Liu Heung-shing: a witness to 'the Chinese dream'

Over more than three decades, photographer Liu Heung-shing has documented China's economic boom and its changing aspirations

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 August, 2013, 5:21am

Before Liu Heung-shing became a photojournalist in China, he encountered many different versions of what kind of country China was.

He had read the autobiographical accounts of Han Suyin, a strong supporter of the Chinese communist revolution, and the favourable portrait of the People's Republic given in the early writings of Ross Terrill.

But none of the portraits fit the memories of the country from his childhood. So when his professor at Hunter College in New York introduced him to an executive at Time Incorporated, Liu jumped at the chance to return China as a photographer and see for himself.

Liu's first assignment for Time magazine was covering Mao Zedong's funeral in 1976. Two years later, he returned as a correspondent for the magazine in Beijing, a job that would give him a front-row seat to one of the most remarkable economic transformations in world history.

This month, the fruits of Liu's labour - more than 100 photographs, spanning three decades - are on display at the China Art Museum in Shanghai, an exhibit entitled "China Dream: Thirty Years".

"In my coverage of China over the years, I saw this transformation of China from a very backward, self-isolated country to the China that we know today," said Liu, 62, at his elegant courtyard house in central Beijing. "The exhibition is a journey of China moving from collectivism to individualism."

In the process of the transformation, Liu believes, a majority of the Chinese population has realised the materialist part of their Chinese dream.

Similar exhibits are planned in Europe after the Shanghai exhibit closes on August 27. In November, Liu will come to Hong Kong for a seminar in the West Kowloon Cultural District.

The Shanghai exhibition, which includes 115 images in all, falls into two parts: black-and-white images taken in the 1980s and coloured photos from the 1990s until the present.

This latter part includes his most recent work, taken in June of 30-year-old Guo Jingming , a teen pop idol for China's urban "me" generation.

Liu said his exhibition provides specific illustrations of Chinese people attaining their dreams. He said the images show a version of "the Chinese dream" far different from that of recent Communist Party's rhetoric.

He cited his 1979 photo at the Xidan democracy wall in Beijing, where poet Mang Ke and sculptor Wang Keping chanted calls for artistic freedom.

"This freedom today is largely achieved and artists basically are left to do what they want," Liu said. But, he added, that is not denying the many problems the country still faced.

"But you need to step back and look at China in 30 years," he said. "This is how the country has transformed."

Liu was born in 1951 in Hong Kong, where his father was a news editor at the Beijing-backed Ta Kung Pao. At the age of three, his father sent him back to the family's ancestral home of Fuzhou , so he could grow up in the recently established People's Republic.

Liu recalled that at that time mainlanders had to use coupons to buy everything and sometimes he had to stand in a queue for three hours to buy 100 grammes of fatty pork.

Soon after he started school, the political climate on the mainland took a turn for the worse. As the descendant of a landlord, he had to work extra hard to earn membership in the Young Pioneer Brigade.

During Mao's 1958 campaign to get rid of the "four pests" - mosquitoes, flies, rats and sparrows - Liu had to pack dead flies in matchboxes to prove himself to his teacher.

In 1961, as the situation worsened, Liu's father summoned him back to Hong Kong where he continued his schooling. A decade later, he enrolled in Hunter College in New York, to study political science and journalism.

He was introduced to photography in his final year of university in a course taught by Life magazine's renowned photographer, Gjon Mili, and became his apprentice.

Liu's assignment to cover Mao's funeral was his first trip back to the mainland in 16 years.

"Mao died and I rushed back from Paris. I made it only as far as Guangzhou. In that very interesting trip, it suddenly dawned on me that China has entered a fundamentally new age which was yet undefined."

He noticed subtle changes in people's body language. "People were not so uptight, their shoulders began to drop, more relaxed and their steps were easier."

In 1978, Liu was posted by Time to work as a photojournalist in China, helping to set up its Beijing office. In 1981, he joined the Associated Press as its chief photojournalist in Beijing.

Liu is the author of the widely acclaimed China After Mao, which was first published in 1983. He also served as the editor of China, Portrait of a Country published in 2008.

In 1992, Liu shared the Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography with other staff of the Associated Press for their images documenting the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"Looking back, China was like the Titanic. If you were a speed boat, you could change your direction quickly. But if you were a big ship, and you wanted to change under Deng [Xiaoping] , it was much more complex because China is a big country with lots of people," he said.

"Many Chinese journalists subconsciously refuse to see China as work in progress. They incline to say it's all rubbish."

Despite the problems he saw in each of the countries where he worked, Liu said optimism always shows through in his photographs.

"I take the general view that as a journalist, if you look at everything as half empty instead of half full, it's very difficult for you to move forward in your daily reporting. You see darkness everywhere," he said. "Pessimism can become a hindrance because it sometimes blocks your curiosity.

"If you are pessimistic, you take it everywhere with you. Where you don't have problems, you have to believe that mankind progresses."

"Many reporters return from China completely fed up. It's not easy. But I don't think it's that easy to be a good White House correspondent either."

But too much optimism can also colour your judgment, Liu said. "So I take the cautiously optimistic approach."

In 1994, Liu left news reporting and founded a Chinese-language lifestyle monthly magazine in Hong Kong.

Three years later, he moved back to Beijing representing Time Warner in China, and later became an executive vice-president at News Corporation in China.

Today, Liu divides his time between Beijing, Phuket and Hong Kong. "I'm lucky that I started early when I was at 25, and at 62 I'm still photographing in China."