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The 1981 photo of a man in China posing with a Coca-Cola bottle symbolizes a cultural shift in the country

Written by Stephy Chung, CNNhong kong

In Snap, we examine the power of a single photograph, telling stories of how modern and historical images were created.

A young man smiles in the Forbidden City in Beijing. It’s the dead of winter, and one of his hands is deep in the pockets of his long overcoat to protect him from the cold. The other captures the unmistakable contours of a glass bottle of Coca-Cola.

Today, Coke is the most famous soft drink in the world and can be found just about anywhere. But in 1981, when the image was taken by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Liu Heung Shing, it had only just arrived in the hands of ordinary Chinese people.

Liu, who was in his twenties when he started working for Time magazine in Beijing, said the country was on the cusp of a great cultural shift after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976.

“The changes (at first) were subtle, and unless you lived there, you wouldn’t have noticed,” he recalled in an interview at his home in Hong Kong.

He had previously photographed people mourning Mao Zedong along the banks of the Pearl River in Guangzhou. It was there that he was struck by how people behaved differently from what he had seen in late 1950s China, where he grew up during the disastrous Great Leap Forward campaign. – a series of failed industrialization policies – before returning to Hong Kong. as a child.

Under Mao, the country continued to suffer from widespread famine and poverty, as well as the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution. But in the aftermath of the Chinese leader’s death, Liu said, “suddenly people’s footsteps seemed a little lighter, they lowered their shoulders, and their faces looked more relaxed.”

It would be a relatively liberal period in Chinese history – politically, economically and in terms of daily life, which Liu captured in candid snapshots. A photo from the time showed a plastic surgeon and his client after a cosmetic procedure. Another depicted people gathering in front of a “democracy wall” in Beijing, where they wrote now unthinkable criticism of the government.

One of Liu’s most iconic images was captured on his way to the Time Bureau after having the strange feeling that something was “missing”. He turned his car around and, sure enough, a large portrait of Mao that had once hung prominently on a building had just been taken down. He quickly snapped footage of workers gathered around the depiction of the late president, with some of their scaffolding visible in frame.

It was China “coming out of Mao’s shadow”, he said.

‘It tastes average’

In December 1978, Coca-Cola became the first foreign company allowed to enter the mainland Chinese market since the communist revolution. That same month, Beijing and Washington announced the normalization of Sino-US relations and Deng Xiaoping launched China’s transformative economic reforms with his “open door” policy. (Coca-Cola was first introduced to China in the 1920s but was forced out in 1949, along with other foreign companies, by a government that viewed it as bourgeois).

Liu had photographed the opening of a joint-venture bottling plant in Beijing, capturing Coke chairman Roberto Goizueta and Chinese sales officials drinking Coca Cola and holding bottles aloft to shouts of “ganbei” (cheers). He then thought, “Now, where can I find a (normal) Chinese person enjoying this (drink)?”

He headed for the Forbidden City, with its heavy flow of tourists, and soon found a man named Zhang Wei buying a Coke from a small stand.

“I remember he made a comment while drinking this syrupy Coke: ‘It tastes average,'” said Liu, who ended up snapping some shots with one of the Imperial Palace’s quaint pavilions in the background. plan.

The response to Coke himself may have been disappointing, but the snap perfectly captured the curiosity and openness felt by many Chinese people at the time.

“As a photographer, of course, I realized the importance. That this man, wearing an ubiquitous PLA (People’s Liberation Army) coat, was one of the very first to taste it,” he said. he said, adding, “But I didn’t know it would be part of the Chinese collective memory.”

The picture would be widely published and displayed in later years, and he later befriended Zhang. In 1983 it appeared in Liu’s photography book “China after Mao”, a collection of images taken between 1976 and 1982. More recently he included it in his book “Liu Heung Shing: A Life in a sea of ​​red”.
The photographer would go on to document other profound periods and events in the country’s modern history, including the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. And just like those photos of young student activists calling for democracy, Coca-Cola photography of Liu seems to belong to another era.

With its apparent embrace of the new and the foreign – ideas encapsulated in this most American drink – the picture stands in stark contrast to today’s China, where relations with the United States are at an all-time low. Xi Jinping’s nationalist agenda has generated increasingly xenophobic attitudes towards the West.

“I realized that the story I made in the last quarter of the 20th century (would continue) to be relevant in the 21st century,” Liu said.

“Especially with the history of China, I never doubt that these photographs are in the collective memory of the Chinese people.

“Even though that memory keeps getting re-edited…the good thing about a photograph is that you can’t re-edit it. It becomes an image that’s burned into people’s minds.”

Top image: A 1981 photograph of a man with a Coke bottle in Beijing’s Forbidden City, taken by Liu Heung Shing.

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