Hong Kong (CNN) — Hong Kong's most controversial destination was forced to close just two days before a hugely significant date in the global pro-democracy calendar -- but the activist group behind the museum has announced they have digitized their entire collection and moved it online. Located inside a nondescript high-rise building wedged between a gas station and a highway overpass in Kowloon, the June 4 Museum was the only museum in Greater China -- which includes the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan -- that commemorates the Beijing government's crackdown against student protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
On June 1, Hong Kong officials from the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) visited the museum in the working-class area of Mong Kok and accused the organizers of operating a "place of public entertainment" illegally.
"Our department recently received a complaints that someone in a unit in a commercial building on Mong Kok Road was operating an entertainment venue without the required license," the FEHD told CNN in a statement.
They added that this license is required for all businesses that "entertain people" regardless of whether they charge money as an entry fee. The museum was free to visit.
Now, the museum's holdings have been fully digitized and moved online, although currently information is only available in Chinese.
The group behind the museum made an official announcement on August 4 in a press release.
"As Hong Kong's political climate changes dramatically, political oppression has become more pressing, as a result, the June 4th Museum is currently closed, and will be considered for re-opening when a suitable location and viable operational practice is available."
Some supporters have left flowers outside the museum's closed door ahead of June 4.
Courtesy June 4 Museum/Twitter
Before the shutdown
The forced closure timing was striking, coming days ahead of the June 4 anniversary, when tens of thousands of Hong Kongers normally gather in Victoria Park to remember the people who died in the crackdown.
The vigil was canceled in 2020 due to the coronavirus outbreak, and in May a court sided with a police decision to cancel the event again in 2021 for the same reason.
The next day, the June 4 Museum's organizers, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China (usually just called The Hong Kong Alliance), invited patrons to lay flowers at the museum to mark the day.
It was a risky move in a city now subject to the National Security Law (NSL). Imposed by Beijing last June, it gives the authorities sweeping powers to detain people accused of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign powers.
The museum's chairman, Lee Cheuk-yan, saw trouble coming. Back in March, he gave CNN a tour of the museum and predicted that the NSL could soon close it for good.
"(The NSL) is always like a knife hanging around your neck," Lee said. "We don't know when it would chop down on us."
The power of objects
This year, Lee will spend June 4 behind bars. In April, he was sentenced to 18 months in prison for organizing and participating in unauthorized government protests in 2019. He faces further charges for other actions.
Before he was sentenced, Lee met with CNN after a long day in West Kowloon's high court. He was in remarkably good spirits, despite the looming threat of a jail term.
He walked CNN through a few of his favorite pieces on display. Many were donated to the museum by the Tiananmen Mothers, a Chinese activist group composed of parents and loved ones of people killed during the June 4 protests.
The most moving pieces are the personal ones -- a Peking University T-shirt signed by activists, a bullet pulled from the leg of a labor organizer, a camera owned by a student who was shot while snapping pictures of the day's events, and photographs the same student's parents had developed posthumously.
Figurines of the Goddess of Democracy, a statue made and later destroyed during the Tiananmen Square protests, are for sale at the June 4 Museum.
Chan Long Hei/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
"The museum is only part of our work," Lee explained. He knows that movements don't just happen in a single day, despite the museum's name. "We are trying to firstly organize activity events around the June 4 commemoration. So, every year the June 4 commemoration vigil, and also the march before that. Apart from the June 4 commemoration, we also supported a campaign for the release of dissidents inside China."
Very few, if any, vigils will go ahead this year, due to restrictions imposed to stop the spread of coronavirus. The Hong Kong Police Force made it clear in a May 29 tweet that disobeying the rules would not be tolerated: "Law banning gatherings of 4+ ppl still in force. Public should NOT take part in/advertise/publicise unauthorised assemblies!"
In response, the Hong Kong Alliance released a statement on Twitter confirming that it was forced to cancel the vigil. However, it added, "in spite of this, the alliance continues to believe that no matter how much the regime engages in oppression, the candlelight will never disappear as long as people remember."
The June 4 Museum's spring exhibit was about how much the events of Tiananmen Square mirror the protests of the past few years in Hong Kong. Both movements were led by young people, and sought to push back against China's ruling Communist Party and against media censorship.
Some of the more recent artifacts in the museum's collection are from the 2014 Yellow Umbrella movement and the more recent protests in Hong Kong. They include renderings of Pepe the frog, a right-wing online meme that has been subverted and adopted by the anti-Beijing camp in recent years, and protective gear worn by the students who organized an attempted takeover of Hong Kong Polytechnic University in 2019.
