adds. Several months ago, China lifted the two-term limit of the President and Vice President, meaning they can now effectively remain in office for life.
Another emperor drunk on power, she lets out another snigger.
The same goes for the president of her country. After over 20 years at the helm, he engineered a constitutional amendment to guarantee his power at least until 2034. Most of the West and Africa appear to hold him in high regard all the same. He has been commended for putting an end to the genocide of a million people within 100 days, for being a peacekeeper who replaces any residue of tension with law and order, a spearhead reformer of the African Union, a visionary steering one of the fastest growing economies on the continent. Stability and economy are as impressive as they are repressive, however. The iron fist, whether back home or in China or most likely everywhere, grips and rips in more or less the same ways. Tyrants take the opportunity to attack activists, persecute opposition, imprison lawyers, exile journalists, silence scholars, until fleeing or killing or going missing is nothing peculiar.
Footage starts flashing on the screen. Hunger strike, desperate urge through a bullhorn, ongoing popping of gunshots, spouting red staining white t-shirts, raging fire against silhouettes of helmets and rifles, neat files of marching tanks. No fears could hold them back that night. Tears of melted wax seep down their candles. And now no tears can bring them back.A burning torch carried across the courts sets the cauldron on the stage on fire. This light will never go out, the eulogy declares.
Will it really not? Streets back home are almost always sparkling. Cleaners clear roadways of litter and dust, police sweep sidewalks for vendors and beggars. Out of sight helps keep out of mind. She unscrews the cap of her bottle of Coke. Countless molecules are set into motion, wiggling up the dark liquid, gasping to be free of their watery prison, only to burst and vanish into nowhere. Effervescence to evanescence within a mere split second.
… his father and I went there and saw many bodies lying on the ground. I saw my boy. He lay there pale and quiet, as if already drained of blood. His body was soft and his clothes ...
Her friend stops interpreting in the middle of the sentence. She tries to catch up but in vain. On the screen, an old lady weeps over a photo of a young man. She cannot comprehend, hearing her friend sniffling, she has never met her mother. Was her mother one of the many poor souls penetrated by hate? Has she thought of getting rid of her? Did she have no money? Was she in captive? What if it was legal? Or accessible? Would she? She would not have blamed her.
She turns to look around. A woman next to her holds out her candle for another man to catch the flame. She used to think that people here are lucky strangers to the world of blood and bullets. Not entirely wrong though, as none of this happened on the soil of this land. A thought occurs to her, for the first time after years of seeking asylum here, that the borders most locals have been trying so hard to draw and defend may have no relevance at all in the end.
Close-cropped hair and square glasses, the face of the plaster sculpture onstage were all over the papers the year she ended up here. I have no enemies. The sculpture stand carves his best-known quote. Her friend finally comes out of her trance. What’s up with him? He died in prison last year, his wife is still under house arrest.
Her friend averts her gaze away from the giant block of speakers towering a few feet away and into the invisible molecules in the air which, she notices, suddenly has weight attached to it. She knows too well that she cannot change anything, none of them can. What was done not only cannot be amended, but not even confronted. Justice is left unserved and history continues to be overwritten. Yet still they feel the need to put on a black shirt, light a candle, sing the anthems here every year. They just want to hold onto something, anything, while they still can.
They cannot even. Mother who lost her only child, unborn child who lost a father, lover who lost a sister. Grief silenced. Truth stifled. Days have passed, then months, then years, then decades. Remembering braids a rope with strands of the past and present, pulling together those whom forces seek to break and erase, but also hanging and strangling the very same bunch it binds. Their lives have been wrenched out of them that night. The sun came up the mornings after, but there was no light, only shadows, clouding into a pitch blackout that none of these candles can light.
A smell of fumes wafts on the evening breeze. The ragged edge of the flickering flame singes the paper drip catcher, smoulders the round rim into small flakes of soot. The next breath of wind comes and takes them to the air, fly and fall and gone, leaving a charred crescent scar on the white wall.