The story appears on

Page B4 , B5

February 3, 2012

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Feature

In search of his father's history

LEGENDARY photographer Deke Erh (Er Dongqiang) is famous for documenting Shanghai's history and its dramatic changes, usually through architecture - from the colonial past of the former French concession where he grew up to today's futuristic skyline and the World Expo 2010.

His name is associated with old Shanghai, old villas and lanes, Art Deco and vanishing structures and artifacts - as well as breathtaking helicopter views of a rising skyscraper city and elevated highways spiraling off to the horizon.

Among his more than 25 photo books are "A Last Look- Western Architecture in Old Shanghai" (1990), "Frenchtown Shanghai" (2000), "Old Villas in Shanghai" (2005), "Art Deco in Shanghai" (2006), "Shanghai, a Bird's Eye View" (2010).

But Erh has turned his considerable reporting skills and his lens to a new dimension that goes beyond the pictorial - narrative history. The lensman is now a wordsmith.

His latest book (to be launched February 12), "Deke Erh And Shanghai American School Students and Teachers 1937-1949" is just such an example of a new direction - it contains the stories of 86 students and teachers based on extensive and intensive interviews. It is in both English and Chinese.

The book and Erh are likely to be front and center this April for the 100th alumni reunion in Shanghai of the Shanghai American School.

The book, a labor of love, is the result of his painstaking efforts to discover the history of his own father, Er Yukuan, a man about whom he knew little. He knew only that he died in the late days of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) and that he attended that Shanghai American School.

Today, despite his research, that's still about the sum of what he knows. He didn't find out about his father, not a word, not a photo, in documents that he unearthed. Interviews shed no light.

But at a class reunion in the United States, he met other former students, heard their stories and was inspired to conduct intensive interviews for a narrative history of that generation.

Erh comes from a large and affluent family in old Shanghai. Everyone except his father went to Hong Kong before the founding of New China in 1949; a number became involved in the film industry. Famous Hong Kong director Derek Tung-Shing is a cousin (though Erh doesn't like to mention this). His father stayed behind to attend to the family business.

He remembers fondly that when he was just six years old, his father took him to visit the beautiful suburban watertown Zhujiajiao. Then a gap.

"He died in the late 'cultural revolution' but he didn't tell me a word about the changes in the family," Erh said in a recent interview about the publication of his book.

It was in 1993 that he visited two uncles in the United States and presented them with "A Last Look - Western Architecture in Old Shanghai." One of them pointed at the photo of the Shanghai American School and told him this was the place "that nurtured your father's perfect English."

This ignited Ehr's interest in the Shanghai American School as a link to his father and the family past.

In the mid 1990s, Erh opened a cafe called the "Old China Hand Reading Room" at No. 27 Shaoxing Road. The Art Deco interior and many books, in shelves and scattered on tables, attracted many people, including some expatriates.

"It was there that I met some Westerners who spoke unbelievably perfect Shanghai, Suzhou or even Ningbo dialect and many were alumni of the Shanghai American School," Erh said.

He researched archives and also tracked down information about the school in a flea market where he found six school yearbooks, for 1931, 1935, 1939, 1947, 1948 and 1949. But he didn't find his father's name or face, only pictures of smiling students from that period.

His heart told him he had to find out what happened to these people after 1949.

In 2008, he flew to Salem, Massachusetts in the United States to take part in alumni gatherings of the Shanghai American School; he set up a workshop and began intensive video recorded interviews, starting with 50 subjects.

"It is a pity this book can't tell each one's story in detail, but every story could be a nonfiction novel," he said. They are missionaries, doctors, teachers, consular officials, merchants, some the four or fifth generation of their family in China.

For example, one Western couple left their child at the school and went to the Taihang Mountain range in Henan and Shanxi provinces to join the 8th Route Army that fought in the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression from 1937-45.

Some people have questioned the accuracy or authenticity of the narratives of elderly people collected many years after the fact by Erh, saying memories can fade and shift and don't always reveal "objective" truth.

