It was my first trip to Beijing way back during the Mid-Autumn festival (widely known as the "Moon Cake Festival") in the first week of October 2002; and I was extremely excited at the prospects of actually going to experience the sights and smells of the city at first hand. I had long awaited for this moment and finally that thought was to become reality. Prior to this trip, I had two solid images of Beijing in my mind, the first one was of the Great Wall of China- the image which I suppose most foreigners would have when China is mentioned to them; and the second one was of Tiananmen Square. However that image of Tiananmen Square was the same image that, sadly, showed tanks and student protesters during the 4th June 1989. I was a 9 years old youngster living in London at that time and, obviously, I hardly remember anything at that time. However as the years have passed since that atrocious day in Chinese history, the images we in the UK (and outside of China) have been accustomed to watching are of a young man waving something (a white flag or shirt) and standing in front of a tank in the middle of the square. So on this trip; I was curious to see that square and to stand on that piece of historical land. By all means, it was not the purpose of my trip, however I wanted to see that exact place, and just compare the sight of what life is like in 21st Century Beijing, compared to what I had seen through western Media.
On this trip I was fortunate enough to be accompanied by one of my good friend’s who was kind enough to take a couple of days off her work to show me around. Born and raised in Beijing, educated at the famous Tsinghua University and an aspiring Chinese model/actress, I could not have been in any better company in this splendid city. Arriving on a hot and dry afternoon at my hotel, I spent the final hours of that day sightseeing in central Beijing, having been to look at Beihai Park, the Tian Tan (Temple of Heaven) and eating a scrumptious meal at the acclaimed Duck restaurant on 32 Qianmen Street, I eventually made my way through to Tiananmen Square.
Standing at the largest square in the in the world for the first time was just such a wonderful feeling. I immediately felt as if I was part of China’s history and not just Beijing’s history. It was a quite atmosphere to absorb. The weather was still fairly hot and there was a slight breeze coming in from the south. There were many families, tourists and residents’ alike taking an evening stroll, some taking photos, while others were just whiling away the time chatting amongst themselves. There were also quite a lot of children flying kites, taking advantage of that slight breeze I suppose.
However one thing I did notice which was somewhat difficult to avoid. As a rough estimate, there must have been about two hundred uniformed army and police personnel in the square (possibly more if one includes the non-uniformed ones). Some were marching in line, while others were just standing and watching the crowds. Were they anticipating for something to happen? Was this a routine procedure (or should I say a daily one?)? I did not know the answer to these questions. Nevertheless their presence was all the all a bizarre occurrence to me, as the only time I have seen such high number of police presence is at, say marches or public events (musical concerts and so on)- and here I was standing in Beijing on a perfectly normal and quiet summer’s evening. Every time I got my camera out to take a photo, it had always occurred at the back of my mind, “Is it safe?”, “Will they stop me from taking a photo?” It seems bad that I had these thoughts, but for some reason (I still cannot explain as to why), I always felt a bit fearful of seeing Chinese police. If I, as a foreigner felt this way, I can only imagine what a native Chinese person may feel like.
Just then a group of about 10 soldiers where marching towards us. I took a chance and asked my friend to take a photo of me with the soldiers marching as a backdrop. She asked me to stand in front of a tree, and carefully placed the camera at an angle so that no one could tell that she was talking the photos of the soldiers as well.
My friend and I strolled our way to the south side of the square, and she was happily explaining to me the daily ceremony of raising (at sunrise) and lowering (at sunset) of the national flag by the guards, when I asked her a few questions; and I could not resist the opportunity. “Is this is way the tanks came in from on the 4th of June?”, “Do you remember what you were doing on that day?” Immediately I realized that I made a mistake of even asking her up front. Suddenly her smile disappeared, and she completely ignored my questions. “Is everything alright?” I asked, to which she replied with a simple nod with a straight facial expression before we changed the subject and carried on talking about other things. To this day, I do not understand what was going through her mind, and will probably never know why she ignored my questions. Interestingly, during my many years in China, I had come to realize that this was not just an isolated case, it was quite common for anyone to just suddenly go quiet and change the subject...would be interesting to know if anyone else (Chinese or non-Chinese) has had a similar experience.
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