- Last December, Hong Kong removed the Pillar of Shame, a memorial to the Tiananmen Square massacre.
- The removal only increased the monument’s fame – and brought a flood of requests for replicas.
- Creator Jens Galschiøt gave up his copyright to the sculpture, enabling 3D printers to make copies.
HONG KONG – In the 1990s, a Danish sculptor launched an audacious project to pepper the earth with copies of a grotesque sculpture that depicted human bodies wreathed together in pain.
The monument, known as the “Pillar of Shame,” is constructed out of bronze, copper or concrete and stands atop a square plinth. It rises about 8 meters, or 26 feet, in all. Its creator, Jens Galschiøt, envisioned it as a “Nobel Prize of Injustice” and vowed to place replicas of the pillar all over the world to mark acts of genocide and murder.
For a time, Galschiøt’s effort was something of a success. He installed a copy of the pillar in Hong Kong in 1997 to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre, in which Chinese troops killed hundreds if not thousands of peaceful pro-democracy protesters. He landed a second copy in Mexico in 1999 to commemorate the slaughter of Indigenous people and a third in Brazil in 2000 to honor landless peasants killed by military police.
But then the project stalled. For over two decades, it seemed no one was interested in getting a Pillar of Shame — that is, until now.
These days, the 67-year-old sculptor is so inundated with requests for copies of his signature artwork that he needs a full-time apprentice just to manage the endless stream of emails and phone calls. He’s being sought out for art exhibitions, speeches, interviews, and new Pillar of Shame installations around the world. At Galschiøt’s foundry, about two hours outside of Copenhagen, Denmark, his team is working overtime to cast replicas of various sizes. He has also invited artists everywhere to help meet the demand for replicas by using 3D-printing technologies and a free blueprint of the sculpture.”
The spark that led to an explosion of interest in Galschiøt’s project came in October, when Hong Kong University ordered that the Pillar of Shame be removed from its longtime home on the school’s campus — part of a larger effort to erase any public commemoration of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
The sculpture’s removal, carried out in the dead of night two days before Christmas, accomplished its goal of eliminating the controversial monument from public view. But it also unleashed something unexpected: China and Hong Kong authorities gave Galschiøt’s struggling art project the sort of publicity that no amount of money and PR firms could buy. Galschiøt’s Pillar of Shame was suddenly being discussed in The Washington Post and The New York Times and in outlets in Thailand, Iceland, Brazil, Turkey, Nigeria, Norway, Ireland, Germany, and Indonesia, to name just a few.
“They have made a big mistake,” Galschiøt said in an interview. “Now, instead of one, they’re getting hundreds of Pillars of Shame.”
A group of former US government officials is working to erect a full-size replica in front of the Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC. In Norway, there’s a request to display a replica near the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo. In Taiwan, a pro-democracy group plans to unveil a 3D-printed model by June 4 to mark the 33rd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. An artists collective is planning to organize a worldwide tour with Galschiøt’s pillar to raise awareness of Hong Kong’s struggle for democracy.
Makerwiz 3D-printing studio in Richmond Hill, Ontario. Source: Makerwiz.
Galschiøt is also making smaller, 8.5-foot replicas in copper that he aims to hoist on top of plinths with plates dedicated to Tiananmen victims and Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, installing them at universities. For everyone else — volunteers at his workshop and ordinary people who are inspired by Galschiøt’s vision, or perhaps his tenacity — he has finished a batch of 60 bronze copies that are about a foot tall. He’s working on another 40. “There’s a lot of people who ask for a copy of that sculpture now,” Galschiøt said.
The nascent efforts are a cautionary tale of what happens when regimes try to censor art.
“The rulers, tyrants know the power of art. That’s why artists, poets, and musicians are the first ones they persecute and even kill,” said Rose Tang, a Tiananmen survivor and artist. But, as one 3D printer who recently replicated Galschiøt’s sculpture put it, “ideas can never be suppressed.”
Galschiøt’s Pillar of Shame is finally an idea whose time has come. Except, rather than commemorating atrocities in spots across the globe, the monument now seems poised to become synonymous with one event above all others: the Tiananmen Square massacre and China’s efforts to erase it from memory.
For more than two decades, anyone who visited the western edge of Hong Kong University’s winding Pok Fu Lam campus would inevitably bump into Galschiøt’s Pillar of Shame. It was situated off a major campus walkway, boxed inside a narrow atrium next to a popular student canteen. (Disclosure: The author teaches at Hong Kong University’s journalism program.)