"Interview subjects recollections can be subjective, of course, there can be mistakes or deliberate attempts to cover up and distort the past," Erh said. One person could give varying accounts of an event and might not tell exactly the same story twice. "So I often interviewed them five or six times."

Though Erh is known for photojournalism and photo history, he said the enormous narrative project was immensely satisfying.

"To listen to their stories was the biggest happiness in my life," he said. "I had such mixed feelings when I saw a picture of myself standing under the American flag on the occasion to interview these people in the US.''

He acquired a trove of fascinating oral histories.

"But I only know that my grandfather worked for the US Pacific Fleet and my father worked for Texaco (oil company)."

"All the details of my father's and grandfather's lives are forever gone, yet I created a book recording the stories of people unrelated to my own life, who once shared the same background with my father. The project was incredible."

Erh was among the first freelance photographers in China and he was certainly one of the most famous Chinese photographers to undertake visual documentation of the sweeping changes in China.

He always seems to be a step ahead.

While many people were enthusiastically throwing away old things and old concepts in the 1980s when China's era of reform and opening-up began, Erh was sensitive to the value of history and its artifacts, whether an old house facing demolition, or an item of everyday life, such as a mug.

"I was quite touched that one Hong Kong media outlet called me and my pictures 'the witness for Shanghai, a city that lost its memory'," Erh said.

"Sometimes I feel that I am so lucky to live in such a city in such an era, because it only took me 30 years to record the vicissitudes of the city. But sometimes I feel so unlucky because I witnessed too many old houses that evaporated with urbanization, along with the old Shanghai lifestyle."

The era of reform and opening-up officially was declared in 1978 and it got underway in the 1980s. That's when Erh began to seriously collect antique and vintage furniture, decorative items, housewares, clothing, pictures and photographs and documents such as old train and theater tickets and bills.

Erh's collection is so huge that he needed a special place to accommodate everything, so in 2000 he established a 2,000-square-meter private museum in Qingpu District.

"Those old items are a tangible witness helping us to decipher history," he said. "But there are many intangible things as well as ordinary people and their stories. History left its mark on every one."

Erh's first narrative book titled "108 Old Residents in Zhujiajiao'' (2010), told the stories of 108 elderly people living in the ancient canal town.

Why picturesque and now touristy Zhujiajiao in Qingpu District?

"In the autumn in 1965 when I was six, my father took me there and said that he would start showing me more of the world since I would be entering primary school," Erh said.

"For a city kid, everything there was amazing. In the late 1980s, I was driving my first new Jeep and visiting 50 ancient southern canal towns on a photo project to record them. I felt so happy as the pleasant childhood memory from Zhujiajiao came back to me."

Erh retains an adventurer's heart and love of freedom, savoring both new experiences and the best of times gone by. He spends around two-thirds of this time traveling around China and overseas.

"I am a very diligent person," he notes. "If I am in Shanghai, I often walk to my studio in the morning - there are so many materials and pictures that need to be filed. I can't let others help me because to them this work is deadly dull."

Erh said he plans to compile a narrative history book every year if possible. His next project is interviewing old Kuomintang soldiers in Taiwan who fled the Chinese mainland during and after the Chinese Civil War.

"Time is quite limited, since many have passed away, taking their memories to heaven," he said.

Erh said that his latest narrative history about the Shanghai American School students could help him prepare to make a movie about old Shanghai and the fate of the people during the time.

"My greatest dream is to be a film director," he said. "Every night, when I am lying in bed, I think of some scenes in my book and the scenes run round and round like a movie reel."

Making a film about old Shanghai has been on his mind for years.

"The material in my book is actually a perfect movie script, which cannot be fictionalized," he said. "When I told director Derek Tung-Shing about my dream, he supported me. Many of our family went to Hong Kong and worked in film studios, as actors, directors, producers, scene designers and lighting technicians. It's a complete movie family."

He is waiting for investors who will respect his ideas. "I don't know whether this dream would come true one day," he said. "Luckily, some of my dreams have been realized and I hope this won't be an exception."


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend