The lonely Goddess: A lost memory of Tiananmen hides in plain sight on UBC campus

It was once a symbol for student activism at UBC. But now, thousands of students walk by the Goddess of Democracy every day without so much as a glance.

The Goddess of Democracy is not a beautiful statue. Standing alone between Brock Hall and the Nest, the Goddess’ gypsum and marble frame is yellowed, her features roughly sculpted. To her left is a pallet holding what used to be a wreath. At her base is a bouquet of rotted flowers wrapped in clear plastic. Every June 4, mourners lay flowers here to pay respects to the victims of the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989, where pro-democracy demonstrators were killed by Chinese soldiers.

The original Goddess of Democracy was over six times this statue’s size, a ten metre-high monolith of styrofoam and plastic-soaked rags. She was created in secret by students at the Beijing Academy of Fine Arts as a symbol of the fight for expanded democratic rights. When the tanks came, she was obliterated.

This statue is one of her first life-size copies. A testament to students killed while protesting, it was once a symbol for student activism at UBC. But now, thousands of students walk by every day without so much as a glance.

In honour of Asian-Canadian Heritage month, The Ubyssey takes a look at how Chinese-Canadian activism has given our campus one of its most significant student symbols.

In the streets and on the screen

What Dr. Tom Perry remembers is that everyone was watching TV.

In the spring of 1989, Chinese students and workers occupied Tiananmen Square to mourn the death of former Chairman Hu Yaobang, an advocate for government transparency. The world joined from their living rooms, anxious at the thought of watching history in the making.

“I used to rush home to make sure I was in time to watch the evening news with my wife,” said Perry. “It was very exciting. And extremely optimistic.”

In 1989, Perry was the MLA for Vancouver-Point Grey. Despite the 8,500 kilometres between his constituency and Beijing, students from China, Hong Kong and Canada had been assembling on UBC campus in solidarity with their counterparts overseas. Tiananmen was happening across the world — in the streets and on the screen.

“The death of Hu Yaobang opened up Pandora’s Box,” said UBC Chinese history Professor Leo Shin. “It allowed certain sentiments of liberalism to become much more open.”

“It became a nationwide movement … and not just nationwide but also [in] the overseas Chinese communities in North America, Hong Kong and Europe.”

For members of Vancouver’s Chinese-speaking population, Tiananmen was as revolutionary as it was concerning.

Claire Lloyd

“We worried about the students — if they didn’t compromise, we knew it would lead to violence,” said Richard Lee. A former BC Liberal MLA and UBC alumnus, Lee was an engineer at TRIUMF at the time of the protests.

He and other residents, especially recent immigrants from Hong Kong, had been organizing protests across Vancouver and at UBC. They spent evenings tuned into media reports from Hong Kong. On June 2, as tensions continued to escalate, Lee was glued to the TV.

“We didn’t sleep that night. We kept an eye on the television,” said Lee.

“Say something!”

Because of the time difference, Vancouver learned about June 4 on June 3, at around 10 a.m.

Radio host Tung Tat-Shing — who goes by the anglicized name Ken Tung — and his wife, Mabel, were among the first to hear the news. As many as 10,000 protesters were estimated to have been massacred by government troops in Tiananmen.

They, along with dozens of other demonstrators, flooded the space outside the Chinese consulate on Granville Street.

“It was spontaneous,” said Tung. “At one point, Vancouver police blocked the whole of Granville Street. People kept yelling, repeating the slogans from Beijing.”

Perry wasn’t far behind. “I went down there with my wife and my daughter on my shoulders,” he remarked. “I remember scrambling across Granville Street, dodging cars and running up to one of the protesters with bullhorns ... I understood it was their moment — but I told them, ‘I’m in the legislature. Would you like me to say something?’

“And they said, ‘Yes! Please say something!’”

Eventually, the police lost their patience.

“Vancouver police, around 1 p.m. came to us in the front of consulate and said, ‘I think we have to open up Granville Street. Can you guys finish?’” joked Tung.

The crowd milled for a second.