As you looked up from your meal, your eyes would fall upon the Eiffel Tower-like heap of some 50 twisted bodies screaming in pain. Many of the faces looked like cadavers that had already breathed their last while others appeared to be in the act of dying; a man clutching a baby looked as if he was running away from some danger. Layers of thick orange paint flowed from the top down, turning yellow and peeling in places, giving the whole mass the hellish appearance of a pile of burning human flesh. The inscription “THE TIANANMEN MASSACRE” was etched in thick, blood-red letters on one side of the square base, above the date June 4, 1989. Directly to the left was another inscription that read, “the old cannot kill the young forever.”
For students who came to study here from mainland China, the pillar might be their first introduction to the Tiananmen massacre.
On one side of the pillar’s base, a plaque provided “A Brief History of the 1989 Beijing Pro-Democracy Movement.” It recounted how the death of pro-reform Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang in April 1989 sparked mass demonstrations in favor of democratic reforms. Beijing’s Tiananmen Square became a central gathering spot for students who waged a hunger strike to try to prompt a dialogue with Communist Party leaders. The government refused, declared martial law, and ultimately sent in military convoys to clear the square. On June 3 and 4, 1989, “several thousand soldiers forced their way via various routes into Beijing City, using guns and bullets to shoot unarmed citizens and students. Tanks were deployed to recover the Square,” the plaque read.
An official death toll was never confirmed. A 1990 report on the massacre by Amnesty International noted that Chinese authorities tallied some 200 civilian casualties, while Amnesty itself concluded that at least 1,000 people had been killed. Another more recent estimate based on a diplomatic cable declassified in 2017 pinned the number of civilian casualties at more than 10,000.
Whatever the ultimate toll, there was no doubt in Rose Tang’s mind that it had been a bloody day.
Tang was a freshman studying English at what was then known as the Beijing Second Foreign Languages Institute. She ditched classes in the spring of 1989 to join her classmates in Tiananmen Square to chant pro-democracy slogans, even though, she now says, she had very little idea of what democracy even meant. Her memoir of the events of June 4 describes bullets whizzing overhead, a stampede trampling over dead bodies, and the deafening noise of tanks moving in and crushing tents set up in the square.
But there’s one detail of the aftermath that helps explain why Galschiøt’s sculpture found a loyal following in Hong Kong, which was a British colony until 1997. When Tang revisited Tiananmen Square some seven months after the massacre, she found no trace of what had happened there that day. There were no signs of blood stains or bullet holes from June 4, 1989, let alone any memorial. She walked around, trying to find proof to back up her memories. There were only a few armed soldiers patrolling the square as water trucks sprinkled water on the ground. “All I could see was the clean wet concrete ground glittering in street lights,” she recalled in her memoir.
Tang turned to a life of art and activism to help her cope with the events of that day. She has written poetry and music inspired by June 4, 1989, and toured with a band that performed songs that student protesters sang at Tiananmen Square. “Making music and using music to heal and mobilize people is my way of carrying on the true legacy of Tiananmen. Art is power. Performance is protest,” she said.
Tang eschewed making sculptures, though. “I just personally found it really hard to convey the experience of Tiananmen through visual art,” she said. She admires Galschiøt for trying.
But something about Galschiøt’s sculpture always puzzled Tang. On close inspection, the figures assembled on Galschiøt’s pillar appeared to span the races. One could be excused for wondering whether this was all a mistake: A white man from Denmark created a sculpture to commemorate the killings of Chinese civilians, and he filled it with people from all over the world?
‘My Inner Beast’
The international nature of the sculpture was precisely what Galschiøt had in mind when he began to sketch out the vision for his Pillar of Shame in the early 1990s.
Galschiøt had turned to making sculptures in the 1980s after a career as a blacksmith at a Danish shipyard and a rebellious youth filled with drugs, travel, and a desire to distance himself from his father’s communist sympathies. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, he grew hopeful for a more egalitarian future but was soon dismayed by Serbian militias’ mass rape of Muslim women in Bosnia and other atrocities. He became convinced that civilization is only a thin veneer that can crumble at any time and unleash an inner barbarism laid bare in such episodes.
