Moving a Door
'To the workers it was like moving
a door,' Liu recalls.
'They felt it was so normal and my
heart was pounding with excitement, knowing that if
that moment worked out visually it represented the end
of an era. Leading up to that moment, people had begun
looking at Mao as a human being rather than as a god.
I felt that, and many others felt that, but could not
The picture that ran around the world
the next day showed Mao, looking larger than life, as
if peering into a room from outside a window, gazing
at a world that had managed to go on without him. A
few years later Liu saw Chinese artists begin to treat
Mao's image as a pop icon.
Fast forward to today. When Liu attended
the recent opening of the Aperture Foundation-sponsored
photo exhibition 'China: Fifty Years Inside the People's
Republic' at the National Museum of Chinese History,
which includes his work, he found himself coming full
circle, standing in the same place where the removed
portrait once stood.
Co-sponsored by Asia Society, Ford
Motor Company, and the Chinese International Cultural
Exchange Center, the exhibition is scheduled to be shown
around the world over the course of two years, visiting
cities including New York, Shanghai and Hong Kong. The
show includes more than 100 images by more than 30 leading
Western and Chinese photographers, including Sebastian
Salgado, Wu Yinxian, Robert Capa and Eliot Porter.
To Be Lucky
'As a journalist, I've happened to
be at the right place at the right time,' the 48-year-old
Hong Kong native says modestly.
But pure luck is for amateurs. Recording
and interpreting history is for scholars and reporters,
and Liu is both. Throughout his more than two decades
as a foreign correspondent, Liu's preparation, intuition
and patience have consistently paid off, whether on
assignment covering the Lakers in Los Angeles or civil
war in Afghanistan.
Already well-informed on developments
in China, Liu was living in New York City when he was
sent by Time magazine to cover Mao's funeral in 1976.
Afterward, he became eager to document China after Mao,
looking at the PRC through ordinary people's eyes. In
1979 when Washington and Beijing normalized diplomatic
ties after more than three decades of Cold War hostility,
Liu was sent as part of a delegation of the first U.S.
foreign correspondents to cover the People's Republic.
Liu's photos during those early years
with AP from images of students clambering to buy publications
at Democracy Wall in 1979 to young James Dean look-alikes
posing in sunglasses in 1980 remain among the most recognizable
and articulate to date of the era of transition away
from Mao. Soon Liu noticed Western and Chinese artists
using Mao's image as a pop icon. Like moving a door
to show the possibilities beyond, Liu's work continues
to link the East and the West.
'Some of those photographs, even
though they were taken quite a few years ago, are still
relevant to China today. Liu's work remains some of
the most revealing and intimate of China to date,' says
longtime colleague and friend Melinda Liu, Beijing bureau
chief for Newsweek magazine.
Ms. Liu, who first met Liu (no relation)
in 1980 in Beijing, believes his work was and continues
to be a direct result of who he is: a Western journalist
of Chinese heritage.
'He straddles these two worlds. His
professional career has been with the Western media
and his eye has been trained in a Western perspective.
But he was born in China. He knows the culture and the
language, and he has a love for Chinese aesthetics,
arts and culture,' she says.
In 1991, his perseverance for dimensions
of truth beneath veneers of propaganda and pomp culminated
in a moment most journalists can only dream of. With
Liu as chief photographer, AP's Moscow photo staff won
the Pulitzer Prize for images of the fall of the Soviet
empire. To date, Liu is the only photojournalist of
Chinese descent ever bestowed the coveted prize. One
of Liu's shots, a worldwide exclusive, was particularly
telling and powerful, capturing the moment in the Kremlin
when Gorbachev flung the pages of his resignation speech
in anger before stepping down. It was the only frame
Liu made, and for it he got punched in the back by a
surly KGB soldier who had specifically forbidden Liu
from taking pictures during the speech.
Soviet guards with a penchant for
punching have been the least of Liu's troubles. In his
career he's covered six wars, had pistols pointed at
his forehead at checkpoints in Afghanistan, and was
shot at in the Soviet Union. One of his most harrowing
experiences was walking into a village in Sri Lanka
after a massacre, the vapor from decomposing bodies
so thick it covered his lens, making it difficult to
photograph his subject a baby with its throat slashed.
'There were so many of those moments.
There were moments I thought about leaving and it was
such a relief (afterward), but you also have a sense
of futility, that it's all part of history, that nothing
changes,' Liu says, his eyes turning dark and distant,
while his voice grows tighter with each unearthed memory.
Dodging bullets aside, there was
the challenge of overcoming working conditions that
were 'absolute hell': transmitting pictures from battlefields
in an age before digital cameras, laptops and modems.
Alone, Liu had to lug around cameras as well as a 150-kilo
mobile photo lab consisting of two trunks containing
photo chemicals, an enlarger and a hair dryer.
