Coming Home to a New Place Each Time

As a Hong Kong-born Chinese who is a naturalized U.S. citizen, it’s hard to pinpoint my first trip to China; at least, one that I remember clearly, for my real first trip was as a toddler, in 1953 in the arms of my mother who carried me to her hometown of Fuzhou. Most likely I slept through most of that the trip, or was just too young to take it all in. So I guess, the real instance of a “first trip” in the sense of this series, would be my first trip to China as a professional photojournalist in 1976.

Yet, I would like to think that the first few years of childhood left their mark on me for the good. That experience, however fragmented or vague in my memory, definitely prepared me for my eventual first trip back to the mainland as a photojournalist in a way that was more profound than I first realized. It allowed the perspective of an outsider looking in, whilst still being privy to the many experiences of an insider myself in those trying years.

View a slideshow of photographer Liu Heung Shing’s work.

As a child in Fuzhou, I was enrolled in the Guyizhong Primary School (near Fuzhou PLA Garrison Command). My years there—six in total—helped define the way I came to portray China later in my professional life. I recall going to the school every day by walking out of the courtyard house, which my grandmother had gifted to my mother as part of her wedding dowry. By early 1955, it had already been appropriated by the State as part of the landmark land reform policy. The head of the neighborhood committee, a Mme. Zhou, moved into house where she occupied two rooms; the others [were] taken by local families. Our family was left with the main house and a courtyard garden in the back, which featured a beautiful Dragon Eye (Longyan) fruit tree. I learnt later that we were fortunate to have escaped the fate of many landlords who had simply been shot or disappeared. We were spared because the State classified my family as a “peaceful landlord.” My mother’s uncle, Chen Bi, was a Minister of Communication under Emperor Guangxu, in 1894. The Chen family’s land had been granted by the emperor, not gained through business dealing or renting it to the peasants, hence the title “peaceful landlord.”

This family background may explain why the PLA children in my class treated me with condescension. According to the prevalent political jargon, they were “red” and I was “black”. I remembered the red slogans on the schoolyard “We must catch up with Britain and surpass America.” Under the highly charged political atmosphere following China’s incursion in Korea, where troops fought the U.S. military to a temporary truce, students were required to perform manual labor every Wednesday to help build a stronger Socialist state. Every week I collected stones for building the railroad. Under the spell for the Anti Four Pests campaign, I was energetically motivated to catching flies at home, which I collected in a matchbox for my teacher. But no matter how many flies filled my matchboxes, semester after semester under the column labeled “Political Behavior”, she would only grant me a “C” in my report card. I felt the effect of apartheid in a classroom full of kids from the families of the nearby army officers. Those kids instinctually felt superior to the sons and daughters of any other social class. I didn’t officially “fit” into any of the social classes.

Many years later, in Beijing, I met the famed PLA writer Bai Hua, who in early 1980 wrote for the film Sun and the Man, based on his script originally named Ku lian. Through the film’s main character, he expressed the common feeling of many mainland Chinese and those who were expatriated: “I love my country, but does my country love me?” This open questioning of unrequited love was severely criticized by Deng Xiaoping and the film was banned. In 1980, Deng launched the Anti-Bourgeois Liberalization Campaign; Deng had earlier shut down Democracy Wall in the Xidan bus depot where petitioners from all over the country put up big character posters to protest the injustices of the Cultural Revolution.

Wang Rui
The author (right) at Democracy Wall

Come 1960, my neighbors who “shared” our house in Fuzhou, were all stricken by malnutrition, their arms and legs swollen. The Great Famine was the harsh result of the disastrous Great Leap Forward. One day in 1959 a pig was killed in our neighborhood, leading hundreds of people to queue to buy a portion. I waited half a day to buy two ounces of pork fat. I was told I was lucky that the butcher gave me the fat as it was deemed more valuable than the meat. One day after school, I saw a man on the street selling tiger meat, a striped tiger pelt dangled from a tree above the vendor. My father, who was the editor of the international news page for Zheng Wu Bao, was in Hong Kong and knew it was time for me to depart Fuzhou. My father one day came home looking very upset, he said his pro-Beijing newspaper editor had refused to print the news that the Americans had landed on the moon.

Some years later, in the summer of 1968, my mother took me to Guangzhou to visit relatives; I vividly remember being yelled at by a barber in the Overseas Chinese Hotel who forced me to stand and recite one of Mao’s quotations on the wall before he would give me a haircut. At 6:00 pm Guangzhou was already dark. We queued for almost an hour to get a table in a restaurant, of which the city had but a few. The waitress threw the chopsticks on the table and walked away. Everybody behaved in a manner that officials like to call “vigilant.” Why vigilant? The Chinese in that era literally seemed to see enemies everywhere. I was glad to return to Hong Kong, feeling utterly exhausted by the hysteria which I absorbed from the people’s body language and facial expressions.

