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PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 September, 2011, 12:00am

'I don't know whether it's [Richard] Nixon serving Tsingtao beer or [Mikhail] Gorbachev resigning,' says Liu Heung Shing, trying to decide which opportunity pleased him the most. 'I have always had people asking, 'Liu, where is your camera?' 'Liu would you like to come?' and I have always said, 'Yes, yes, yes.''

Hong Kong-born Liu has had an unusual career, one that has included those two moments, which any photojournalist would have been thrilled to capture. The resulting images, dating from 1982 and 1991, respectively, were exclusive shots. The first earned him an autograph from the late American president and the second- as part of an Associated Press package- a prestigious Pulitzer Prize, the first and only one won by a Chinese photographer.

Recently, Liu completed the last of a trilogy of photography books; what he calls a 'collective visual memoir' about China. All three volumes were launched on stately occasions. The first, China: Portrait of a Country, covering 60 years of the People's Republic, was launched on the eve of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The second, Shanghai: A History in Photographs, 1842 - Today, went into print for the 2010 World Expo. And the latest, China in Revolution: Nineteen-Eleven and Beyond 1911, commemorates the centenary of the 1911 revolution, which ended the Qing dynasty and ushered in the first republic of Asia.

Liu says the conception of the trilogy project was 'accidental', having happened 'over some beers at the top of a hotel near Tiananmen Square, overlooking hundreds of thousands of people taking to Changan Avenue celebrating [the success of] Beijing's 2008 Olympic bid'.

'As a media person, I am constantly on the watch for story ideas. Many stories need a timely opportunity for a great narrative. For me, the opportunity arose in 2008, when people from all over the world, including Chinese, came to Beijing for the Olympics.

'Chinese people have come a long way in the past 60 years and the amount of detail in those years is enormous. Yet among all Western and Chinese photo accounts, I have not seen one that tells of the China I know. I felt I needed to tell the story through a visual history.'

For 4 1/2 years, Liu collected images, sticking to shots taken by Chinese photographers.

'[The first book] is China seen through Chinese photographers' eyes, and it just happened that it ended up featuring 89 photographers' work,' says Liu, referring to the sensitivity surrounding that number, due to its association with the Tiananmen crackdown, which happened in 1989.

'I knew [including images of the bloodshed] would offend [the authorities]. But I would have been a laughing stock [if I had] presented 60 years of China without 1989,' says Liu, who has lived in Beijing since 1997. 'I used the pictures I took so that I wouldn't get anyone into trouble.'

One of Liu's most iconic pictures from the nascent days of China's opening up is of three young men wearing identical outfits and sunglasses. It is a masterpiece.

'People were saying in those days that all Chinese dressed alike. Here I found three Chinese actually alike. So it powerfully interpreted the notion that Chinese were alike. It was in Simao, in Yunnan province, and I was on my way to the Songkran Festival. These are things we see everyday but we don't see [the same way through a camera].'

Fortunately for Liu, his work found favour with those in authority as well as those interested in his art.

'It was one day in the early 1980s that I was summoned to the Foreign Ministry,' he says. 'I thought my days in China were over and they were going to kick me out. But it was a nice surprise. They told me they had studied my work very carefully and found my reporting fair. They came up with a figure of over 60 per cent of the world publications carrying pictures by me, [depicting everything] from the Democracy Wall to the responsibility system in the countryside.' (The Democracy Wall was a long brick wall in Beijing that was used as a notice board for democratic dissent. It was closed in 1979.)

Liu says he has not developed an antagonistic relationship with officialdom. 'They respect me and what I do.'

This was illustrated during the photo selection process for the second volume of the trilogy.

'It was a picture at the 8th Plenum, held at Jin Jiang Hotel [in Shanghai]. And [the disgraced successor to Mao Zedong] Lin Biao was in there, appearing at the edge of the picture. So, the Central Archives people said, 'Why don't you just crop him out?' I was furious. I came out of the Central Archives, fuming, and said, 'I am not going to do this.' Of course, I wouldn't crop him out. In the end, it came out as is, and people began to say, 'That guy is difficult, leave him alone.''

