Wednesday, June 1, 2016



Cunningham on the memory of Tiananmen
By: Ezra Erker Published: 15/06/2009 at 12:00 AM, Newspaper section: Outlook

Twenty years have passed since the June 4 incident. What made you write 'Tiananmen Moon' now?

I want to commemorate a turning point in modern Chinese history, and the courage of all those who participated in it. While 20 years is well within memory, it's also long enough where people begin to forget. This is a task whose urgency has only increased because it can't be openly talked about, mourned or memorialised in China.

Philip J Cunningham.

Immediately after the events in 1989, I was involved in several documentaries: Rape of Liberty for the BBC, Tragedy at Tiananmen for ABC, Gate of Heavenly Peace for PBS and Sunday Project for TV Asahi. In addition, I was contractually tied up in a feature film deal with HBO for a movie called "Tiananmen Square". Alas, the film was not made, understandably in part due to the daunting logistics of crowd scenes in pre-CGI days, but less forgivably because the story as I told it had "too many Chinese in it".

There is remarkable attention to detail in the book, from where and what you ate, to who you were with, what people said, changing slogans, how the marches were organised and what people wore. Did you take copious notes at the time or are you trusting memory to fill in the gaps?

I did take notes, which I then hammered out on a keyboard nearly every day for several months starting in June 1989. I also had interviews on tape and was prodded to remember things while working on various documentaries. My photos helped a great deal with details such as clothing, signs and slogans, and minutiae of the background environment. But what makes it possible for me, even now, to give a day-by-day account of that particular month is first and foremost the dramatic salience of the events themselves - it's amazing how the past comes alive when you talk with other witnesses.

I also tend to be nostalgic about the past and save things, mentally and physically, that others might discard. For example, there is a scene where a student activist rips off a piece of the Beijing Hotel menu to write some notes - I still have that piece of the menu, and could accurately report the price of chilled lychees or whatever. And I kept the "last will and testament" in which Chai Ling entrusted me to tell her story "to all the Chinese of the world" as well. Ditto for the 1989 Democratic Tide shirt given to me by the hunger striker Meng, and his school pin from the Central Academy of Drama.

Then there's the additional factor of being in "exchange student mode" or "journalist mode", a departure from the quotidian in which one carefully observes and records everything novel and strange. There are many weeks, many months of routine workaday life that I give little thought to, and don't make any attempt to preserve at all. On the other hand, my first memories of Thailand, for example, are incredibly vivid: Stepping out on the tarmac of Don Mueang in the heat of a murky tropical night, hearing shouts of "Yankee go home" before being wai'ed and given jasmine-scented garlands and some juicy, sticky rambutan by my AFS hosts on the way into town.

Why is it important for China to keep the memory of June 4 alive?

An entirely peaceful and humanitarian protest movement involving millions of people was tragically and unnecessarily cut down on June 4, 1989. Yet the tragic denouement should not be allowed to eclipse what was arguably one of the largest, sustained and harmonious demonstrations in human history, a singular accomplishment of the then collective-minded Chinese people. It's something to be proud of, despite the botched ending, and all the more spiritually haunting because of the sacrifices involved. It's something that transcends the crass materialism of today and speaks to the potential of people power at its best and most inspired. And it inspired peaceful transformation around the globe.

'Newsweek' once ran a cover story on Asian amnesia, an unwillingness for many countries in Asia to confront unpatriotic or controversial episodes of modern history in textbooks or state-sponsored media. Is this especially an Asian problem or a broader human tendency?

That sounds about right ... an insupportable generalisation in support of a catchy cover story. No, I'd rather see it as a human tendency. Denial can range from something benign, a kind of play-acting that goes on, awaiting the passage of time to heal old wounds, to something quite malicious and manipulative, especially on the part of those with vested interests in obscuring the truth.

You've lived in Asia much of your life and speak several of its languages. As a native New Yorker, why do you feel such an affinity for the Far East?

I think my AFS experience in Thailand was the key to that; my friends and Thai family went out of their way to make me feel at home. At Cornell, I studied Thai, because I loved the beauty of the language, and Chinese, because it was another universe. And I now work in Kyoto, a city with a thousand years of history on display. I've been told I must have been Asian in a previous life. But I give credit to my parents, both Irish-Americans, who had an abiding respect for other cultures, and New York, one of the few places outside of Asia where I can find continuity with my "Asian lifestyle" in the sense of rich cultural diversity, stimulating crowds, excellent ethnic food and people from everywhere.