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July 25, 2010

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Expat family with four generations on the Bund

TO Australian Jenny Laing-Peach, Shanghai is a familiar four-generation place of family roots and culture. Her grandmother was Shanghainese and she is passionate about Chinese culture.

Having lived with her husband, journalist Barry Porter in Shanghai for 10 years, Laing-Peach has devoted herself to cultural exchanges.

As a theater director, performance arts educator and teacher, she has been involved in many events such as the annual James Joyce "Bloomsday Shanghai" celebration. She cofounded the Shanghai International Literary Festival and has written and published articles on Shanghai historical figures, including renowned writer Lu Xun and mayor Chen Yi.

Today she is in charge of the Peace Gallery Heritage Program in the Fairmont Peace Hotel on the Bund. It will open on July 28 after three years of renovating the famous Peace Hotel landmark. The gallery showcases relics (from ordinary ashtrays to antiques), stories and personal treasures associated with the grand hotel. A nationwide search was launched for memorabilia.

In an interview (in English, though she speaks some Chinese), Laing-Peach's enthusiasm for Shanghai is evident as she often says, "It's so beautiful" or "so excellent" or "so amazing."

Although she gets her "Irish face" from her mother, her artistic qualities, her knowledge of Chinese art and culture, and her jade necklace all make her very "Chinese."

Q: Why are you so interested in Chinese culture?

A: We have four generations of a family that worked on the Bund; my grandfather and my father worked here and I lived here for 10 years. My son is a restaurant manager in Shanghai and my daughter visited on every university holiday, calling it "coming home." We have had every Christmas here for 10 years. I don't know if there are very many complete Chinese families who can do four generations on the Bund ... Shanghai has occupied such a unique place in the history of the world: a place that East meets West. So much human energy combining here, significantly, not just Asian, not just Chinese, it is the whole world. The energy of Shanghai is genuinely welcoming to other parts of the world.

Q: Culture exchanges have been going on a long time. How do you think the Western world understands China's culture?

A: This is no longer the day when foreigners only knew about Chinese antiques. Many foreigners know about writers like Bajin and famous director Zhang Yimou. More Chinese books are translated into English. Foreign people know more about films than books, maybe because film has a wider audience. In Australia, children love the Monkey King and the "Journey to the West." People know (composer) Tan Dun and (modern dancer) Jin Xing because they have performed in the West. And the Confucius schools around the world play an important role in promoting understanding.

Q: Why are you involved in the Peace Gallery Heritage Program?

A: First, the hotel has become a symbol of Shanghai because there are so many Shanghai stories behind it. The emotions that locals and many expatriates have for the hotel are very deep. It was opened in Shanghai's golden age, so it left golden memories. The gallery is to become a place where people can share. A famous film directed by Steven Spielberg, "Empire of the Sun," is the story about a boy separated from his parents in a Japanese concentration camp. It is based on my cousin's real life. And in the movie, there is a scene in which the little boy sees out of the window --and it's the Peace Hotel. ... It is from here, from the hotel, that so many stories have happened. It is important to preserve those histories, stories, pass them along and share them. So far, we have collected more than 100 pieces, including paintings, antiques and souvenirs. Some of them are quite ordinary, like ash trays, lighters and a cup. But when you see those collections of old memories, it's like an archeologist who discovers the old totem.

Q: Which part of the city is your favorite?

A: The Huangpu River. I really love it and everything about it. I love watching the river, the traffic, the hustle and bustle on the dock. Long ago people like Li Bai and Wang Wei wrote poems about meeting people on the riverbank. Now here in Shanghai, people are wandering up and down the river, lovers along holding hands, and all seem to have been doing this forever.

Q: What do you recommend for first-time visitors?

A: The hotel, of course, because it reveals part of the city's history, the Shanghai Museum and the Bund.


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