Former bureau chief of CNN and Time Magazine in Beijing, Jaime FlorCruz, tells the story of China as he has witnessed the past 47 years. Photograph by Romeo Peralta Jr.
Culture Spotlight

The evolution of China from the eyes of a Filipino journalist in exile

Finding himself stuck in Beijing for years, Jaime FlorCruz had a front row seat to a superpower’s awakening.
Nana Nadal | Jan 30 2019

As part of CNN, and Time and Newsweek magazines in Beijing, Jaime FlorCruz has told stories using words, photos, and videos. This time, the retired journalist shares his experiences through an exhibit of mementos from the country he has called home for almost five decades. “This captures the spirit of the period when I was in China and what I’ve seen through the 47 years that I’ve been there. I hope that through my eyes, through the prism of the stuff that I have collected, I could show its evolution,” he explains.

The calligraphy banner which welcomes guests to the Bahay Tsinoy exhibit is one of the most priceless pieces for FlorCruz. It has a classical allusion that can be interpreted as “looking from the perch or from an observatory”. When China’s guru on antiquities, the late Wang Shixiang, gave it to FlorCruz, he said that with FlorCruz being an international journalist, he is able to see what’s going on in the universe, above and below.

His narrative begins with the display of the travel documents he used to enter China on August 21, 1971. He flew there for a three-week study tour along with 14 fellow students. But his stay was unexpectedly extended when they got wind of news of the bombing of Plaza Miranda in Manila. The incident led to then President Ferdinand Marcos’ suspension of the privilege of habeas corpus, allowing him to arrest opposition figures without warrants. Those he couldn’t arrest, he blacklisted—including FlorCruz and four others in the Philippine Youth Delegation invited by the China Friendship Association.

“I was one of the noisy troublemakers-student leaders in my university, the Philippine College of Commerce (now Polytechnic University of the Philippines). I was also the editor-in-chief of our college paper and an active member of the College Editors Guild of the Philippines and the League of Editors for Democratic Society. We were called activists because we were against the Vietnam war, we were for land reform, we were against corruption and official abuse. We exposed some of these,” FlorCruz enumerates.

During FlorCruz’ first few years in China, it was all about Mao Zedong. Pins and other collectibles carrying the leader’s photos were distributed for free at hotels and bookstores. This show of absolute loyalty to one man fascinated FlorCruz.

Getting stranded was traumatic, dealing with the uncertainty was difficult. “I didn’t know it was going to be 12 years. It was one planning after another, one disappointment after another. We thought ‘ah maybe next month,’ or ‘maybe next year.’ I was very homesick. I couldn’t speak the language, I had no friends except my small group. And China was very isolated from the outside world.” Barren, spartan, very simple. That was his first glimpse of the country revealed through a few paintings in the exhibit.

It was also the time when China was enveloped in the revolutionary era. “It was Mao (Zedong), Mao, Mao everywhere I turn. His portrait, his quotations, his slogans, Mao pins.” A glass counter in the exhibit holds all the Mao collectibles he picked up from hotels and bookstores. “I brought them here just to remind people how China had become under Mao. He was a virtual God, whatever he said was followed and everyone showed loyalty to him.”

FlorCruz says that this poster of Mao Zedong looking at a Chinese-designed Dongfeng car, is a rare picture of the leader in a human situation. It also provides a stark contrast to the China that FlorCruz saw in the early 80s when there were hardly any cars, all of which were owned by the government and for official use only.

When FlorCruz’ passport expired two years later, he realized that it was going to be a long wait to get home so he opted to be productive and studied, worked, and traveled extensively. He took a two-year associate degree program in Mandarin and Translation at the Beijing Languages Institute and in 1977, enrolled at Peking University and obtained a B.A. degree in Chinese history.

There is a corner in the exhibit dedicated to souvenirs of his education. His diploma, some books, even scribblings. “There was a time when I wanted to learn from this political dictionary but it was not available in bookstores so I borrowed one from a friend. He lent it to me and I copied it by hand. After I finished about a third of this, he was so moved by my determination so he gave it to me. Copying was probably the equivalent of that movie ‘wax in, wax out.’ I was like Karate Kid learning certain basic skills,” he chuckled.