Liu has also seen and caught humanity
at its best and most sublime: young demonstrators celebrating
in Red Square just before the Soviet collapse, the Pope
touring India, and the Soviet army leaving Afghanistan.
Born in 1951 in Hong Kong, Liu was
exposed to the newspaper business early. His father,
born and raised in Hunan province, was editor of the
international page of a daily newspaper.
'For summer homework he taught me
classical Chinese and at the same time he asked me to
translate AP and Reuters wire stories,' Liu recalls.
'I grew up with the smell of newsprint, we were living
on top of the office building. Newspapering was definitely
in my blood.'
His mother was an accountant from
Fuzhou province. Liu was the youngest of six children
three boys and three girls and the only one to follow
his father into journalism. When Liu was four, his parents
sent him back to the mainland to attend school. Having
experienced Mao's (1957-59) Great Leap Forward and ensuing
famine, at age 12 he returned to Hong Kong for high
Liu went on to study political science
and communications at Hunter College in New York City.
A photojournalism course his senior year with renowned
Life magazine photographer Gjon Mili changed his life
forever. Liu's childhood love for drawing and painting
benefitted his eye for photography. For his first assignment
Liu shot black-and-white pictures of a bag lady outside
of Bloomingdale's. Out of the entire class, Mili chose
24 year-old Liu to become his protg.
Liu went on to work for Time magazine
and then the Associated Press. He has lived and worked
in Beijing (1979-1983), Los Angeles (1984-85), New Delhi
(1985-88), Seoul (1988-89) and Moscow (1990-1993).
These days Liu can be found in a
black tie at cocktail gatherings and dinner parties
more often than in a photographer's field vest. He is
relaxed and smiling, sitting in his airy office in an
apartment high-rise in downtown Beijing. With his thick,
silver hair combed neatly, and wearing round, mother-of-pearl
spectacle frames, he exudes elegance and composure,
switching smoothly when he answers phone calls from
English to Mandarin to Cantonese. Framed awards and
photos that hang on his walls tell part of his tale.
The Pulitzer faces calligraphy by President Jiang Zemin.
In it, Jiang is offering best wishes to Liu for organizing
last autumn's Fortune Global Forum in Shanghai in Liu's
capacity as Time-Warner's chief representative and director
of business development in China.
Two years ago, faced with 'compassion
fatigue,'' Liu looked for his next move beyond front-line
journalism. In 1994 he was offered a unique opportunity
by Thai-Chinese media mogul Sonthi Limthongkul (林明达)
to launch and become editor and publisher of The Chinese,
a lifestyle magazine published in Hong Kong. The publication
was to manifest Liu's vision for a world-class magazine
for and about well-educated Chinese all over the world
using Western publishing standards as the rule.
'The idea was that in a global village,
similar sensibilities are shared by global Chinese,'
Again, Liu found himself using his
experience and expertise, combining the best of East
and West, to fill a void. During that time Liu spent
a lot of time with Limthongkul, including boarding a
Lear jet and touring the most sacred Buddhist sites
in Thailand. But in 1997, 12 issues into production,
the Asian financial crisis struck and the magazine closed
Instead of heading back to France,
where he still has a house overlooking the ocean in
Brittany (his two sons, Christopher, 16, and Benjamin,
12, whom he dedicated his book Life After Mao to, live
in Paris and go to school there) Liu rejoined Time,
this time on the corporate side, working with Chinese
and Western editors, publishers, and journalists, assessing
the Chinese magazine market.
Liu has made Beijing his home again.
The architect buff has a traditional courtyard house
in Beijing and a two-bedroom condo in Wang Jing, in
the city's northeastern corner.
As Time-Warner's influential, well-connected
liaison between the two worlds he straddles, Liu helped
to do the near-impossible last autumn, successfully
organizing the Fortune Forum, bringing together 325
CEOs of the world's biggest corporations, 160 Chinese
business leaders, and 50 of the most influential political
leaders of the PRC to discuss the future of doing business
He still takes photographs, although
mostly of artists or for himself and friends. Beijing
doesn't allow him to indulge in one of his former hobbies,
horseback riding, but he does spend time cooking and
playing tennis and talks about getting back into tai
chi, which he used to practice in Ritan Park.
While Liu prefers not to talk too
specifically about his future plans, he does acknowledge
that China is ripe for change, particularly in publishing.
'The trend of the opening in publishing
is absolutely inevitable. It is something everyone is
talking about, with people's new wealth and proportionately
greater curiosity. They need more and better information,'
Liu says. 'I would like to set a new standard in publishing.
But that's something there is no textbook for. In order
to do this in China you have to be a serious player.
I find this immensely intriguing, introducing the methods
and answering the questions of how to build credibility
through print media.'
Liu Heung Shing works are included
in 'China: Fifty Years Inside the People's Republic'
at the National Museum of Chinese History. The show
runs in Beijing until January 31. Museum admission is