In anticipation of the exhibition June 4, 1989: Media and Mobilization Beyond Tiananmen Square, Curator and Director of Exhibitions Herb Tam reflects about simultaneously watching Michael Chang win the French Open and reports of the crackdown on protestors in Tiananmen Square.
On June 5, 1989 seventeen-year old Michael Chang defeated tennis legend Ivan Lendl in the 4th round of the French Open in one of the most indelible moments in tennis history. It was the first time a Chinese or Chinese American player had advanced into the semifinals of one of the four major tournaments. My parents, sister and I leaned into the TV that morning, riveted to the match, while also learning of the vast and violent crackdown on protesters for democratic reform in Tiananmen Square the night before on the other networks. We watched replays of an anonymous young man confronting a column of tanks, thwarting their advance into the square. Flipping back to NBC, Chang’s legs cramped up and it looked like Lendl would overwhelm the teenage upstart. But Chang, with crafty play (he lobbed weak underhand serves and ‘moon balls’ to save his legs and prevent additional cramping), perservered and outlasted Lendl to win an epic match.
As the match and news from Tiananmen Square played out, feelings of Chinese pride and horror swept over us and my nerves felt fried. After the match finished, we raced to the Chinese consulate on Geary Street in San Francisco to join other protesters in solidarity with those in Beijing. We stood among hundreds as cars honked their approval. In the bright, windy sunshine listening to impassioned, tearful pleas, I wondered if Communist grip on daily life in China would loosen enough to allow for real reform and greater freedom of speech. A day after the crackdown, and in the wake of Chang’s improbable win, possibility for revolutionary change felt curiously within reach. How could anything seem possible in the aftermath of so much death and destruction? Amidst the shock we felt watching this historic tumult unfold on TV, an old order seemed ready to topple.
A week later, Chang went on to win the French Open in another monumental upset of a past champion, Stefan Edberg. And though he won, the victory felt strangely anti-climatic. Psychologically and superstitiously, the Chinese plan for the worst. But in strictly tennis terms, many Asian Americans who understood the game quietly acknowledged that his style wasn’t necessarily sustainable as a way to win major championships. Chang was a classic counter-puncher whose short, stocky frame was built to absorb and chase down punishing serves and groundstrokes from U.S. counterparts of his generation like Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and Andre Agassi, all of whom were groomed on power, knock-out punch tennis. Chang’s win brought Asian Americans to the brink of exalted belief about what was possible, athletically, for “us”. But at the same time that we (and I mean “we” as in Asian Americans and those that are down) indulged in this hope, we new that it was a mere glimmer.
Similarly, the surreality of watching millions of Chinese pour into Tiananmen Square was exhilarating and solemn at the same time. For while we witnessed the uneasy balance of the protesters’ defiance and the Communist party’s permissiveness for a few weeks, the quick, ugly crescendo of the crackdown on June 4 shattered the dream we all knew would end. It woke us up to the cold reality of the party’s will; China’s ascendant present grew out of this moment.
As experts wonder about China’s intentions (a recent New York Times article highlighted the Chinese government’s investments in the Caribbean as an encroachment imminent to American shores), another Asian American athlete, Jeremy Lin, flashed a series of transcendent, unforeseen performances (just like Michael Chang in the summer of 89), raising Asian American cultural studies into trending territory. But those of us who were around for Chang’s rise have buffered ourselves emotionally for a possible plateau-effect with Lin. Chang remained good and often great for a good part of the 90s, staying right behind Pete Sampras as the number two player in the world. But a major part of his legacy was that he only got that one grand slam title. In the minds of many, Chang is frozen as a teenage phenom improbably taking it to the giants of tennis in the 89 French Open, but nothing more.
Now that Lin is hurt and likely out for the year, we can only guess about his true place in the basketball universe. What will be his future? Will he be like Phoenix’s Steve Nash, Dallas’ Jason Kidd or the LA Clippers’ Chris Paul, all who have preter-natural gifts to see plays seconds before they happen and thus make their teammates’ job much easier? Or will he be like Orlando’s Jameer Nelson, Memphis’ Mike Conley or Indiana’s Jarrett Jack: very good NBA point guards who can turn out star performances once in a while. Maybe he’ll wind up in the servicable, unspectacular starting point guard category like Minnesota’s Luke Ridenour, Toronto’s Jose Calderon, or Portland’s Raymond Felton?
This summer will be the ongoing moment of Jeremy Lin, when he’ll be “to be continued” for a good long time. Lin aside, we commit any Asian American athlete’s play to narrative and are so invested in his success because his story might define us to others. With a dearth of other representations of us, his image might wind up being our mask. The Chinese have long been seen as an undifferentiated mass, signified by anyone who managed to break through. For my generation, all Chinese boys on the basketball court were Bruce Lee. In looking alike, we are all invisible.
The lasting, iconic image of the June 4 protest is of the young man taking on those tanks. The scene is shot from afar and the young man’s back is to the camera. We never get to see his face. His identity is lost and that’s partially why that image is so powerful and haunting. Only in his anonymity can he represent the protesters’ humanity, nobility and audacity, and be the universalized object of the government’s killing machines. He literally becomes the Chinese in the same way that Michael Chang, Michelle Kwan, and Jeremy Lin are in the moments of their greatest triumphs. They become so much more when they (and the movement) fail or fall short of overwraught expectations.