This painting reflects how women were depicted during the revolutionary period where the norm was simple living, spartan, and militant. One slogan of Mao at the time was “women prop up half of the sky” which played a very positive role in uplifting the status of women in China.

Learning Mandarin opened the path to his calling. “I was a still a senior in the university in 1982 when I became an accidental journalist,” he says. Newsweek needed bilingual news assistants so he started working for them part-time, doing research, filing and clipping news. Eventually, he was assigned to bigger tasks. Upon graduation, he moved to being a full time reporter in Time.

While he was already able to go back to the Philippines by this time, he opted to stay in China since his career as a journalist was taking off. Also, Marcos was still president so FlorCruz was not entirely safe from being arrested.

In contrast, these posters show the image of women before the revolution, apparently objectified. They were used as props to sell goods.

He served as Time’s Beijing bureau chief from 1990 to 2000. In 2000, he went to New York as the first non-American Edward R. Morrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. After completing the fellowship in 2001, he was hired by CNN as Beijing bureau chief and correspondent, a post he occupied until he retired in 2015.

Click on the image below for slideshow

As a journalist, FlorCruz got a ringside seat to many significant events, shown here are some of the press cards issued to him for those occasions. He has also kept the laptop he used to churn out articles as well as copies of the cover stories he wrote for Time magazine. 

Mementos of learning the Chinese language include scribblings of English proverbs rendered in Chinese and a political dictionary given by a friend after FlorCruz borrowed it and copied by hand. It took him two years to master the language. 

When FlorCruz first arrived in China, there was still food shortage and they were rationing grain, cotton, and cooking oil. These ration coupons were required to make a purchase, paying with mere cash was not enough. 

More souvenirs of his work. 

Because he did not want to give the impression that China was all Mao and revolution, he pulled out these knick knacks from his home to show the creativity and genius of the Chinese. The selection includes a checkers game board, hand-carved wall décor, scissors, measuring tools, smoking apparatus, and Tibetan ornaments. 

This is a small version of a Chinese typewriter which he found at an antique shop. The tiny squares of Chinese characters are like printing press keys that are tediously picked up one character after another to form a sentence. 

FlorCruz has been living in China since that fateful day in 1971 when he got stranded. Shown here with  wife Ana Segovia FlorCruz, with whom he has two children. 

During FlorCruz’ first few years in China, it was all about Mao Zedong. Pins and other collectibles carrying the leader’s photos were distributed for free at hotels and bookstores. This show of absolute loyalty to one man fascinated FlorCruz. 

In 1977, FlorCruz enrolled at Peking University and obtained a B.A. degree in Chinese history in 1982. This was his diploma. 

This late Ming or early Qing dynasty chair is made of huanghuali, a special hard wood that’s rare nowadays. The design’s simple lines appealed to FlorCruz and it is prized for being among his first big acquisitions in the mid-80s. 

“I’ve been blessed to have had a ringside seat to many important events as a journalist,” he mused. On the exhibit floor is a box containing his tools of the trade as well as souvenirs of milestones such as the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China and the wristwatch giveaway when the first McDonald’s outlet opened in Beijing. “My approach is to take China’s story as a mosaic so piece by piece, story by story. We told our audiences what China was like through small pieces of the mosaic that we form. It’s been very challenging but also very rewarding to be part of that storytelling about China that is still going on and will go on because it is a very complex story to really understand,” he concluded.

 

“From the Perch of an Accidental China Hand: Peering into a kaleidoscope with the collection of Jaime FlorCruz” will run until February 17, 2019 at Bahay Tsinoy—Kaisa Heritage Center located at 32 Anda St. cor. Cabildo St., Intramuros, Manila. For more information, call (0922) 8901357; 5276083 or email [email protected]

 

Photographs by Romeo Peralta Jr.​