Undercurrent of uncertainty amid the songs and slogans

About 125,000 people attended last night's candlelight vigil, down from 135,000 last year.
About 125,000 people attended last night's candlelight vigil, down from 135,000 last year.ST PHOTO: JOYCE LIM

For the 26th consecutive year, a sea of flickering candles lit up Victoria Park in Hong Kong's Causeway Bay on June 4.

But last night, the glow was that much dimmer.

About 125,000 people - a drop from the 135,000 last year and the peak of 165,000 a few years ago - gathered to mark the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen incident.

Even as Hong Kongers sang the songs that student protesters in Beijing sang in 1989 and shouted the slogans that they shouted, there was a tangible undercurrent of uncertainty about the future of the annual candlelight vigil.

Participants say there is a need for it to be updated, as a growing number of young Hong Kongers - influenced by localist and even pro-independence beliefs - eschew the event, saying it is not relevant to the city.

Public relations executive Bryan Leung, 27, who attended it with friends, said: "Every year, people cry. Every year, we sing. Perhaps we need to reform how we remember June 4, by linking the Tiananmen incident more closely to Hong Kong's own fight for democracy."

Holding a candle, fitness trainer Melo Lee, 33, added: "Maybe organisers need to let youngsters have a bigger say in how we commemorate this."

How the issue is resolved is important. Hong Kong remains the only place on Chinese soil allowed to commemorate the incident in which hundreds, if not thousands, died when Chinese troops cracked down on the pro-democracy protest.

Hong Kong's university student unions used to be a driving force behind the vigil. This year, however, they boycotted it, holding rival forums to discuss the city's future instead.

At Victoria Park, a fracas broke out at one point when localist activist Simon Sim dashed onto the stage shouting "Support localism!" before being hauled away by rally marshals.

Offstage, a Shenzhen tourist yelled: "Hong Kong is part of China!"

Such localist sentiments gained force following the failure of the 79-day Occupy protest movement in 2014.

Some observers then evoked the chilling images of tanks mowing down students in Beijing in 1989. The same could happen in Hong Kong in 2014, they had believed.

It did not. In the end, Beijing allowed the Occupy protest to fizzle out without giving in to any of the protesters' demands, including greater freedoms to elect their leader. But this radicalised many young people, who felt that moderate ways could no longer work.

That localist beliefs are gaining traction has clearly put the June 4 vigil organisers on the defensive.

One of them, pan-democrat Albert Ho, told the crowd last night in an attempt to underscore the event's significance: "In the history of mankind, never has there been so many people who gathered at the same place for so many years for the same cause."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 05, 2016, with the headline 'Undercurrent of uncertainty amid the songs and slogans'. Print Edition | Subscribe