Hundreds gathered in a New York cathedral on Tuesday to pay tribute to the protesters that were brutally suppressed in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square crackdown three decades ago, kick-starting commemoration of its approaching anniversary in the United States.

At the Cathedral of St John the Divine near Columbia University, around 300 people assembled for an evening of poetry, music and speeches to celebrate the courage – and mourn the sacrifice – of students who led a wave of pro-democracy demonstrations that swept China in 1989.

“We’re here because 30 years ago, millions of Chinese protested for change, unified as a hope for freedom and democracy,” said Zhou Fengsuo, a student leader of the movement who now lives in exile in the US.

“For many of us, this was the first and only time that we tasted freedom in China’s sphere,” he said, standing on a makeshift stage at the heart of the cathedral, surrounded by audience on three sides.

The peaceful demonstrations led by Zhou and others occupied Beijing’s Tiananmen Square for weeks before Chinese troops, backed by tanks, opened fire on protesters on the eve of June 4. Estimates of the dead ranged from the hundreds into the thousands.

Discussing the crackdown remains the biggest political taboo in mainland China, where people have been detained or even jailed for attempts to commemorate it. Hong Kong remains the only place on Chinese soil where the crackdown is commemorated in public every year, with a candlelight vigil attended by tens of thousands.

“We’re here to celebrate the human spirit that would never be conquered by tanks and machine guns,” Zhou said to loud applause that resounded through the long, high nave of the cathedral.

This was the first time a major event commemorating the crackdown had been held inside a large cathedral in the US, according to Zhou, who helped organised the evening.

“The first time I came here, it immediately occurred to me that this would be a perfect venue to commemorate June 4 – for its solemnity,” he said before the event started. “Now my dream has come true.”

The special occasion, presented by the cathedral, Humanitarian China and PEN America – which featured it as part of its World Voices Festival – is among the first to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the crackdown four weeks away.

Three decades ago, on May 7, the protests were already in full swing. By then, People’s Daily, the ruling Communist Party’s mouthpiece, had already published a damning editorial accusing the protesters of conspiring to overthrow the government, calling the protests a “turmoil”. This enraged students and prompted a bigger protest the following day, with tens of thousands marching through the streets to Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing.

A week later, student leaders began a hunger strike, which would draw widespread sympathy from the wider public, with workers and residents taking to the streets in support.

Wang Dan, one of the student leaders of the hunger strike, traveled from Washington to attend Tuesday’s event.

Once No 1 on Beijing’s most-wanted student leaders list, Wang said that, if he had to do it again, he would not “turn back”.  

“Human life is limited, and I would not give up the opportunity to join my life experience to the future of my country … even if only temporarily,” he told the audience before reading his poem “Belief”.

“That is why I have absolutely no regrets for the price I have paid,” he said.

That price was more than six years in prison following the crackdown and two decades in exile – as well as the probability that he will never be able to go back to China, where, he said in an interview before the event, he yearns to return every single day.

Tuesday’s commemoration brought together several student leaders like Wang and Zhou from across the US, which has taken in many of them as political refugees over the decades.

Prominent exiled dissident writers Liao Yiwu and Ma Jian also flew in from Europe to show support.

Liao performed his long poem “Massacre” – an outpouring of fury and despair in memory of those killed in the crackdown – along with its translator Michael Day. That poem landed Liao four years in jail in the early 1990s.

In the duo’s haunting performance, Liao used a harmonica, a flute, an abacus and an alms bowl to accompany Day’s English reading, at times reciting verses in Chinese in piercing cries.

The event also featured performances and speeches by poets, musicians and activists from America and beyond, to “make the connection between the courageous students in China in 1989 and the movements for democracy, free expression and moral awakening in the United States today and around the world,” said Sonia Guinansaca, a poet and activist from Ecuador who moderated the event.

Susan Saxe, a 63-year-old New Yorker in the audience, said she knew about the crackdown when it happened, and later learned more from a friend who had emigrated from China.

But the real reason for her to be at St John’s was her daughter, whom she adopted in China in 2000.

“I’m interested in learning about China’s development, and how I can reconcile the beautiful country that I have seen a number of times – most recently last summer – with the authoritarian regime, the government. How can they live together?” she asked.

“It’s heartbreaking for me to listen to this presentation, but also to know that it is the country that gave me my daughter,” she added, her voice breaking on the last words.

The audience on Tuesday night also included Chinese immigrants who did not know much about the pro-democracy movement or the crackdown before they left China, but were eager to find out more.

Marco Sui, a 60-year-old from Gansu province in western China, came to the event with his wife in the hope of meeting people who have experienced the tragedy.

“We need to know the truth about the past, about history,” said Sui, who moved to New York a decade ago.

“And the US is a place where we can finally learn about what truly happened 30 years ago.”

For Zhou, who founded Humanitarian China to help pro-democracy activists in China, people bearing witness to the crackdown and their willingness to learn more about it are both a solace and a reason to remain hopeful.

“In this moment of darkness, we must remember, history is on our side. The hope that galvanised China 30 years ago will one day transform China again,” he said as he closed his speech.

“And tonight, together, we’re keeping this hope alive.”