I was reminded of my visit to Tiananmen Square in Beijing as I watched the play Chimerica at the Manitoba Theatre Centre. The story revolves around an American news photographer in 2012 who believes the defiant young man who stood in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square during the student uprisings of 1989 is still alive and living in New York. The photographer is determined to find him.
As the play transported us back to China and Tiananmen Square in 1989 I thought of Canadian journalist Jan Wong. She was in a hotel looking out over the square as the students were massacred and she gives a vivid and disturbing account of it in her book Red China Blues. The production of Chimerica at MTC uses video, a clever stage set, sound effects and lighting to also give us an inside look at what might have happened in Tiananmen Square. The Chimerica program provides a historical timeline for the 1989 student demonstrations for democracy but it personalizes the events by telling us the story of a young couple who were in the square the day of the massacre.
I once listened to a university professor who was in Beijing during the student protests give a first hand account of her experience in Tiananmen Square. I’ve blogged about it . I wondered where playwright Lucy Kirkwood had found the information she used to recreate the Tiananmen Square events for her play Chimerica. Did she travel to China? Conduct interviews? During our visit to Tiananmen Square our guide was very reluctant to discuss the events that happened there in 1989. Apparently the iconic photo of the young man standing in front of the tanks still can not be accessed online in China.
In 2004 I attended a huge exhibit in Hong Kong honoring the life of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. People were happily posing with likenesses of him and having their children do so too. Absolutely no mention was made in the entire exhibit that Xiaoping was the leader who had ordered the massacre of the students in Tiananmen Square. He was being remembered only as a great leader who had modernized China.
According to the play Chimerica which is set in 2012 it is still dangerous to talk about Tiananmen Square in a public way in China or in fact to express negative opinions about any government policy.
As I was watching Chimerica I thought of dissident Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei who has paid the price for his criticism of the Chinese government. The play Chimerica does a good job of reminding us that while China has certainly changed in many ways some things, like the government’s attitude towards freedom of expression still seem to be firmly rooted in an oppressive past.