“Then someone said, ‘Let’s go to Chinatown!’” said Tung. He said he saw Raymond Chan — another TRIUMF engineer and a future Liberal Member of Parliament — lead a group of residents to Chinatown.

There, demonstrators decided to coordinate their efforts as the Vancouver Society in Support of Democratic Movement (VSSDM) — the group that would erect a Goddess of Democracy at UBC.

The storm of the spring”

The VSSDM hit the ground running. They organized hunger strikes, rallies, marches and proposed building a new Goddess of Democracy to be erected outside Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden in the heart of Chinatown, ensuring that the movement would never be forgotten.

Building the Goddess would be easy. American sculptor Thomas Marsh had just created a bronze replica of the statue in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Through mutual contacts, the VSSDM arranged for a mould of the original work to be sent north.

But getting the statue approved would be harder. As countries resumed trade with China, support for the Tiananmen protests abroad was already starting to fade. With that, the party line began to take hold.

“Anything about June 4 is censored in China,” noted Shin. “The only thing you will hear, when it’s necessary, is ‘the storm of the spring of 1989.’”

Claire Lloyd

Even in BC, the shift in tone was palpable. When Perry invited VSSDM members and students to Victoria, only one other MLA went to meet them.

“No one wanted to meet with them — with one exception, Emory Barnes,” said Perry. “No one in the hierarchy came out. And why not?”

“They were scared of China, and business,” Perry declared. “And the Chinese Benevolent Association.”

The Chinese Benevolent Association of Vancouver (CBA) is one of the most influential Chinese organizations in the country. In 1989, it boasted 10,000 members.

Its then-president, Bill Yee, was Vancouver’s first Chinese-Canadian “alderman” (now called a city councillor). He said the statue amounted to meddling in China’s internal affairs.

“In my mind, it’s like running a family. Every family has different circumstances,” said Yee. “It’s not up to me to run your family, or you to tell me how to run my family. It’s a basic human kind of respect.”

“Can you imagine if the Chinese government had taken a position on the separation of Quebec in the 1990s?” asked Yee. “That would have been a big no-no.”

Yee was far from alone. Many in Vancouver’s Chinese community — whose needs had long been ignored by politicians — valued economic stability over involvement in politics. And the Goddess of Democracy was — and still is — a radical symbol.

“To have a statue to commemorate the event is endorsing the ideas of the students — and that means the crackdown and the government was wrong,” said Shin. “The statue is essentially saying that it was a massacre.”

What followed was a collision of worldviews within the Chinese-Canadian community.

After the VSSDM filed an application to construct the Goddess with the Vancouver Parks Board, a bitter debate at Vancouver City Hall followed. Eventually, the Parks Board refused the application. The VSSDM attempted to barter to erect a plaque instead, but this too was rejected.

In Tung’s opinion, it was more than just the CBA that prevented this.

“It was the influence of Beijing,” said Tung. “Definitely the consulate may — I use may — have played a very important role.”

Yee denied that the consulate was directly involved. He also said there was no lobbying on the part of the CBA to influence MLAs like Tom Perry.

But the consulate did take a hardline stance against the VSSDM. Like Yee, they accused the VSSDM of meddling in China’s internal affairs.

“When any country commented on any issue on China,” said Lee, “they always said the same thing: ‘It is our internal affair.’”

明修棧道 暗渡陳倉

What the VSSDM lacked in influence, they made up for in strategy.

We used 明修棧道 暗渡陳倉,” said Lee.

“It’s an ancient Chinese story,” said Tung with a smile. The gist is this: when Han Emperor Lui Bang was at war with two neighbouring states, he sent workers to build a path to attack one of the states. Then, at the last moment, he surprised his foes by attacking them elsewhere. Today, the story is a proverb meaning “to feign one thing while doing another.”

“Because it was students who had been killed.”

— Jason Brett, AMS president 1989-90

Anticipating the statue at Chinatown might be rejected, the VSSDM leveraged connections with the UBC Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) to propose the statue to a surprised but enthusiastic Alma Mater Society (AMS).

“The choice of speaking to us … had as much to do I think with the practical reasons of hope of finding a sympathetic ear, as much as the symbolic reason of working with the student society,” remarked then-AMS President Jason Brett. “Because it was students who had been killed.”

