By Rishi Iyengar / Hong Kong
June 4, 2015

As it does on every June 4, Hong Kong’s Victoria Park turned into a sea of humanity Thursday night local time as people gathered for a candlelight vigil in remembrance of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, when hundreds, if not thousands, of youngsters demanding democracy were killed by the Chinese army.

People began pouring in to the large public park in Hong Kong’s downtown Causeway Bay district by 6 p.m., two hours before the sweltering vigil officially began, and continued to arrive well after it started. Volunteers from various political parties and civil-society groups lined the approach, addressing the crowd through loudhailers, attempting to raise funds and — this being pragmatic, capitalist Hong Kong — selling fans and small folding chairs.

The 25th anniversary of the massacre last year saw an estimated 180,000 attendees. This year’s crowd was also impressive, with the six adjacent soccer fields at the park’s center quickly filling up, forcing thousands of late arrivals to be accommodated on grassy expanses elsewhere in the park. The organizers estimated the final attendance at around 135,000. (The Hong Kong police, notorious for the conservatism of their crowd estimates, put the crowd at just over 46,000.)

Several hard-line democracy groups and student unions chose to give the vigil a miss and organized their own events to observe the 26th anniversary of the bloody crackdown in Beijing. Many young people do not agree with the call, made each year by the organizers of the main vigil, for a unified democratic China. Instead, they feel linguistically, culturally, and historically alienated from mainland China and argue that Hong Kong’s own struggle for democracy — which flared up during last year’s Umbrella Revolution, when thousands occupied the streets for over three months — should take precedence over trying to reform China’s communist government.

“People may have different views on organizing it — maybe they think this is not the way that they should pay tribute,” Mak Hoi-wah, vice chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, which organizes the event, told TIME on the eve of the vigil. “They are free to do so. We are not expecting everybody to do it in the same way, but don’t forget June 4.”

A parallel vigil organized by the Hong Kong University Students’ Union at their campus drew around 2,000 people, and the hosts were quoted as saying there would be “no singing, no sales and no applause for ourselves.” Although the students did observe a minute’s silence for the Tiananmen dead, the conversation was directed more toward Hong Kong’s and Taiwan’s struggle against a common oppressor — the communist government in Beijing.

Hundreds more gathered across the harbor in Kowloon’s Tsim Sha Tsui district, for a more adversarial rally organized by Civic Passion, an organization that demands Hong Kong be given the same degree of autonomy as a city-state. The crowd shouted slogans against the Communist Party, and burned the party’s flag as they have been doing for the past two years.

Both rallies paled, however, in comparison to the massive turnout at Victoria Park, where a peaceful and somber crowd held candles high in the air and observed a minute’s silence. As is customary, looming replicas of the Monument to the People’s Heroes — a tall obelisk in Tiananmen Square — and the Goddess of Democracy statue were paraded through the crowd, with wreaths being laid at their bases to commemorate the dead.

Other elements of the ceremony paid tribute to the central symbol of the Umbrella Revolution, with posters depicting a candle shaped like a yellow umbrella, and several such umbrellas themselves, among the huge crowd. Representatives from the four students’ unions that did choose to attend gave speeches denouncing the Chinese government’s handling of Hong Kong before burning a copy of the Basic Law — the name given to Hong Kong’s de facto constitution — on stage.

Despite talk of a rift between younger and older generations, large numbers of attendees were college students and recent graduates, many of whom had chosen to join the vigil for the first time.

“I don’t want Hong Kong to get worse,” said 22-year-old Pak Lam-wong, explaining that he decided to attend the annual gathering after last year’s pro-democracy protests. Pak also had another reason for attending. “If I have children one day, I want to tell them about this event,” he said. “I want to know more.”

Another first-time attendee, a 19-year-old who said he was afraid to give his name after revealing that he hails from China’s Hebei province, lamented the lack of information and openness on the mainland. “I want to remember this: most people in China have forgotten this history,” he said. “They are chasing the same goal as Hong Kong’s people — freedom, liberty and justice. China has really divided mainland China and Hong Kong people.”

Hong Kong’s own tryst with democracy, meanwhile, is far from over. Two weeks from now, on June 17, the city’s legislature will vote on an electoral reform proposal that the pro-democracy legislators are expected to reject. If that happens, and the reform doesn’t pass, there are several possibilities for what happens next, one of which includes the resurgence of street protests.

But on Thursday night it was all about remembering the pro-democracy crusaders who laid down their lives for the cause over two and a half decades ago. Many in Hong Kong pray that they will not have to do the same.

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