“The Death of Remembrance: A Review of May 35th  《5月35日》” by Curllous Longtemps

The Death of Remembrance: A Review of May 35th (Gengzi Edition Global)《5月35日(庚子版)》
by Curllous Longtemps

Candace Chong Mui-ngam (playwright), Chan Chu-hei (director), May 35th (Gengzi Edition Global), Stage 64, 2020 June 3 (9:30 p.m.), Live online performance.

Retelling history that was buried and denied, May 35th (Gengzi Edition Global)《5月35日(庚子版)》portrayed the desperate attempts of an elderly couple to commemorate their son, who died in the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. This violent crackdown in Communist China is a highly sensitive subject; any mention of which is strictly forbidden. By naming the play May 35th, a thinly veiled reference to the Tiananmen Square Massacre that took place on 4 June 1989, Candace Chong Mui-ngam both parodied and defied the country’s official silencing of its bloodstained history. It is no coincidence, then, that May 35th was performed and broadcast live on the eve of June 4—being not only a play of commemoration, but also a play as commemoration. By memorialising May 35th ‘in broad daylight’, the play resisted the state-imposed amnesia and historical whitewashing at the hands of a totalitarian regime.

While May 35th sets out to trace the past, it bears an urgency and relevance to the present and future of Hong Kong. Unlike its predecessor, directed by Lee Chun-chow in 2019 before the anti-extradition protest in Hong Kong, this Gengzi Edition Global of May 35th was re-contextualised by Chan Chu-hei in accordance with the gradual stripping away of freedom in the past year in Hong Kong. The overture of the play includes an anti-extradition-themed music video Be Water自游,[i] accompanied by familiar footage of the anti-extradition protest last year in Hong Kong, and the Tiananmen Square Massacre. By juxtaposing China’s lasting legacy of tyranny and Hongkongers’ tireless fight for freedom, Chan makes the history of a nation and the destiny of a city converge, a traumatic past and a precarious present.

May 35th not only incorporates the present, but participates in it. In the final scene, as a sudden thumping sound draws near, the actors are joined by a group of black-clad, yellow-helmeted, umbrella-wielding teens who stand guard at the theatre exit in what appears to be a dramatic recreation of the anti-extradition protest. A cello rendition of “Glory to Hong Kong” 願榮光歸香[ii] rises against the inaudible Mandarin blaring from loudspeakers outside. This is the moment May 35th becomes meta-theatrical, reflecting on the perils of political censorship and persecution to the theatre space. With the June 4 vigil the following night banned by the Hong Kong government and the passing of the National Security Law just under four weeks later, Chan’s projection of Hong Kong art’s future seems more prophetic than hyperbolic.

Despite its clear political intentions, Chong’s historiographic presentation of June 4 is devoid of spectacular violence. Indeed, as some Hongkongers would feel, the police brutality in the city has plumbed unprecedented depths such that any dramatic representation would struggle to fully convey. Physical and visible violence is given extensive graphic (i.e. photojournalism) and textual (i.e. testimonies by victims, including protesters) representation in publicity for the movement. May 35th departs from this and inhabits a narrative niche that zooms in on the motif of disappearance at the heart of violence itself. The play opens on the plane of repressed normalcy, an old couple afflicted by disease and living the last of their days in present-day China. We are gradually let in on fragments of June 4 in 1989 through the recounting by Siu Lam (the mother) and Ah Dai (the father). There is no explicit show of guns, batons, protests, or slogans, only the memories of the bereaved, memories that are coerced into silence, of truths unseen but whose effects are viscerally experienced. In making violence disappear in the play, Chong recomposes another form of violence that leaves truth unseen and unspoken. This violence shall be complete when those who remember it leave the face of earth.

It is this inevitability of death for the characters and what it will mean for their memories to ‘disappear’ too along with it that gives the play an ominous tension from the start. The run-down flat where Siu Lam and Ah Dai live is therefore a space of memento mori: the white walls blackened by time, the bare furnishings, the nostalgic style, all speaking to life marooned in the past and soon to be erased. This is all at odds with the changes brought about by China’s modernisation, as shown in the obsolescence of printed books and the rise of a superficial video-streaming culture. These details are no mere caricatures of the effects of technological advances, but speak to a meta-narrative of national stability and material prosperity which drowns out the retelling of the nation’s violent past. Similarly, irony abounds as Siu Lam gives away their son Chit’s belongings to the millennials who grew up oblivious to the Tiananmen massacre. Many university students Siu Lam talks to have never heard of June 4, or if they have, only know it as the ‘counterrevolutionary riot’—the official account to demonise protesters and justify violent crackdowns. Her hopes to pass on Chit’s legacy symbolically are futile in a country that has only room for nationalistic make-believe. As a ghost, Siu Lam says:

For centuries, countless powerful leaders have been worshipped here, but none ever brought true happiness and peace to the people.

This is a comment on the state of affairs within China that may seem, for those who deem ‘sacrifice’ necessary to peace and prosperity, inaccurate; and for those who are ready to accept the ‘official’ version of truth, irrelevant. Surprisingly, this is almost the only line in the play that prompts one to reflect on the political system of China, contrary to what one might expect in a political play.

But perhaps May 35th should also be read as a simple story of remembrance. While the play is intended to be explicitly political, Chong did not turn it into a treatise on the complex motivations for a democratic society. Rather, through the sentimental appeal of bereaved parents, Chong asks for a return to the simple and universal cauldron of emotions—love, loss, regret, and rage—that can connect to everyone regardless of political stance. What May 35th reveals about the remembrance of June 4th is that it is not so much about politics or ideologies, but a love of life and a longing for liberty.

(Images from Stage 64.)

你只可以有一種信念,就係到最後會開花結果。

[i] 自游 : 「游」(to swim) is a homophone of「由」 (pass through, or by way of), where 自由 means ‘freedom’ in written Chinese.

[ii] “Glory to Hong Kong” 願榮光歸香港: Crowned as the most representative song of Hongkongers’ yearning for freedom and democracy, and often played and sung during the anti-extradition protests.

Curllous Longtemps (pen name) is curled and callused to the world with gentle indifference. He retreats to the cocoon of words and feeds upon the phantasm of art. An English Language and Literature teacher who hopes to do more with words. Co-translator of Love Lyrics of the Sinking Isle (pending publication). Born in Hong Kong, a Hongkonger forever.

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