Bangkok gets a look at Liu Heung Shing’s remarkable photo record of historic change
Born in Hong Kong, Liu Heung Shing studied political science in the United States and soon after began working as a photojournalist for Time magazine out of New York. Then he got his “dream assignment” – he was to return to China to record the astonishing changes taking place following the death of Mao Zedong in 1976.
That original assignment grew in scope to include features for Associated Press on the rapid growth initiated by Deng Xiaoping beginning two years later.
The fruits of Pulitzer Prize-winning Liu’s labour have been compiled in the exhibition “China’s Dream 1976-2015”, which is now showing at the China Cultural Centre in Bangkok until August 21. It’s the first time he’s shown his work in Thailand.
With Associated Press, Liu was also posted in Los Angeles, New Delhi, Seoul and Moscow. He’s currently running the Shanghai Centre of Photography he found last year.
“I arrived in China right after the death of Mao, which marked a whole new beginning – though the Chinese didn’t yet realise it,” the 62-year-old told The Nation at the show’s opening last week.
“But the moment Mao died I just felt an immediate change in the ‘body language’. I said, ‘A-ha, maybe this is a new dawn.’”
Most of the works on view were initially published in the 1983 Penguin pictorial book “China after Mao”, and the show itself appeared in the China Pavilion at the 2013 Shanghai Expo. The Bangkok edition is smaller – just 41 photos – but ably covers Deng Xiaoping’s dramatic economic reforms that gave the country modernity it has, quite literally, capitalised on ever since.
The images are mainly black and white from the mid ’70s to early ’80s, but colour shots befit China’s rise to wealth in more recent years.
One of the more memorable pictures features an enormous mural that was displayed on the Shanghai Bund. It shows Mao handing power to Hua Guofeng, the reformer subsequently sidelined by an even greater reformer, Deng.
The mural towers over a pedestrian on the street below it. Liu said the sense of disproportion was deliberate.
“It captures the relationship between the private individual and the state government. That’s how China seemed when I arrived in 1977.”
The show is arranged just as deliberately to illustrate the rapid pace of China’s development over the course of 30 years.
“The first part covers the mid ’70s to early ’80s. I was there again from 1983 to 1989, when the Tiananmen Massacre too place, and returned again in 1997 to take in more of the progress that had occurred.”
The changes he witnessed included the return of Coca-Cola (banned
under Mao), the first Sony advertising billboard in Shanghai, and the first time a fashion shoot took place on the street, the model clad in Dior. Capitalism had found a fresh marketplace – or rediscovered a lost one – as is clear enough in Liu’s 1981 shot of a young man flaunting a bottle of Coke in front of Beijing’s Forbidden City.
With economic and political change came shifts in social behaviour. Liu photographs the first transgender to become a popular television personality and peeps at a couple being clandestinely affectionate amid city park shrubbery.
“It shows how little privacy Chinese couples had – this was the only place they could go on a date. What you don’t see are other couples nearby, waiting for their turn!” he laughs.
Three men in modern attire, complete with sunglasses, were spotted near the Thai border in 1980. “As a result of the open-door policy,” the caption explains, “from the late 1970s, modern fashion began to influence China’s youth. Here, ‘cool’ Yunnan style, as three hip young men in Kunming capture the trend of the moment.”
Liu said such images illustrate “people coming out from under Mao’s shadow”.
Again, the metaphor becomes literal in a shot of high-school kids study
ing for their university entrance exams under the streetlights in Tiananmen Square, the best-lit spot in the capital in 1980. Electric lighting in homes was still rare.
No one took college entrance exams during Mao’s suppressive Cultural Revolution, Lui pointed out. “To get this shot I lay on the ground and had to use a 23-second exposure because the light was so dim.”
Liu said China is filled with “very complex truths”.
“I came to understand China better when later on I watched the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989” – for the coverage of which he shared the Pulitzer. His book “USSR: Collapse of an Empire” was published in Thai in 1992.
“I realised how political Chinese society was, where ideology predominated so much that it interfered with people’s daily lives, and yet the people had grown inured to it.
“The changes came very rapidly. The rest of the world wondered where all the energy came from. If you look at these photographs spanning 30 years, you can see that the Chinese had little room for personal aspirations. So, once the gate was raised, they all started running.”
The closing section of the exhibition captures in colour the startling rise in wealth in what had been an impoverished nation.
Liu took portraits of artists such as Zhang Xiaogang, Liu Xiaodong and Ding Yi, who have become internationally acclaimed and whose work sells for millions of dollars. He has pictures of the urban nouveau riche, like the women yuppie cruising along “the Wall Street of Shanghai” in a sports car and another woman talking on her mobile with the soaring Shanghai Tower in the background. The wife of China’s wealthiest man poses in an evening dress of shocking pink.
“I titled the show ‘China’s Dream’ because a big portion of the population has achieved its material dreams, though not yet the spiritual dream, which will take a longer.”
THE SWEEP OF HISTORY
- The exhibition “China’s Dream: 1976-2015” continues at the China Cultural Centre, next to the Thailand Culture Centre on Rachadaphisek Road, until August 21.
- The show is open Tuesday through Saturday from 8am to 5pm.
- Find out more on the “cccbkk” page on Facebook and from the Shanghai Centre of Photography at www.SCOP.org.cn.