The book became an official gift given by Shanghai leaders to visitors, such as dignitaries of the Chinese Nationalist Party from Taiwan.

'The guests looked at it and exclaimed: 'Wow! You can do books like this?' China is not as monolithic as what we see, even though internally they were still arguing.'

Liu's amicable relationship with the authorities has paid off in ways that have caught him by surprise, and led to those two iconic images.

'When Nixon was in China in 1982 for the 10th anniversary of the Shanghai Communique, signed after his historic 1972 visit, we were on the train from Hangzhou to Shanghai. On the train, Li Zhaoxing, then a Foreign Ministry staffer who later became the foreign minister, tipped me off and asked, 'Where is your camera?' I turned around and saw Nixon coming with a bucket of Tsingtao beer and a towel around his arm. He was acting as a waiter, bringing beer from his VIP salon to the journalist compartment. So I took this picture: Nixon as a waiter.

'I don't know why Li tipped me off and not other photographers on the train. When we got to Shanghai, there was a big banquet at the Jin Jiang Hotel that evening. I processed the film and sent the pictures out. I thought, 'This is an interesting picture, maybe I'll make a copy for Nixon himself.' In those days, the [mainland] Chinese invited us to state banquets, so I went, with the picture I developed in the toilet of the Jin Jiang, and I said, 'President Nixon, I would like to present you with a print.' He looked at it and said, 'Do you have another one?' So I processed another and gave it to him. On it he autographed, 'To Liu, with appreciation and best wishes, Richard Nixon.''

It was another tip-off that took Liu to the Kremlin, in Moscow, on Christmas Day, 1991.

'It was Gorbachev's resignation speech. I was there as a private guest of Tom Johnson, the then CNN chairman. He knew about the speech, but he didn't tell me. Why he invited me, I don't know. We had met before, and we knew each other. That afternoon he called me and said, 'Would you like to come?' CNN was there because they were doing the pre-setup in another room for an exclusive with Gorbachev after the resignation announcement.

'I went into the hall and there was the speech. I quickly looked around to see where I should be. As a photographer, you always have to find your spot. So I went and sat in front of those big tripods of the Soviet TV crew. Guards were everywhere but they were very discreet in front of the president. They told me that I should take no picture as the shutter sound would interfere with the tape recording and this was a nationwide broadcast.

'The speech went on, one page after another, and I said to myself, 'Oh my gosh, this is the end of the Bolshevik Revolution, I will have only one chance, but when am I going to take this chance?' It had to be when he tossed the last page of the speech. So I waited. I knew the movement of the page would come and I wanted to catch the paper moving, with slow speed, 1/30 second. But everything remained sharp, except the moving paper. That movement tells the end of a story. Without the movement, the body language, that wouldn't tell you that that's the end of the Soviet Union.

'After that click, the KGB guy punched me [in the back] and howled, 'I told you not to take picture!' I turned around with my charm offensive: 'I am sorry and I gotta go now,' and he said, 'You can't go.' So I said, 'Oh please, I don't understand any of this CNN thing.' So he let me go.

'The speech was over and everybody, including his senior staff, surrounded [Gorbachev], getting ready for the CNN interview. So I escaped and came out of St Catherine Hall inside the Kremlin. It was a long red carpet and I gave it all I had, and dashed like I was in the Olympic 100 metres. I turned a corner and saw all the other journalists there, waiting. They saw me coming out alone and yelled at me. As I was running out of the building, I saw the Soviet flag coming down and the Russian flag going up.

'That night I processed the film and my hands were still shaking when transmitting that picture. The next day, it appeared on the front page of thousands of newspapers. That image, plus one of Boris Yeltsin in front of the tanks, won me the Pulitzer Prize.'

Liu has covered a wide range of stories, from the funeral of Marvin Gaye Jnr, in Los Angeles, in 1984, to floods in Bangladesh and the pullout of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan, in 1989.

'It took me six months to court the Afghan KGB [official]; I had to drink scotch with him and, finally, he gave me a bloody visa. When I got to Kabul, the Soviet troops were still there. I watched their pullout. It was awesome to see how many troops, tanks, armoured personnel carriers were needed to occupy a country. From there they went back to Tajikistan, then part of the Soviet Union.'

Being an eyewitness to historic moments has given Liu an appreciation for detail. That appreciation is the compelling force behind the trilogy, especially so with the final volume, the English-language edition of which will be published by Hong Kong University Press later this month.

'As a journalist, I think it's important to explain the road to 1911. It was like a pressure-cooking pot. With the late Manchu regime, the collapse was accelerating. Then 1911.

'Chinese are very good at playing with words. They always have something to say on this or that. There is this tumultuous period of history and there are only a few words or sentences to describe that. 'Hundred Years of Solicitude' or 'Hundred Years of Humiliation', that's how the Chinese Nationalist and Communist parties summarise this tumultuous period [usually dated as starting from the mid-19th century] of the Chinese people. To me, that is very abstract. I wanted to de-abstract it and show them the images and ask, 'Is this what you mean?'

'As a reporter, we all know that the devil is in the details and titbits. Going through these historical photographs, one thing I have learned is to layer information. It is by going through that layering process that you feel more fulfilled, because you no longer look at history this way or that way. That is the understanding I take away from the project: it's a highly complex, highly nuanced story told by missionaries, adventurists, travellers, merchants, diplomats, all kinds.

'I look at it as our common collective memory, covering even the schoolboy in Guangzhou with the books, and a close-up of the Boxers, women spinning silk in a Hong Kong household workshop, a scene in Hankou, where the revolution broke out in October 1911, and so on.'

To source photographs for the final book, Liu visited the world's major archives and collections, starting in Nanjing and Taipei.

'The most important archival material about China is not in China. It is scattered; in the George Morrison collection, in Sydney, Australia, the Australian National University, Kyoto, Tokyo, San Francisco, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, Boston, the British Library, the V&A [Victoria & Albert Museum] and Soas [School of Oriental and African Studies] in London, Oxford, Paris, Bremen in Germany, and elsewhere.'

Throughout the year-long process, Liu cast himself as a reporter, to 'discover, review, edit, re-edit - that's the process. From hundreds of thousands of images, I brought it down to just under 1,000, and I paid for the rights to all of them. Out of that I selected about 300 images for the book. [Now] you have a history that you can look at, and interpret with today's sensibilities.'

One-third of the images have not been available to the public before, says Liu, and will therefore offer fresh perspectives and understanding of China's past. One example he talks at length about depicts China's apology mission to Germany in the aftermath of the humiliating Boxer Rebellion of 1900.

'The book shows a picture of Prince Chun and the entourage stopping over in Hong Kong on the way to Germany, to express regret for the killing of German minister [Clemens] von Ketteler during the Boxer Rebellion. [German emperor] Kaiser Wilhelm II had demanded China send a very senior Manchu prince to Berlin to apologise. So a delegation was dispatched, but was kept waiting for a few months while the kaiser went hunting. Finally, they negotiated whether it should be a kowtow. For that, Prince Chun cabled the Empress Dowager in Beijing back and forth. So you can see how history was reversed when the Qianlong Emperor demanded Lord Macartney kneel.'

Liu hopes the new perspective will shed light on some of the nation's current conundrums.

'China is a civilisation state, a country that runs simultaneously on 10 different tracks. So, to use one narrative or two for China, I find that inadequate. China doesn't fit into anybody's narrative. If you don't believe me, ask the Chinese themselves, different Chinese will tell you different stories.

'So my story, the trilogy- a portrait of a country, Shanghai and the 1911 revolution- none of it fits into the narrative of China being a closed society, being insecure, being this, being that. But I hope China will continue to move ahead and be more pluralistic, at least in ideas, in conversation.'

China in Revolution photographs courtesy of Hong Kong University Press. An exhibition of pictures from the book will be on display at the University Museum and Art Gallery until October 4

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