After being assured that the VSSDM and the CSSA would provide the funds for the statue, the AMS approved the idea in a 1990 council meeting. But they still needed the approval of the UBC President’s Committee on University Art.

At this point, the Chinese consulate stepped in to directly lobby UBC. In an October 16 letter to then-UBC President Dr. David Strangway, Chinese Consul General An Wenbin called the statue “an attempt to interfere into China’s internal affairs and of hostility towards the Chinese people,” hinting that UBC’s many joint programs with Chinese universities may be harmed if the statue went up.

“... [T]he erection of ‘Godess of Democracy’ [sic] will surely harm in concrete terms the existing relations between U.B.C. and China,” the letter continues.

The consulate did not respond to a request for comment.

Yee also wrote a letter on behalf of the CBA, urging Strangway to reject the statue in order to preserve good relations with China. “It is our position that for anyone else outside to China to get involved in those kinds of decisions really gets close to interfering with another country’s affairs,” the letter reads.

Many UBC presidents might have reasonably backed down. But Strangway, who passed away in 2016, was an odd duck. Unlike many of his predecessors, he had a personal interest in art and would regularly discuss the university’s collection with John O’Brian, the then-chair of the committee.

"... [T]he erection of ‘Godess of Democracy’ [sic] will surely harm in concrete terms the existing relations between U.B.C. and China."

— An Wenbin, Chinese Consul General, in a 1990 letter to UBC President David Strangway

“It really was the President’s Committee of University Art,” said O’Brian. “It wasn’t just a phrase at the time.”

Strangway was also a master of feigning one thing, then doing another.

On October 31, 1991, he wrote back to Wenbin indicating that the decision was not his.

“The university will not interfere in a student activity taken in sympathy with fellow students around the world,” the letter reads. “The only criterion that must be met is to ensure that any structure erected meets the criteria of our art committee.”

At the same time, he made it clear to members of the committee that he expected the statue to be approved.

“We were being asked to approve or reject something that AMS wanted to do,” said then-UAC member professor Scott Watson. “To say ‘no’ would have been very aggressive.”

The combination of Strangway’s maneuvering and sympathy for the student movement allowed the statue to pass.

“He understood the notion of freedom that’s embedded in all art,” said O’Brian of Strangway. “Another president might not have understood it. But he got it.”

The statue was unveiled in front of hundreds of students in the Old Sub Plaza on June 2, 1991. Chan, the Tungs, Lee, Perry and a shopping list of local politicians from federal and provincial parties were all in attendance.

“It was quite inspiring,” said Senator Patricia Carney, one of many present. “You got the feeling that maybe China, with this kind of support for democracy, it might expand its efforts to operate in a more democratic process as we know it.”

“I had that feeling,” said Tung. “But it is is not a final step of helping China … it is almost the beginning. It is one page. We have many pages to go.”

“I left thinking that it was one of the most emotional days I’d ever spent on my alma mater’s campus,” concluded Carney.

Flesh Made Stone

That same month, the Belkin Art Gallery hosted a feminist art installation titled Heroic-Romance. Among the exhibit’s themes was the use of the female body to express political feelings — like the Goddess of Democracy.

One of the only existing photos of <em>Flesh Made Stone</em> before it disappeared.
One of the only existing photos of Flesh Made Stone before it disappeared. Courtesy Belkin Gallery

With Watson’s blessing, two of the participating artists, Kathryn Walters and Jin Me-Yoon, strolled out to the Goddess and installed a plaque with the word “Flesh” written in English and Chinese, entitled Flesh Made Stone.

“We wanted to provide a counterpoint to the work,” said Walters. “Acknowledging the problems associated with the image of the Goddess […] while also presenting our work as a grave, as a reminder that people had died in pursuit of this ideal.”

A few months later, Flesh Made Stone disappeared. Watson isn’t sure whether it was stolen by pro-regime sympathizers or accidentally removed by UBC.