In 1993 he installed concrete sculptures of a pig dressed in a gentleman’s overcoat in 20 cities across Europe. Titled “My Inner Beast,” the project aimed to call attention to Europeans’ mistreatment of ethnic minorities. The sculptures proved an unwelcome sight to governments that never asked for them. Most were torn down, and only a few remain standing today. Galschiøt’s middle son, Kasper Galschiøt Markus, recalled eating “significantly more porridge” in the months that followed since Galschiøt nearly went broke paying for the project out of pocket. But profit wasn’t the goal. The reaction to the sculpture became part of the story the art sought to tell, summarized by the motto, “It is not the foreigners but our reaction to the foreigners that threatens our civilization.”
Galschiøt began to make small models of the Pillar of Shame that same year. As the idea took shape, he assembled 7 tons of clay to create the casting mold for the sculpture.
He included faces of people that represented a wide variety of races and ethnicities, hoping to create a universal symbol. Once he finished his prototype in 1996, he went looking for contacts who could help him install it in various places around the world. The Tiananmen Square massacre quickly came to mind, but he knew it would be impossible to install a pillar in Beijing.
‘They made a good fight for freedom’
Hong Kong offered the tantalizing possibility of a work-around. After years of negotiations, the UK was due to hand control of Hong Kong back to China on July 1, 1997. If Galschiøt could get the pillar to Hong Kong while the city was still in British hands, China would take the sculpture with it.
“At that time, we had good reason to believe that this statue would not be allowed to enter after the transition,” Albert Ho, who helped Galschiøt get the pillar to Hong Kong, recalled in a later interview.
Ho was a leader of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, a group founded in 1989 just before the massacre. One of the alliance’s signature projects was an annual candlelight vigil commemorating Tiananmen victims. Galschiøt reached out to see whether the group would help him install a replica of the sculpture and soon he had a partner: On May 2, 1997, he packed up a copy of the pillar in a shipping container and sent it off to Hong Kong.
The sculpture arrived at a Hong Kong container terminal nine days before the alliance’s annual candlelight vigil in the city’s sprawling Victoria Park. The alliance displayed it prominently at the June 4 vigil, which happened to coincide with Galschiøt’s birthday. Afterward, the pillar was loaded onto a truck headed for Hong Kong University, where student leaders hoped to install it near their student union.
Tang joined part of the march to campus, walking alongside Galschiøt. Galschiøt grew concerned as scuffles broke out between students and security guards who wouldn’t let the truck through to campus. Security guards eventually relented, and the sculpture was dropped off as onlookers applauded, according to Associated Press archival footage from the night.
“They made a good fight for freedom,” Galschiøt told an AP reporter at the time.
The pillar made the rounds to several schools around the city before the Hong Kong University student union voted in 1998 to permanently host it on its campus. Galschiøt, meanwhile, wrote a manifesto for his artwork.
“My name is Jens Galschiøt. I’m a Danish artist born 1954. My new art happening the Pillar of Shame has just been launched, as the sculpture was displayed 4th June ’97 in Hong Kong,” began the lengthy December 1997 missive, which predicted that “over the next ten years the happening will spread over the Planet.” Galschiøt listed Auschwitz, the site of the infamous Nazi death camp, and Rwanda, where a 1994 genocide had just killed an estimated 800,000 people, as two possible candidates for Pillars of Shame.
Soon he managed to install a “Columna de la infamia” in Mexico to commemorate the 1997 killings of 45 Indigenous people in Chiapas state and a “Coluna da infâmia” in Brazil to mark the 1996 murder of 19 landless Brazilian peasants. Both sculptures made brief appearances near parliament buildings in their respective countries, elevating their visibility in Mexico and Brazil.
In 1999 he outlined a grand vision to install a pillar in Berlin atop a platform covered with bronze plates notched with 10 million lines representing the victims of Nazi-era persecution (the project was too costly, and he gave up on it in late 2002). In 2012, he traveled to Iraq to explore the possibility of placing a pillar there to commemorate the victims of Saddam Hussein’s mass murders of Iraqi Kurds in the 1980s (installing a sculpture in a war zone was too dangerous, though Galschiøt hopes to try again someday).
Galschiøt openly mused that Hong Kong’s Pillar of Shame might someday move to Beijing if political circumstances allowed it. But he acknowledged that it might just as well be removed or destroyed: “The Pillar of Shame will be a test of the validity of the new authorities’ guarantees for human rights and freedom of expression in Hong Kong,” he wrote in a post on his website.
‘The old cannot kill the young forever’
Galschiøt was right about the possibility of his sculpture being removed from Hong Kong.
The early signs of trouble came in April 2008, when Galschiøt flew to the city only to be denied entry. He was there to paint the pillar orange as part of a campaign to raise awareness of China’s alleged human-rights abuses ahead of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing. In Galschiøt’s absence, members of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China carried out the paint job. News reports at the time described the ordeal as a test of the freedoms China had granted to Hong Kong when it took over.
Hong Kongers would experience many more such tests in the years that followed. In 2014, protests erupted when China insisted on vetting any candidates for the territory’s chief executive before allowing the post to be elected directly by the people. The tense 79-day standoff with pro-democracy protesters became known as the Umbrella Movement after demonstrators used umbrellas to shield themselves from the pepper spray police used to try to disperse them. The sense of togetherness and community among the protesters felt like a repeat of the 1989 Tiananmen Square movement to Tang, who flew from the US to Hong Kong to camp out with the protesters and speak up for their cause.
Even larger protests shook the city in 2019 after Hong Kong leaders proposed amending the territory’s extradition laws to allow criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China to stand trial. The protests grew into a broader movement against Beijing’s encroachments on the freedoms guaranteed to Hong Kong under the terms of its handover from the UK. Meanwhile, Beijing readied a national-security law that would give China broad authority to stamp out dissent in Hong Kong.
Even before the law took effect, in June 2020, authorities had already taken aim at Hong Kong’s long tradition of commemorating the Tiananmen victims. They refused to let the alliance organize its annual June 4 vigil in 2020, citing COVID-19 restrictions. Thousands showed up anyway. In 2021, Hong Kong blocked the June 4 vigil again and put up a massive police presence to deter Hong Kongers from defying the ban. The same month, the alliance’s museum commemorating the massacre was forced to shut down. Police raided the museum in September and confiscated its exhibits just a day after arresting the alliance’s leaders under the guise of the national-security law. The alliance disbanded on September 25, and days later reports surfaced that the digital version of its Tiananmen Square massacre museum had been blocked in Hong Kong.
By early October, the pillar’s time had come.
Galschiøt wasn’t formally notified that the Pillar of Shame would be removed. Mayer Brown, an American law firm representing Hong Kong University, sent a letter demanding its removal to the liquidators of the alliance (the alliance didn’t actually own the sculpture; Galschiøt had always retained ownership). The October 7 letter gave the now-defunct pro-democracy group six days to remove the sculpture from the university, a publicly funded institution, or consider the pillar abandoned property that would be dealt with “at such time and in such manner” as the university saw fit. Galschiøt tried to intervene but said he couldn’t get a reply to his lawyer’s pleas to let him come to Hong Kong to retrieve the artwork.
The sudden deadline was sandwiched between two typhoons that pummeled Hong Kong with heavy rains and winds. As the storms moved through the city, the October 13 removal deadline held firm. Hong Kongers flocked to the sculpture to bid their farewells to what many saw as one of the last vestiges of freedom of expression in the Chinese territory. “Say goodbye to freedom,” one man said as he snapped a photo of the sculpture one day before the deadline.
Steps away, a father took a selfie in front of the pillar with his 9-year-old daughter. Afterward, the little girl grabbed her father’s phone and snapped some photos of it herself. On their way out, he pointed to the inscription “the old cannot kill the young forever” as she looked on attentively. Shortly after, it started to rain again. But the crowds kept coming.
The university hit a snag when Mayer Brown bowed out of the legal matter amid public outrage that an American law firm would be helping Chinese authorities stifle freedom of expression in Hong Kong. (Mayer Brown’s decision prompted a former Hong Kong chief executive to call for a China-wide boycott of the law firm. Spokespeople for Mayer Brown did not respond to comment requests.) Several weeks followed when the sculpture’s fate stood in a strange state of limbo; it wasn’t clear when exactly it would disappear, but there was no doubt the end was near.
An artists’ collective known as Lady Liberty Hong Kong made use of the delay to take detailed photos of the pillar and create a three-dimensional model that could be used as a basis for 3D printing. Galschiøt, meanwhile, dusted off old molds that he had used to create smaller replicas of the Pillar of Shame in the 1990s so that he would be ready if his sculpture were removed.
The limbo ended on December 22. Galschiøt had just told the workers in his workshop in Odense, Denmark, to go home early and enjoy the holiday when he got a call from a reporter seeking comment on the sculpture’s removal. The energy drained from his body; he looked like a parent who had just learned about the loss of his child, recalled his apprentice, Lauge Jakobsen. Social media lit up with footage of workers fencing off the area around the pillar so no one would witness its removal. Reporters still managed to document parts of the ordeal, which ended with a human-like fragment of the sculpture being loaded into a shipping container by a group of workers in hard hats resembling pallbearers at a funeral.
