[For the time being, Orestes’ posts will plumb the archive files of the travel letters he wrote during his travels and his residence in Hong Kong during the 1990s. This first letter recalls the evening in Victoria Park, Hong Kong, the only place in China where citizens could gather to memorialize the massacre of June 4, 1989.]
Not quite twenty years ago, my daughter Meredith suffered one of those betrayals a young life can not be expected to understand. What could be safer, more comforting, more protected than to be standing between your parents singing Silent Night in the Moravian Church on a perfectly snowing Christmas Eve, cheerfully drawn into the light of your very own candle held high and unafraid of the looming dark overhead? The shriek Meredith let out when the hot wax spilled over from the well around the wick and onto her fingers has become part of the family legend, the necessary second stanza we all hear when the King’s College Choir performs Silent Night or when Snow White and her seven mechanized dwarfs drone out a synthesized version from atop the Ocean Terminal shopping mall here in Hong Kong. It’s how we know Christmas. It’s how we hear. It is, as Wordsworth would call it, a spot of time, the indelible experience to which we repair in after years for consolation as an object of meditation, as a moment so rich in possibilities and consequence that it becomes, has become, a moral cornerstone.
And so, every year on June 4, when I join the throng at Victoria Park to commemorate the dead at Tiananmen Square and 70,000 people (last night, 70,000 in the only place in China where such a demonstration was permitted) raise their white candles, I positively rejoice when the melting wax trickles over my fingers, burning the crescent at the base of my nails. Then Meredith joins me, as Alexa did last year when we stood in the rain and tried to keep our candles alight. Then, and last night, too, when the sudden breezes cooled the park and doused candles, nearby mourners noticed and declined their candles to ours to relight them. On these occasions in Victoria Park, people hold your eye a moment longer; older women, intent on teaching their grandchildren, march up to foreigners and take their photograph to include in the scrapbook. They back away with an expression of gratitude. The sense of community, even if only one night a year, is as powerful as it was, for instance, during the march on Washington in 1963 when the deep voiced Phillip Randolph invited the guests on the stage to sit down, and the microphones carried that bass voice out over the reflecting pool, and a quarter of a million people sat down in concert and only some seemed to notice how wonderful the human comedy can be.
The base of my fingernail begins to throb, and I try to concentrate on the sensation. I turn towards my guest for the evening, a young colleague too recently arrived in Hong Kong to recognize the democracy activists on the stage but suddenly perfectly sensitive to the ritual of keeping one’s neighbors’ candles alight. I want to tell him about Meredith and the family legend and the connections that lead unerringly from the Moravian Church in Green Bay to Victoria Park. I see that he has pressed the paper candle holder tightly around the candle to catch the wax and protect the flame from the breeze. He’s half a generation younger than I. He was a student in 1989 when the tanks entered the square. He knows how to staunch the flow of wax. Would that everyone lived so long.
Hong Kong, 1994