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  Beijing Scene

Double Vision

It was an overcast morning in the autumn of 1981. Chairman Mao's widow and her fellow 'Gang of Four' members were sentenced to life in prison earlier that year, and it was exactly five years since Mao's death. Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Liu Heung Shing, then a rookie staff photographer for Associated Press, was out looking for images to shoot. Heading west along Changan Avenue in an old Toyota, he found himself stuck in traffic in front of Tiananmen Square. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed that the Chairman Mao portrait that had hung over the entrance to the Museum of Revolutionary History for nearly half a century was gone.

Liu's heart raced as he moved quickly, grabbing his Canon camera and several rolls of film. Had he missed the dismantling of the Square's portraits of the late Chairman, a historic moment that would mark the beginning of life after Mao? In fact what Liu found was a more intriguing image: the portrait languishing on the steps behind a scaffold as half a dozen workers milled around laughing, smoking and taking their time to load it onto a truck and haul it away.

Snap. Snap. Snap. Liu fired away, each click of the shutter capturing a moment that would speak louder than any news article, academic paper or political analysis about the state of post-Mao China.

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 articulate it.'

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.

Preparing 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.

Straddling Two Worlds

'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.

Close Calls

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.

The Smell of Newsprint

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 school.

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).

Power Broker

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.

The Chinese

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,' Liu says.

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 down.

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 in China.

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 RMB5.

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