As Galschiøt watched from a distance, all he could do was decry the university’s actions. He issued a statement calling the sculpture’s removal an unreasonable act of “self-immolation against private property in Hong Kong.” Hong Kong University said in a statement that “no party has ever obtained any approval from the university to display the statue on campus,” and the statue would be placed in storage pending legal advice on what to do with it.
Galschiøt said the university has now responded to his lawyer, and he is sorting out the details of how to return the sculpture from Hong Kong. A spokeswoman for the university did not provide further details.
‘Jens’ biggest supporter has been the Chinese government’
The sculpture’s dramatic removal gave Galschiøt the kind of worldwide attention he had long hoped to bring to his international art project.
“Suddenly, all the world’s eyes were turned on this Pillar of Shame,” recalled Jakobsen, his apprentice. “From 7 a.m. to 3 a.m. at night the phone was calling all the time, and our email was looking like a celebrity’s fan email because every 10 seconds there were coming new emails.”
Jakobsen switched from working in Galschiøt’s workshop to assisting him in the office as he juggled media requests and inquiries about how to acquire a Pillar of Shame. “Jens’ biggest supporter last year has been the Chinese government,” Jakobsen said during a phone interview. Galschiøt could be heard laughing beside him.
Jessica Chiu was one of those requesters. The native Hong Konger, who’s 32 and lives in Norway, first learned about Tiananmen Square from her high school math teacher, who would abandon his usual lesson every June and instead teach about the massacre. Later, as a student at Hong Kong University, Chiu would occasionally pass by Galschiøt’s sculpture. Chiu leads a Norwegian nonprofit focused on supporting human rights in Hong Kong. The group had been interested in exhibiting Galschiøt’s pillar in Norway since 2020; its removal in Hong Kong reinforced those plans.
“It makes us more motivated to do it, and it just makes the impact bigger,” Chiu said. Her nonprofit has already applied for permits to display the sculpture at two locations in Oslo, including a plaza near the Nobel Peace Center.
A similar effort is taking shape to bring a copy of the pillar in the US. The most provocative spot under consideration includes a park directly across from the Chinese Embassy in Washington DC. A group of former US government officials, outraged by Mayer Brown’s involvement, is spearheading the initiative, which is still in its initial planning stages, according to a person familiar with the effort.
Getting a 2-ton sculpture cast and transported abroad — let alone securing a spot for it — is no easy feat, so it’s unclear how many of such installations will ultimately succeed. Galschiøt estimated that making the sculpture in a full-size bronze cast costs about $800,000. To make it more affordable and easier to handle, he has started making the smaller, 8.5-foot replicas in copper using an old mold he created in the 1990s. He hopes to distribute the smaller pillars to universities around the world (and requests that schools interested in a copy contact him).
He scored his first win in Budapest, Hungary, on March 2, when one of the copper replicas was installed on the site of a future Budapest campus of Fudan University. Hungary lawmakers had voted in 2021 to donate four plots of land toward the planned campus of the Shanghai-based university, which ranks as one of China’s most elite schools. The move sparked criticism of Chinese influence-buying and prompted Budapest’s mayor to rename streets near the proposed site after various alleged human-rights abuses committed by China. Galschiøt traveled to Budapest to personally dedicate his “a szégyen oszlopa” (Hungarian for “Pillar of Shame”) near the corner of Free Hong Kong Road and Uyghur Martyrs Road.
The use of the artwork to make political statements about China’s alleged human-rights abuses could get easier thanks to the rise of 3D printing. Lady Liberty Hong Kong’s three-dimensional model of the sculpture has enabled anyone with access to a 3D printer to create a copy of the sculpture without bothering with the cost and logistics of transporting it from Denmark. To make the process even more hassle-free, Galschiøt surrendered his copyright to the sculpture, writing in an open letter on Christmas Day that anyone is free to 3D print or mass-produce replicas of the pillar as long as profits go to benefit pro-democracy causes in China and Hong Kong.
A 2-foot-tall replica created using Lady Liberty’s model recently showed up at a Hong Kong pro-democracy rally in Manchester, England. An even bigger version — 10 feet or taller — is set to be 3D-printed in Taiwan in time for the June 4 anniversary of the massacre. The New School for Democracy Association Taiwan, a pro-democracy group, is spearheading that effort, which is in the planning and fundraising stages, according to the project’s manager.
