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September 14, 2011

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Fascinating life of many facets

DR Silvia Kettelhut is a writer, a translator, a researcher on successful Chinese women, a Shanghai historical preservationist - and the wife of the German Consul General. She talks to Shanghai Daily.

Silvia Kettelhut started to learn Chinese many years ago "out of wanderlust" because she wanted to get to know new cultures, especially languages. By now the seasoned German traveler knows China well - she has spent more than a decade of her life in the country.

Today she is Dr Kettelhut - writer, translator, a Shanghai historical preservationist and documentarian of successful Chinese businesswomen. She is also involved in charity work.

Dr Kettelhut, a native of Lubeck in northern Germany, is also the wife of the German Consul General in Shanghai, Dr Wolfgang Rohr, posted here for a second time in 2010 (their first Shanghai posting was from 2002-2006, then they returned to Germany).

Dr Kettelhut came to China in the 1980s when China had just "opened up." She lived and worked in Nanjing, capital city of Jiangsu Province, and in Beijing. Her doctoral degree is in Chinese studies and her thesis is about the role of women in Lao She's literary work.

She is a writer of German children's detective stories ("Peacock Island's Blue Hour" is her first book) and a literary translator of Chinese works into German.

In 1997 she translated Wang Anyi's "Between Shores" ("Mi Ni," 1991) and in 2006 Su Shuyang's "China: Introduction to History, Culture and Civilization" (2005). She has just finished the translation of a Chinese work about German landmarks and cultural footprints in Shanghai.

In Shanghai Dr Kettelhut discovered another side of China.

"My interest in the history of foreigners in Shanghai started when my family and I first moved to this residence. The villa is a well-preserved and beautiful building, with many gems and secrets to discover. It captivated me immediately," recalls Dr Kettelhut about the official residence of the German Consul General.

In the villa she was inspired to write "Have Assumed Charge. German Consulate, Shanghai - Impressions of 150 Years." It covers the long history of the consulate and consuls and shows in pictures and documents the changing life in China. Sometimes it shows that nothing changed at all.

The biggest change is the speed of communication. Not so long ago, when e-mails and Internet were not available and further back when phones were unavailable, consuls were sometimes forced to make decisions without first consulting their government. The post could not keep up with the changing situation in China.

In 2003 Dr Kettelhut co-founded Explore Shanghai Heritage. "The idea was to share our knowledge and to help avoid the mistakes we made in Europe, when we started to restore and renovate our historic sites," Dr Kettelhut explains.

One goal is the actual preservation of buildings and restoration of original details. Another is helping young Chinese and expats understand Shanghai's architectural heritage through monthly lectures. Topics vary but they are always about Chinese culture.

Explore Shanghai Heritage has developed walking maps and tours of the former Jewish ghetto, Suzhou Creek and the architecture of Laszlo Hudec.

After Dr Rohr's first posting to Shanghai ended, the family returned to Berlin in 2007, but Dr Kettelhut took more than memories of China along.

She wove Chinese culture and characters into the "Peacock Island" book. The story takes place on Peacock Island (her favorite place in Berlin) and involves a group of children who get mysterious messages to help them solve museum heists.

She wanted to spark children's interest in local museums.

"I couldn't resist and I chose the Museum of Asian Art in Berlin for the plot. Even the Chinese ambassador plays a part because somebody stole valuable Chinese vases from him," she laughs.

Dr Kettelhut also shared with Berliners a special glimpse of China she gained through her research, aided by a Sinologist, about Chinese businesswomen.

Titled "Earned Freedom - Businesswomen in China," it tells life stories in text and large portraits. First shown in 2001 at the Asia Pacific Week, it traveled through several cities in Germany and was last seen in November 2010 at the Confucius Institute in Berlin.

"We were surprised that the exhibition was so sustainable. We didn't expect it to be this popular," Dr Kettelhut says.

Subjects include Shanghai businesswomen, such as Fang Wenyan who founded Glistar Paper Products Co in 1993, Dr Feng Kunfan, a research scientist who fought pollution in Suzhou Creek, and Fu Zhenjian, a successful software engineer. Dr Kettelhut also featured women from rural Chinese areas, such as Huang Ruomei, a goat breeder and founder of Tianyun Lake Farming and Herd Corp Ltd, and Chen Jing, a beekeeper exporting organic honey and tea to Germany.

Now that she is back in Shanghai, Dr Kettelhut has resumed charity work, organizing events and being the charming host of charity galas.

As a member of the Consular Spouses Shanghai, Dr Kettelhut has been involved in various projects. Since 1995, the group supported 50 projects by raising more than 5 million yuan (US$782,472).

It works with the All-China Women's Federation to organize charity art exhibitions, dinners, balls and bazaars. It is also a close partner of the Shanghai Charity Foundation.

Dr Kettelhut also donates the revenues from her book about the German Consulate in Shanghai to the Shanghai Charity Foundation.

To date, those donations financed medical care for four children suffering from leukemia and congenital heart disease in and around Shanghai.

"They are well now and happy, going to school and forgetting they were sick at all," says Dr Kettelhut cheerfully.

She has just finished her second children's book in German.

It's about a German girl who moves to China and befriends a Chinese boy. Through their friendship they get to know each other's cultures and go through many adventures. They learn to look through each other's eyes, as well as their own "cultural lenses."

"It's a cultural examination, but more important, it's a story about friendship," she says. Silvia Kettelhut

Nationality: German

Profession: Author and translator


Self description:

Open-minded and diligent.

Favorite place:

The orchid garden in the Shanghai Botanical Garden.

Strangest sight:

On my first visit to China, I arrived in Nanjing and tried to buy a train ticket in the middle of the night. It was very dark and for a young girl it's pretty scary.

Worst experience:

No rights for pedestrians and bicycle riders.

Motto for life:

Every day, do something beautiful.

How to improve

Shanghai: More natural parks and adventure playgrounds for kids.

Advice to newcomers:

Try to discover the charming hidden sites in Shanghai.


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