Lee says that some museum guests simply want to be alone with their thoughts. Others ask questions or defend China's actions.
The man behind the mission
Lee was born in Shanghai in 1957 to a family whose roots are in Guangdong Province, which borders Hong Kong. He moved to Hong Kong as a young man while the city was still a British colony -- first to attend university, then to work as a labor activist.
The Hong Kong Alliance was founded in 1989, galvanized by the June 4 movement. Then, the group's primary concern was looking ahead to the 1997 handover of Hong Kong from the British to the Chinese, and how that would affect life and politics in the city.
"At that time, the people of Hong Kong were very much mobilized and moved by the students in China," he explains of the burgeoning pro-democracy movements happening on the mainland then. "Personally, I was of course very glad that people in China started to fight for democracy. If there is democracy in China, then there's for sure democracy in Hong Kong."
The Hong Kong Alliance is often labeled as anti-Chinese, which Lee dislikes. Despite spending most of his adult life in Hong Kong, he very much considers himself Chinese, regularly mentioning how much he loves China and is proud of his heritage.
What the alliance wants isn't an end to China. Its stated goal is an end to the single-party rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and an opening of the country to different viewpoints and political parties.
The June 4 protests in 1989 were part of a movement that had been growing across China calling for exactly that. The climactic events of Tiananmen Square began on April 15, after the sudden death of Hu Yaobang, a reform-minded former CCP leader who had been ousted a few years earlier. When Hu died, a group of people -- mostly college students from Peking University -- gathered in Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing to mourn him publicly. That mourning morphed into a cry to action as protesters pushed for governmental reform and a move to democracy.
Visitors examine artifacts on display at the June 4 Museum.
Isaac Lawrence/AFP/Getty Images
The single-day action turned into weeks, with some students going on hunger strikes. More people flocked to the square, and the crowds grew bigger and more vocal.
The word "Tiananmen" means "Gate of Heavenly Peace" in Mandarin. As the crowds swelled, the Chinese military marched on the square on June 4, arresting and killing many of the activists.
Today, discussion of those events remains taboo in mainland China. The June 4 Museum in Hong Kong was vital to people remembering that day in the Greater China and beyond.
Travelers from all over the world have visited it, leaving Post-It notes with messages in different languages to make a "Lennon Wall" like the ones that have popped up around Hong Kong in support of the city's more recent pro-democracy movement.
Despite the well-wishes from Australia, Finland, Japan and more, some of the most poignant messages were those from Chinese visitors.
"I asked a guy from Beijing, 'How do you know about our museum?'" Lee recalled asking one mainland guest. "He said, 'Of course I know about you and the museum, I was the one that censored it. I wrote down your address when I'm censoring your museum.' And then he came to our museum to visit."
What happens next
Lee is in prison, still able to communicate with The Hong Kong Alliance and release messages to his supporters through his attorney. His only child has moved abroad, perhaps permanently.
The Hong Kong Alliance worries that if the museum is forced to close permanently, the government may seize its assets, so they are working to digitize the entire collection in both English and Chinese.
"The promised democracy has never materialized," Lee said, referring to the "One Country, Two Systems" formula promised by Beijing to let the city maintain a high degree of autonomy until 2047, including the introduction of universal suffrage.
Members of the Hong Kong Alliance carry lights to stand in for the candles often displayed on June 4.
Courtesy June 4 Museum/Twitter
But the passage of the National Security Law has all but dashed that hope.
On April 16, Lee greeted a crowd of supporters outside the court as he prepared to begin his prison term. Dressed in a natty button-down shirt, he was also sporting the surgical face mask that is mandatory in public in Hong Kong to guard against coronavirus.
Shortly before being walked to the prison van, the activist referenced an English-language song by the Rogers & Hammerstein duo that has been adopted by the pro-democracy movement.
"I want to dedicate the song 'You'll Never Walk Alone' to the Hong Kong people. We will walk together even in darkness with hope in our heart," he said.
Lee's next public appearance will be on June 11, when he will stand trial for three additional charges of "inciting, organizing and participating in an unauthorized assembly."
This year, unable to leave his cell, Lee went on a one-day hunger strike in prison as his personal tribute to June 4.
This story was originally published on June 2, 2021 and has been updated to reflect new information.