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Born in the 1950s - Liu Heung Shing, 62

Program Code:09090346130905004

Liu Heung Shing, 62, a Pulitzer-winning former Associated Press photojournalist, mirrors the Chinese Dream with photos that capture the daily life of Chinese people.

In his exhibition “China Dream, Thirty Years,” which ended in August at the China Art Museum, 117 photos captured what he calls the essence of an important transition era.

“In early times, China was a collective society, but today it is more individualistic,” he says.

There is the picture of a young man standing in front of the Forbidden City, holding a bottle of Coca-Cola newly introduced in China. There is the photo of high school students sitting on the stone blocks of Tian’anmen Square to take advantage of the night lighting to study for the university entrance examination soon after it was reinstated after the “cultural revolution” (1966-1976).

There are the three youngsters in the 1980s, clad in military coats and caps looking like rap singers in their bold sunglasses. There is the young man on roller skates in front of a towering statue of Chairman Mao Zedong in 1981, spreading his arms like a bird in flight.

Liu’s photos bear silent witness to China’s vicissitudes. His images speak and tell stories. He did photograph famous people, like the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and the late US President Richard Nixon, but ordinary people were always his special interest.

“China is a very big story with infinite possibilities, and I use very small details to tell the story,” Liu says.

He says politics permeates Chinese life.

“China is a highly politicized society, and you can find that many details in people’s life that reflect such political colors,” he says.

Now, everything is about children’s education, real estate, cars and going abroad, he says.

“In the past, all these things were absolutely unattainable and unthinkable, so the Chinese dream has many detailed and concrete things now,” he says.

His own dream is that one day, in the family of mankind, Chinese values will be embraced by all.

“To do that, we all have a lot of work ahead of us,” he says.

Photos are his contribution. “You can catch the pulse of an era in daily life,” he says.

Liu prefers to take photos when people aren’t aware of his lens. That gives a photo more reality, he says.

His works are worlds away from the bright facades, gleaming lights and smiling people of the modern, feel-good photography now common in China. He is known for his widely acclaimed book “China After Mao,” a collection of about 200 images shot from 1976 to 1983.

The photos show the resilience of people as they strived to recover from the “cultural revolution.” It was a moment when China stood at a crossroads in its history. Liu’s images reveal the breathtaking speed with which China transformed itself into a modern country.

In one of his photos, a pair of lovers sits in Yuetan Park in Beijing in 1981. They keep a socially acceptable distance from one another, but their feet are hooked together. Both Chinese and Westerners can understand the imagery.

“Photos are a universal language,” Liu says.

Many photos stream into a narrative to speak collectively about a generation and an era, he says. Some focus on the end of the Mao era after the chairman died in 1976.

His lens captured workers resting under a huge portrait of Chairman Mao after it was removed from front of the Museum of Chinese History in 1981.

“The personality cult in China was huge,” Liu says. “You can describe its end in words but you need to show it with supporting evidence.”   

In a photo shot on the Bund in Shanghai, a woman passes by a very large wall portrait of Mao Zedong and Hua Guofeng. She appears miniscule next to the gigantic poster, symbolizing the importance of the state over the individual at the time.

Liu says he prefers to have people see his photos in exhibitions rather than in books because they don’t “breathe” on the page. 

“Each photo evokes different emotional responses when different people see it,” he says. “The most decisive moment in shooting a photo is when people’s thoughts collide with the pictures before their eyes.”

Liu was born in Hong Kong in 1951 and spent his childhood in Fuzhou, capital city of Fujian Province, his mother’s hometown. He finished middle school study in the 1960s in Hong Kong and graduated from Hunter College at the City University of New York in 1975.

Liu’s interest in journalism was influenced by his father, who was one of the founders of Singtao Daily.

At primary school in Fuzhou, Liu was the only one in his class not wearing a red scarf because his family there had been landlords, a then reviled class in China. In 1960, Liu says he suffered from starvation like many others.

“It was my first lesson in politics,” he says. “All these little things piqued my curiosity toward China.”

He read many books about the politics and culture of China and his affection for the country, coupled with intellectual curiosity, led him to his career path.

Liu worked for Time magazine and the Associated Press, drawing postings as a foreign correspondent and photojournalist in Beijing, Los Angeles, New Delhi, Seoul and Moscow.

He served as director of business development for Time Warner Inc in China from 1997-2000 and was executive vice president of News Corp in China from 2000-06.

Liu was editorial director of the Modern Media Group and also a curator for the Shanghai Corporate Pavilion at the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai.

His publications include “USSR: Collapse of an Empire” and “China, Portrait of a Country.”

His generation — which endured the “cultural revolution” and its aftermath — particularly fascinated him.

Many young people lost the chance to receive an education and were sent to the countryside. They had to endure hardship before they were allowed to return to cities.

“They hoped that their children would receive a better education,” he says. “They wanted to give their children the opportunities they had lost.”

Looking at the white-haired, gentle-speaking Liu, it’s hard to imagine the life-threatening situations he has risked to get good photos. He has shot film with bombers overhead, stood among tankers and artillery and admits he was almost killed several times.

In Afghanistan, soldiers of the former Soviet Union told him and a French journalist that they could not take photos. When they returned to their car and were just about to leave, a barrage of AK-47 shots were fired at them, almost killing the Frenchman. Liu escaped unharmed.

The photo that made him really famous was taken on December 25, 1991, when he was working for the Associated Press in Moscow. He was tipped off that there was going to be a major event in the Kremlin and managed to slip into an ornate room where then President Mikhail Gorbachev was due to address state television. Liu and CNN’s Tom Johnson were the only journalists present in the room, and they were warned by the KGB not to take any photos.

But Liu could see history in the making, so he set his shutter speed on the sly and waited in the knowledge that he would only get one chance. After Gorbachev finished his resignation speech, heralding the demise of the Soviet Union, he threw the text of the speech on the desk. Click! Liu captured the moment for posterity.

The photo was part of the coverage that won the Associated Press a Pulitzer Prize.

He has been asked many times whether the famous photo was luck or talent.

“Being lucky is part of it, but hard work is most of it,” he says.

Liu has US nationality and his wife is British. He now lives in a picturesque traditional courtyard in Beijing, enjoying a tranquil life.  

“I am still interested in individuals, who are the voice,” he said. “Society is full of multiple voices of individuals.” 



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