More people in one place than I’ve ever seen before. That was my thought as I stood in Tiananmen Square for the raising of the flag at dawn on the country’s national day, October 1. I’m not good at estimating crowds, but there have been up to 500,000 people on the square for this event. It’s the only gathering that celebrates the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China by Mao Zedong on October 1, 1949.
As we walked towards the square that morning, I could feel the anticipation in the air. Cars were parked in every possible space along with hundreds of bikes blocking sidewalks and roadways. Everyone was hurrying in the same direction. As we all turned the last corner before the square we came upon a checkpoint set up to search bags and scan people. Everyone did their part with the practiced moves of those well accustomed to such searches. We had expected this and carried nothing with us. When our turn came to be scanned, they didn’t and just waved us through.
Tiananmen Square had been decorated for the occasion. The most outstanding feature was a gigantic urn overflowing with colourful silk flowers and fruit surrounded at its base by a carpet of red and yellow flowers. The whole arrangement was at least five stories high and dominated the square to the obvious delight those in attendance.
Along the perimeter of the square, the ground was covered in waves of colour created using thousands of potted flowers, among them poinsettia, petunias, marigolds, snapdragons and mums. Here and there, columns of red and yellow flowers about 20 feet tall added to the display. All the buildings surrounding the square had national flags and large red banners flying from the rooftops, detracting from the crowd surveillance paraphernalia to be seen there too.
The crowd was made up of a cross-section of Chinese people, entire families with small babies and elderly grandparents packing lunches and folding stools, couples holding hands, friends joking and laughing, tour groups with matching hats or t-shirts, chic city girls wearing Japanese fashion and country folk with leathered skin.
It seemed to me like every one of them had a selfie stick raised above their head. They were taking pictures nonstop quite oblivious to others around them, elbowing and pushing as needed. At one point, a woman with her phone still on the selfie stick prepared to take a traditional picture of her partner. Instead of removing the phone or collapsing the stick, she moved the stick back over her shoulder to bring the phone closer, nearly poking me in the eye in the process.
After the ceremony, we joined the crush around the oversized flowerpot and took our own obligatory selfie (without a stick). It was simply the thing to do.
Tiananmen Square is the world’s largest public square at 440,000 square metres. It made headlines in 1989 as the site of the ill-fated Chinese democracy movement. Today, it is under 24-hour CCTV surveillance and the bag searches and security checks are always in place.