Perhaps it was these bitter, sour memories of childhood that led me to develop an avid interest in newspaper reports about China during my studies in New York. I followed the Toronto Globe and Mail’s dispatches in the New York Times—the Canadian newspaper was the only North American newspaper to have an accredited journalist in Beijing at that time. At the university library, I read the little weekly pamphlet China News Analysis published by Jesuits who monitored radio broadcast from the mainland. Among the Jesuits were the few westerners specialized in Chinese dialects, including those who could understand Mao’s strong Hunan accent. As I later discovered on my travels through China, Hunan, the birthplace of my father, was the only place I required the services of an interpreter.

By 1976, after nine months of apprenticeship with Gjon Mili at Life magazine who had earlier taught me at Hunter College, I went to Europe and photographed post-Franco Spain; to Portugal where Communist presidential candidates were campaigning in the countryside with peasants driving tractors, but who stopped to listen and enjoyed a picnic as they did so. In Paris, I went to Hotel Matignon to photograph newly appointed French Prime Minister Raymond Barre. As I came out of the metro near St Germaine des Pres, I saw Mao’s photograph on the front page of every Parisian newspaper on the newsstand. It was September 1976: Mao had died. I was on the first plane to Hong Kong thence to the mainland on assignment for Time magazine. Before I left for the border at Lowu, my uncle introduced me to Lo Fu, editor-in-chief of Hong Kong’s New Evening Post. Lo, a respected Communist newspaper editor, well liked by senior Chinese leader Liao Chenzhi, provided me with a letter of introduction to the border authorities. In those days, one needed an introduction letter from an organization just to check into a hotel.

I walked across Lowu bridge past the PLA guards, before boarding the train bound for Guangzhou I was stopped at customs. The guard inspected my camera bag; three cameras and assorted lens, forty rolls of Kodakchrome film. I didn’t have a journalist visa; he asked me what I planned to do. I said I was a traveler and presented him with the letter of introduction from Lo Fu. He disappeared for a while and came back with another more senior custom official. I gave him the same answer. They asked me to sit and wait. Just minutes before the train departed, the junior man returned and told me to hurry up if I didn’t want to miss the train.

The army-green train was staffed by young attendants who were friendly by the standards of the Cultural Revolution: at least they smiled at me as they poured hot water over a bag of green tea that cost five fen (cents). The seats were covered with white cotton covers. The train roared through the rural areas towards Guangzhou. The scenes outside the window were familiar, but what was missing were the announcements from the omnipresent loudspeakers mounted on every telegraph pole. I was not sure if this was in order to mourn the death of Mao, or for other reasons. Few missed the streaming exhortations to keep up the revolutionary vanguard or the recital of the day’s editorial from the People’s Daily.

In Guangzhou I checked into the Overseas Chinese Hotel, where the portrait of Mao in the lobby was now adorned with the appropriate black trimmings. It was still warm in September, but outside I was struck by how quiet it was on the streets as I rushed from the hotel to stroll the embankment of the Pearl River. People wore black armbands of mourning. Some silently read the newspapers posted on the road side propaganda boards. Elderly people were doing taiqi. It dawned on me; something had changed in the people’s body language. They lost that “vigilant look.” Even though overseas Chinese and foreigners usually attracted inquisitive stares they seemed to have no interest in me. I sensed China was going through a profound but as yet undefined transition. The death of Mao did not seem to sadden the residents in the streets of Guangzhou, unlike those seen in the official propaganda photographs which showed youths crying with crocodile tears while holding a small printed portrait of Mao. On the contrary, I felt people, clearly more relaxed now, were behaving as if they had been relieved of a huge mental burden that had been hanging over them. Perhaps it was my childhood experience that prepped me to observe these unusually calm faces. As I continued to photograph daily life on the streets, I decided that if given an opportunity, I would photograph China after Mao.

But immediately I became caught up with my attempts to get a flight to Beijing to photograph Mao’s funeral. My repeated requests to the China Travel Service were denied. I learnt later that few people were allowed to travel to Beijing as the authorities were poised to arrest the Gang of Four (Jiang Qing, Zhang Chunqiao, Wang Hongwen and Yao Wenyuan). The death of Mao was world news and I missed it: I would not let that happen again.

The opportunity would eventually come again two years later in 1978 when Time magazine decide to send Richard Bernstein to open the Time-Life News Service bureau in Beijing, ahead of the resumption of Sino-U.S. diplomatic normalization in 1979. I would be Time’s first contract photographer in China after 1949, and fulfill my wish to document "China After Mao."

In Beijing I joined Richard Bernstein, Fox Butterfield, Melinda Liu, John Roderick, Victoria Graham, Irene Mosby, Jay and Linda Mathew, Michael Parks and Frank Ching; the first wave of American foreign correspondents to be stationed in new China, six years after President Richard Nixon opened the door. The rest, as they say, is history.