Flesh marked the first time that the Goddess would become a focal point for political action on campus. It would not be the last. During the anti-APEC protests on the UBC campus in 1997, over 1,500 protesters surrounded the Goddess to create an “APEC-free zone.”

The Goddess of Democracy has become an epicentre of action for anti-APEC activists (September 1997).
The Goddess of Democracy has become an epicentre of action for anti-APEC activists (September 1997). File Richard Lam

“Her torch has no flame and she stands only 10 feet tall, but the Goddess of Democracy means as much to some students as the Statue of Liberty does to New Yorkers,” a Ubyssey article from September 1997 notes. Students hung signs from the Goddess’s neck, doused her in paint and even put lipstick on her, according to an article from the same issue of The Ubyssey.

“We never anticipated that people would try to put lipstick on the sculpture,” added original artist Thomas Marsh with a laugh. “But we were hoping that this statue would encourage people to stand up and speak freely to government.”

It didn’t stop with APEC. In 1999, pro-choice and anti-abortion protesters clashed in front of the Goddess to debate newly passed abortion legislation in the United States. In 2003, students assembled around the Goddess to protest the Iraq War. More recently, in 2014, the Goddess’ torch was briefly replaced by an umbrella in reference to the Hong Kong Umbrella movement.

“The statue has always become a focal point in times of tension on campus,” said O’Brian. “It does and continues to do exactly what a work of public sculpture that has a political side should do.

“It is a place where people can gather as a group and have their voices heard.”

Living history

After the statue was unveiled, Chan ran for political office. Using his involvement in the pro-democracy movement as a springboard, he was elected to the House of Commons in 1993, becoming Canada’s Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific under Jean Chretien’s Liberal government.

It made him Canada’s first Chinese-Canadian minister; it also meant that the former pro-democracy activist was soon shaking hands with the people he had protested against.

Chan represented Canada at the 1997 APEC forum, where officials involved with the Tiananmen crackdown were invited as diplomatic guests. Ironically, the very statue he helped place on campus became a symbol for resistance against his new political direction.

“I think that many people in that movement … used their popularity to seek political office,” said Yee.

Chan did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The statue itself has largely been removed from campus consciousness. During the construction of the Nest, it was moved from its former prominent position and placed in its current home near Brock Hall.

Goddess is also slowly yellowing, with cracks already beginning to form on its surface. Because of the odd alignment of organizations that led to the statue’s installation, it is “owned” by the VSSDM and the CSSA, who paid $20,000 and $5,000 for it, respectively.

Officially, it is maintained by the AMS. But 2017-18 AMS President Alan Ehrenholz indicated that the statue hadn’t been cleaned in “many years,” although to do so is “on the agenda.”

Claire Lloyd

Every June, the VSSDM and supporters gather at the statue to pay respects. But every year, there are fewer in attendance.

“By and large, the event really touched the generation of people who saw it on TV,” said Shin. “I think the event meant a great deal to those who were alive at the time. It’s hard for the younger generation to feel the same thing — especially since China is so strong now.”

“The statue is a record,” said Yee. “It is something that only matters to a small group of people. It is a part of history, now.”

But even if the movement it represented has faded to the background, supporters say the Goddess is an important reminder of what was and what could be.

“Pointedly and tragically, it means more than it ever did,” said Watson. “It’s performing a service by remembering the voices that were silenced in China.”

As the statue approaches its 26th birthday, Watson says he hopes to move the Goddess to a more central location, and recreate Flesh Made Stone.

“There is no Goddess of Democracy in China. When visitors come to UBC, they will be surprised seeing this,” said Tung. “I think that is a very important evidence to show what happened in 1989 and what the world has worked on.”

Marsh, the creator of the statue’s mould, has meticulously tracked the Chinese government’s propaganda around June 4. He noted that every few years, the estimate of casualties tends to fall, getting closer to the government’s line. It is part of why he believes his creation is so important today.

“As time passes, naturally if you weren’t alive during that history, you’re moving farther away from it,” said Marsh.

“But there are people who will never forget, and I’m never allowing them to be forgotten.”

Members of the VSSDM will meet at the Goddess of Democracy on June 3 at noon to pay respects.