Looking Back: A Prophet’s Visit to China
Contributed By Gerry Avant, senior contributing editor
President Gordon B. Hinckley is the only President of the Church who has visited the People’s Republic of China, often referred to as “mainland China.” Apostles have visited the nation—but not a serving Church President.
President Hinckley made the visit in 1996 after he dedicated the Hong Kong Temple—later named the Hong Kong China Temple—in seven sessions, four on Sunday, May 26, and three on Monday, May 27. After the sessions on Monday, he and his wife, Sister Marjorie Pay Hinckley, traveled just across the border to Shenzhen, in the southeastern corner of mainland China.
A red carpet was literally unrolled at the entry of the Shenzhen Bay Hotel upon their arrival. It was a fitting tribute to the man whom a BYU scholar, Spencer J. Palmer, declared to be “the father of the Church in the Orient.”
In 1960, two years after he was called as an Assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Elder Hinckley was assigned to oversee the work of the Church in Asia. At various times, he was reassigned to that duty. As an Assistant to the Twelve Apostles, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, a counselor in the First Presidency, and then as President of the Church, he made dozens of trips to Asia, visiting Hong Kong many times.
While in Hong Kong for the temple dedication, he commented about the “wonderful opportunity” he’d had over the years to work “among these marvelous Chinese people—the sons and daughters of God.” He mentioned that in 1960, when he first went to Hong Kong and other parts of Asia, the Church did not own one piece of property, except for a small branch meetinghouse in Japan. In the Hong Kong Temple’s dedicatory prayer, he noted that the Church in Hong Kong “now comes to full maturity with the dedication of this sacred temple.”
After the two days of dedicatory events concluded and we went into mainland China, I asked President Hinckley about his thoughts on saying goodbye to the members in Hong Kong.
“I didn’t say ‘goodbye,’” he said. “I said ‘zai jian’—Cantonese for ‘farewell, dear friends.’ That is what it was—farewell. It was an emotional experience we had at the dedication of that temple, in looking into the faces of many thousands of our Chinese friends as well as those who had come from such distant places as Singapore, Thailand, and Taiwan at great expense to participate in the dedicatory services of the temple.”
President Hinckley took his affection for the Chinese people to the mainland city of Shenzhen. Three other General Authorities accompanied him: President Thomas S. Monson, then First Counselor in the First Presidency; Elder Neal A. Maxwell and Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin, both of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles; and Elder Kwok Yuen Tai, a General Authority Seventy. Accompanying their husbands were Sisters Marjorie Hinckley, Frances Monson, Colleen Maxwell, Elisa Wirthlin, and Hui Hua Tai.
President Hinckley and the others went to Shenzhen on a cultural exchange, representing the Church-owned Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii. Chinese officials had created a cultural center-style attraction, Chinese Folk Villages, featuring villages and performers in costumes representative of citizens of China’s provinces and landmarks to give a glimpse of the nation’s vast geographic regions.
During my 45-year Church News career, I took thousands of photos. I don’t think any measure up to the photo I shot of President and Sister Hinckley and others ascending steps to “Windows of the World” amid a flurry of confetti. Off to the sides and in the background are costumed dancers and other performers who lined walkways in the folk villages President Hinckley and his group visited. The performers reassembled along the walkway and steps leading to a building where President Hinckley was to be honored at a luncheon. The colorful scene and unique setting became a perfect photo op.
We had been transported throughout the folk villages in small electric vehicles similar to golf carts, with President and Sister Hinckley in the lead vehicle and I in one of the last. Since they had a head start in their approach, I had to grab my camera and shoulder bag, dash behind the lines of performers, and sprint up the steps. I reached the top with just enough time to aim, focus, and shoot one, two, three quick images—fortuitously as President Hinckley looked upward.
For an extensive trip that took President Hinckley to Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the People’s Republic of China, Cambodia, Vietnam, and the Philippines, this moment-in-time image indeed shows “the father of the Church in the Orient.”