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October 12, 2012

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US artist seeks childhood nanny

PETER Max, a 74-year-old renowned American artist, has come all the way from New York to Shanghai in search of a "nanny" who took good care of him and taught him to draw pictures when his family took shelter in the city as refugees about 70 years ago.

The "nanny" he remembers was a young Shanghai girl only about six years older than him, who was very good at painting, Max said during a press conference at the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum yesterday.

"A nine-year-old girl was hired by my mother to be my babysitter when I was three years old. She was a tender girl, always smiling at me," Max recalled.

"She taught me how to paint, almost every day, drawing the stars and the sun, from which I gained the skills I now have."

Max, who arrived on Wednesday, said he continued to draw pictures after he left Shanghai and is now a prominent name in the arts field, even dubbed as a cultural icon in the United States.

Max got the idea of searching for his Shanghai nanny in April this year after Shanghai Daily reported on a reunion between a 73-year-old Jewish American and her childhood playmate, a 70-year-old Shanghai lady, in November last year.

But despite efforts from museum officials, there is still no trace of the nanny, who should be about 80 now. Max decided to fly to Shanghai and visit the Tilanqiao Area of Hongkou District, where he lived about 70 years ago, in a bid to find more clues about his nanny.

"It's funny that in my memory she is still that little girl. But actually she should be over 80, she could be married and have children or even grandchildren," he said, adding that he would do whatever the nanny wanted to show his gratitude. "If she wants to move to the US, I'd love to take her there."

Shanghai children

Unfortunately, Max can't remember her name nor does he have any photographs of her. He called her "Umba," which sounds like "Ama," the term many Shanghai children used for their nannies or elders in the past.

With the details that he could remember, Max drew a picture of the girl, hoping that it could be a clue. But museum officials said the picture was too "abstract" to help find the real person.

Walking along streets in Tilanqiao, the septuagenarian said he could hardly remember his former residential area as Shanghai had changed too much in the intervening years.

During his short stay, Max, who will leave for New York today, opened a small studio in the Pudong New Area, displaying his art, and where he plans to create more works with Chinese elements in the future.

Max and his family were among 30,000 Jewish refugees who fled to the city from their homelands from 1933-1941. About 18,000 of them settled in the "designated area for stateless refugees" in Tilanqiao.

Dubbed a cultural icon in the US, Max has painted portraits of many celebrities in the fields of music, sports and politics. At yesterday's press conference, he displayed portraits for US President Barack Obama.


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