Lady Liberty itself is hoping to organize an international art tour with Galschiøt that would feature the pillar as well as the group’s own signature artwork, a symbol of the 2019 protest movement in Hong Kong known as Lady Liberty Hong Kong. The 3.5-meter-tall, crowdfunded sculpture of a woman wearing a helmet, goggles, and a respirator made the rounds to various sites across Hong Kong in 2019, including a famous summit known as Lion Rock, before being vandalized and thrown off the cliff (most likely by pro-government activists). Lady Liberty is preparing to sell small replicas of the Pillar of Shame to help fund the art tour, which would also invite other artists to participate, a spokesperson said.
Tang is raising her hand for the effort. She said she’d like to reunite her Tiananmen band and perform under Galschiøt’s Pillar of Shame if a replica makes its way for a tour in the US.
In Canada, a scrappy group of expatriate Hong Kongers created a supply chain that allows them to 3D print and ship copies of the pillar anywhere in the world. Their website, CanHKer.ca, sells a variety of Hong Kong-themed merchandise — including 3D prints of Lady Liberty Hong Kong — to fund pro-democracy causes. Proceeds from the 3D-printed pillar replicas are earmarked for organizations that help young Hong Kong refugees resettle in Canada and seek asylum, said Eric Li, who cofounded one of the groups and helped launch the merchandise website.
Many of the refugees are youths who faced persecution for their pro-democracy activities, Li said. Some are depressed and feel guilty, even suicidal, for having left Hong Kong behind, he said. Others are traumatized after their violent clashes with police. “They feel they betrayed their friends because they ran away from the action,” said Li, who helps arrange counseling for the youths as part of his work for one of the groups that will receive proceeds from the pillars’ sales.
Art ‘without interruption’
There isn’t much action left when it comes to protests in Hong Kong. The Beijing-imposed national-security law has succeeded in ending the mass demonstrations that gripped the city in 2019. You might find an occasional pro-democracy slogan or poster here or there, but any public artwork the government could deem subversive to Beijing is likely to quickly vanish from public view.
A day after Galschiøt’s pillar disappeared in December, two other Tiananmen-themed monuments were removed by universities in Hong Kong. The “Goddess of Democracy,” an imitation of a sculpture created by Tiananmen Square protesters in 1989, was hauled away from the Chinese University of Hong Kong on December 24. A relief depicting the Tiananmen Square massacre was removed from the campus of Lingnan University the same day. Both artworks were created by Chen Weiming, an exiled Chinese sculptor who lives in California. Chen is now trying to repatriate the monuments from the universities and is planning to house them at a Tiananmen Square museum that he hopes to build at his sculpture park in Yermo, California. “In America, I can do anything I want to do. In China, I can’t do it,” Chen said.
In late January, Hong Kong University covered up the last public tribute to Tiananmen victims on its campus — a hand-painted slogan on a bridge outside a dormitory. It read, “The souls of the martyrs shall forever linger despite the cold-blooded massacre. The spark of democracy shall forever glow for the demise of evil.” Every year, students would touch up the paint on the 32-year-old inscription and wash the Pillar of Shame.
The former site of the pillar is now a seating area with movable plastic furniture atop wooden planks. The area stood empty on a recent Monday evening as the clean, wet planks glittered in overhead lights. With the usual churn of a university, it won’t take more than a few years for future generations of students to sit in the area without any idea of what stood here previously, or why.
But nearby, another sculpture remains intact. It’s a commemoration of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, widely regarded as the father of modern China, who sits calmly in a chair surrounded by a placid fishpond topped with water lilies.
Sun is a rare figure in recent Chinese history, revered on both sides of the Taiwan Strait for helping to end feudal imperial monarchy in China and briefly serving as the first president of the Republic of China in 1912. Even as Hong Kong stamps out dissent, posters honoring him as a “great outlaw” invite visitors to a museum of Sun’s life and legacy. The university installed Sun’s statue in 2003 so students could follow his historic footprint, according to a dedication issued at the time.
It is impossible to know what Sun might say about the removal of the Pillar of Shame and other artworks in Hong Kong if he were alive today. But a speech that he gave nearly 100 years ago on Hong Kong University’s campus gives a clue. In his remarks, Sun called Hong Kong and the university his “intellectual birthplace” and explained why he got his revolutionary ideas there: “Hong Kong impressed me a great deal, because there was orderly calm and because there was artistic work being done without interruption.”
Cezary Podkul is an award-winning investigative reporter who has written for ProPublica, The Wall Street Journal and Reuters. He teaches at Hong Kong University’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre.