James Carter on Khiang Hei’s Tiananmen exhibition at Zimmerli
The images on display in Khiang Hei’s new photo exhibition, at Rutgers University’s Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick, New Jersey, are uncomfortable to look at. Not because of the images themselves, which depict the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square. Full of color and spectacle, many of Hei’s images taken before the crackdown on June 4 evoke a sense of excitement, even optimism. Some are grim and bloody, but most of them are not. They show students gathered behind banners declaring support for principles such as democracy and free expression, or identifying their universities or departments. Often they are laughing, smiling, even dancing. Some carry small children, or flash the “peace/V-for-victory” sign.
Khiang Hei, born in Cambodia and raised in the United States, was enrolled at the University of Buffalo and studying abroad that spring 30 years ago at Beijing Teacher’s College (now called Capital Normal University). Although his program focused on Mandarin, he also studied history, culture, art and calligraphy, and lost no opportunity to learn more about what was going in the city around him, which meant, starting in mid-April, observing the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. He went to the square nearly every day. He told me that he went “with a few rolls of film, snapped whatever I found interesting, and snapped photos of everyday life in the square. Most of my images were of the crowds. It was overwhelming and I just wanted to record it.”
The exhibition, simply titled ‘Tiananmen Square, 1989: Photographs by Khiang H. Hei,’ has run all spring and closes in July, a month or so after the 30th anniversary of the massacre. Decades after taking the original photos, while working with Chinese students studying in New York City, Khiang Hei discovered that when he asked about 1989, or Tiananmen Square, very few of them knew – or would admit to knowing – what he was talking about. “I realized that this history is being buried,” he said. “I needed to do something about it.” The dialogue that he sought has come about at gallery talks and a symposium that drew former participants in the movement – many of whom have settled in New Jersey – as well as some Chinese students at Rutgers. Most of the students who came to the events were curious. Those who expressed opinions shared a range of views, from some who felt that the present state of American politics showed the shortcomings of democracy that justified the Chinese government response in 1989, to others who felt that the tragedy of that spring was a lost opportunity that will continue to haunt China until it is acknowledged and honored.
It is chilling to recognize that many of the people so full of life in these photographs may have been killed days or weeks after”
The photographs convey optimism by their very presence, even the ones that show sadness or outrage, because they show a time when people were able to gather in China’s spiritual and political center – or anywhere in public, for that matter. They could petition the country’s leadership and even speak directly with the most powerful men in the Communist Party. The students and workers (though most of the images presented in the exhibition are of student protestors) made a hopeful statement about China’s present and future.
It is not all optimism, of course. The Zimmerli exhibition includes several photographs of the aftermath, including troop carriers burning after encounters with protestors. In another image, “Down with Fascism!” is written in Chinese, in smeared blood. It is chilling to recognize that many of the people so full of life in these photographs may have been killed days or weeks after Hei captured their images on film.
Hei, like many other observers, said he never imagined that the protests would end in violence, even after martial law was declared. Then, on June 3, he saw protesters throwing rocks and bricks at soldiers stationed behind the Great Hall of the People: an ominous sign of what was to come. “As I headed back to my dorm,” Hei recalled, “I saw a busload of guns, mostly AK-47s and machine guns. On the rooftop there was a machine gun on display, and at the same time, a man took another machine gun out of the bus. That is when I realized the end was coming. When I woke up the next morning I saw my classmates gathering in the lobby… One was on the phone crying. My roommate came towards me. He was just in the square. He told me there was fire, shooting, and things burning.”
It is even more unthinkable to imagine hundreds of thousands of protesters gathering in Tiananmen Square today”
Yet the juxtaposition of the optimism of May with the repression of June is not the only chilling contrast made plain by the images of 1989. Ilaria Maria Sala has called that season in Beijing “the very last spring all things were possible in Beijing,” and Khiang Hei’s images bear out that sentiment. As unthinkable as it was in early May that within a month PLA troops would be gunning down Chinese citizens and crushing students’ bicycles beneath tank treads, it is even more unthinkable to imagine hundreds of thousands of protesters gathering in Tiananmen Square today. Even a gathering of a few dozen people is hard to imagine.
That’s the contrast – what was possible in 1989 versus what is unimaginable in 2019 – that I find most jarring, even more than the contrast of the optimism of April and May with the violence and repression that followed. “I learned new things every day from the square,” Hei recalled of that spring, “through talking with other people, whether on the street or on campus. My Chinese was very limited, but we did have a few professors who were fluent in English. One of the classes was a history class. The professor told us about the events and even took the class to the square and had a discussion. She was not very fond of the Chinese Communist Party. She participated in the Democratic party underground.”
The idea that dissent – or just the free exchange of ideas – was happening in college classrooms in Beijing, and that professors would accompany their students to a public protest critical of the government, is inconceivable today. Even a time when that was possible is increasingly hard to remember in the era of Xi Jinping. ∎