By Michael Li
In the summer of 1989, I was 13 and just about to graduate from primary school. My family lived in a single-storey house in central Beijing, just a few kilometres away from Tiananmen Square.
On the afternoon of June 3, like always, I wanted to go out to catch cicadas and play ball games, but my grandmother wouldn’t let me out. I protested, and she became so angry that she gave me a few slaps to make me stay at home.
We watched an announcement from the military on television together in our dimly-lit house. Martial law had been declared two weeks earlier.
The day was hot and humid. My grandmother carefully blockaded our window facing the street with blankets.
Her actions struck me as rather strange at the time, but I understand them now. By that time, she had experienced both two major wars in her life: the war with Japan and the civil war that saw the Chinese Communist Party gain control of the mainland.
She felt something was going to happen. But I was bored by the television program, and soon fell asleep.
A Beijing citizen stands in front of tanks during the crushing of the Tiananmen Square protests. (Reuters: Arthur Tsang)
After I don’t know how long, half waking up, I heard a popping sound, like firecrackers. At first the sound went off just sporadically, but soon became more frequent.
I couldn’t see anything because the window was blocked. Too afraid to turn on the lights, we listened quietly to what was going on outside in the dark.
Before long, the sound of firecrackers gradually came closer.
“That’s gunfire!” my uncle shouted.
It was my first time hearing gunfire. The ‘pop-pop-pop’ was mixed with a low and continuous ‘rat-a-tat-tat’ which now, after years of experience as a journalist specialising in China’s military, I know to be the sound of machine guns on armoured vehicles or tanks.
There was also the sound of people crying and screaming, and maybe hurling curses — first far away, then coming closer and closer.
And then came a deafening sound thundering from the west to the east from the nearby Fuxingmen Bridge. I heard shrill metal scratches — the roaring sound of armoured vehicle engines — louder and louder.
Finally the brick wall of our house facing the street shook with a loud bang.
It was a tank. It clashed against our wall again and again. We ran out of the house to the courtyard.
It’s been 29 years and I can still hear the initial clash, which left two long cracks on our wall, and feel the fear and helplessness.
The sounds — gunfire, crying, cursing, and the roaring of armoured vehicles — were all my memories of the night of June 3. The gunfire did not stop until the next morning.
I wasn’t allowed to go out until a week later. But when grandma did let me out, I was shocked to find my neighbourhood looking like the images I’d seen of post-war Beirut, as reported on CCTV news, China’s national broadcaster.
There were bullet marks and holes everywhere on the buildings. There was a bullet hole in the cement cable pole near my home, with a bullet still inside.
In front of my house, the armoured vehicles had left long tracks on the street. The iron fences around the green belt in the middle of the road were crushed into a tangled metal scrap.
On the pavement on both sides of the road, there were several dark brown marks that looked like pools of dried blood.
The two long and deep cracks left on our wall remained there until the area was demolished years later in 1995.
It has been decades. The bullet holes, blood stains and twisted metal have all gone. The soil stained by blood was replaced by a brand new green belt with lawns. The newly-built Beijing Ocean Plaza dazzles in the sun where our house once stood.
All the changes, however, cannot change a child’s memory of that night, the darkest night of my life.