It was the moment ABC News cameraman Willie Phua captured one of the most influential images in history: Tank Man.
We were on the balcony of our Beijing Hotel room filming a convoy of tanks rumbling out of Tiananmen Square on the day after a massacre which claimed an estimated 10,000 lives*. It was June 5, 1989.
“Max, come and look at this,” said Willie suddenly and softly, calmly gesturing me to look through his view finder. And there he was: a man holding shopping bags, and holding up the might of the People’s Liberation Army as he stood defiantly in front of the lead tank.
Hairs stood up on my neck as I stepped back quickly to let Willie focus. Only minutes before, we’d filmed as people scattered and fell in one of the random volleys of automatic fire from troops in the square, to clear Changan, ironically named the Avenue of Eternal Peace.
Yet this lone protestor was clambering onto the top of the tank, remonstrating with the commander and another crewman who emerged from another turret. He could have been picked off by sharpshooters along the route or from within the tank itself. Or simply crushed, like many before in the horrendous prequel.
We watched as he stepped off the tank and stood to one side, vigorously waving the tank backwards towards the square. But with a belch of smoke, the tank started lurching forward several metres. Tank Man – he’ll forever be known as that – darted back in front of the steel monster. We held our collective breath. The tank stopped. More gesticulations came from the protestor. Then followed a feint and parry as the commander tried to steer his machine around him.
Just as it seemed this would be his dance of death, several bystanders raced across and bundled Tank Man to the other side of the boulevard and out of danger. He disappeared out of Willie’s lens frame and from sight forever.
Because we (ABC News Australia) were in a pool arrangement with the agency Visnews and the BBC and NBC among other networks, our footage would be disseminated widely and used by others. For decades, Willie would not receive due credit.
How we got the footage out is a different heart-in-mouth tale. The Chinese authorities had pulled the plug on satellite dishes in Beijing. The only way to get the footage to the ABC in Sydney was to find a ‘pigeon’ carrier to take it to Hong Kong for satelliting from the Visnews office.
But we had to get the tapes to the airport first. The city was in martial lockdown. If we went ourselves, we’d almost certainly be held up and have our footage confiscated. Selecting what we hoped was a sympathetic local (Willie talked to him first) on a bicycle pedicab, we gave him our labelled brown bag package and a note. Our note was a plea to the recipient to get the footage out. We told him to cycle to the airport, go to the Qantas counter and give the bundle to someone in the check-in queue.
We gave our pigeon five hundred US dollars and off he pedalled. It worked!
The image of Tank Man has become one of the most recognisable in history. Time magazine included it in the 100 most influential images of all time. Tank Man’s stand has become an international symbol of freedom and courage.
Willie was one of only three television cameramen to capture the Tank Man drama. The others were NBC’s Tony Wasserman and CNN’s Jonathan Schaer, who’d locked off his camera on his balcony. Several snappers took iconic stills including Jeff Widener (AP) , Stuart Franklin (Time/Life) and Charlie Cole (Newsweek) whose image was included in Life: 100 Photographs which changed the World.
On that balcony with us over those dreadful nights and days of June 3-4-5 – and with us in lead-up drama – was ABC radio’s Peter Cave, who filed riveting Walkley award-winning reports for both news and current affairs, and Willie’s nephews Sebastian Phua, Joe Phua and Jone Chang.
The Phua clan was all based in ABC’s Singapore bureau.
Like generations of young, green ABC correspondents, I was guided through the drama by Willie, a legendary cameraman who himself had been inspired by the late, great Australian photo journalist Neil Davis.
Willie’s efforts for the ABC and for Australia itself would eventually bring him an Order of Australia. This was no small achievement given that he is a Singaporean national! It happened because of determined efforts by a group of his old ABC colleagues.
Willie was recognised for helping Australians understand the region with his footage from all the pivotal moments in Asia for more than 30 years. For many of us privileged to win Walkley awards and other gongs, we owe it to the dignified, modest little bloke on the other end of the camera.
Willie is 91 now and still going strong. He loves nothing more than a ‘pork chop’ (in-house lore for a beer) with his Aussie mates.
- source for 10,000 dead : recently declassified cable by UK ambassador June 5, 1989 with his source from inside China State Council
***Footnote: Sadly, we’ve lost Sebastian Phua to cancer but his brother Joe has become a legend in his own right with the BBC and, appropriately, will be filming Tiananmen Square anniversary events in Hong Kong this week – with former ABC correspondent now with the BBC, Stephen McDonnell.