Last Monday, 82-year-old Ding Zilin was reportedly taken from her flat in Beijing and sent 600 miles away to her hometown in Jiangsu province. It was that time of year again.
Ding leads the Tiananmen Mothers, a group of parents who lost children in the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. For three decades, she has lived in the hope of her son and many others being one day vindicated by the Chinese regime.
Would it ever be possible for families of the dead to mourn at Tiananmen Square? That question, taken literally, forms the premise of the play Thirty-fifth of May, a new work by Hong Kong’s award-winning playwright Candace Chong.
The play, which opened on Friday, is the only local production this year that directly addresses the June 4 massacre in Beijing, when the military cracked down on protesters. With that comes an inevitable symbolic weight, as Hong Kong is among the few places in China where the memory can be kept alive.
But Chong’s play is not an exercise in historical reenactment: it is not meant as a documentary, and does not seek to transport its audience back in time. Set firmly in 2019, the story instead asks its audience to witness the final days of a life defined by tragic consequence.
“It is about a dying wish,” Chong told HKFP. “Chinese people commemorate the deceased at the place of their passing – it makes sense. But in an abnormal country, something that comes naturally will be punishable by law.”
In Thirty-fifth of May, the ailing Siu Lam and her husband Ah Dai plan to light candles at Tiananmen Square to mark the 30th year since the death of their son. Obviously, the protagonists are expected to run into resistance from the government, but Chong said the struggle was also internal.
“In China, as well as Hong Kong, people are always teetering between whether to resist or not. People choose to acquiesce all the time, but at some point, they realise they can’t take it anymore,” she said. “But if you ask them to push back, by then it seems too late.”
A product of rage
Chong was in primary school when the Tiananmen Square massacre shook the world, but it was not until 2017 that she started working on a script on the topic. The challenge with such a script was finding something new to say, and Chong said it took a long time to arrive at a personal and authentic angle.
At the time, she was taking care of her mother, which led her to think about the plight of the victim’s relatives – not just the high-profile Tiananmen Mothers, but also those who were forced into silence and received no recognition.
“In a normal society, if something happens to my child and I can’t get accountability – and instead become a subject of surveillance – that would be a most ridiculous thing. If this happened anywhere [else], you would still say it’s a violation of human rights,” Chong said. “But we’ve grown to accept that China is like that. But is it right?”
“If I were the sons and daughters who died… and my parents must face surveillance even in their twilight years, I think that would make me angry. When I think of this, I found my drive to write.”
Chong said the emotion was universal, which she hoped that Hongkongers could empathise with: “If your own parents were oppressed in such a way, you would feel a burning anger,” she said.
After deciding to go ahead with the project, she asked to collaborate with the theatre company Stage64, which holds annual performances at schools to educate local students about June 4. What resulted was an outpouring of support from Hong Kong’s theatre community: veteran director Lee Chun-chow took the reins, and Chong recalled many of her friends offered to help.
“Maybe our industry has fewer vested interests. People don’t really fret over whether this production will affect [their careers], and they don’t mind helping,” she said.
In recent years, Hong Kong artists have increasingly been reminded of the limits of their freedom, and Chong herself once had a brush with Chinese censorship after a 2011 opera she wrote about Sun Yat-sen had its mainland performance cancelled.
However, the playwright’s signature style showed no signs of being curbed in Thirty-fifth of May.
Chong writes in a lively vernacular, punctuated by swearwords and turns of mordant humour. At one point in the play, Siu Lam prods her husband with a macabre thought experiment: “What slogan will you shout as they push you to the ground?”
The play also wryly references Hong Kong’s current affairs, which suggest that the story in Beijing thirty years ago should not be treated as unrelated to headlines today.
Making art from trauma
Ultimately, Chong said the goal was for the play to be emotionally honest – to both herself and the characters depicted. “With these things, if you have a sense that you’re on a grand mission… or you’re trying to make a point, then it will ring false,” she said.
It would also be “irresponsible” for her to turn the play into an uplifting fairy tale, she said, because real-life families of Tiananmen victims went through much worse than what she could capture on the page. A happy ending seemed perennially out of reach.
According to RTHK, Tiananmen Mother Ding Zilin was not allowed to pick up the phone since she was moved out of Beijing. She was reportedly suffering from heart and spine problems, and was undergoing radiation therapy in January this year.
Chong has chosen an ending for Thirty-fifth of May, but days before the first public performance, she was still unsure if it would work. At a dress rehearsal attended by some members of the press, the finale was met with something resembling awe.
“I want to see how the audience reacts, whether they will think it’s a sad story that makes them lose hope, or it’s a sad story that reminds them to come together and resist,” Chong said.
“I don’t know, but of course I hope it is the latter.”
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