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Multimedia Jewish Shanghai

Keith Gallasch

Crossroads: Shanghai and the Jews of China Crossroads: Shanghai and the Jews of China
An exhibition, a film, a CD and a CD-ROM make for an immersive, disturbingly evocative experience of cultural history in Crossroads: Shanghai and the Jews of China at Sydney’s Jewish Museum. The experience is heightened during my visit by a woman keenly identifying relatives in photographs exhibited on the walls and asking me to find her family on the computer screen—like me she had taken a while to work out that clicking on some but not all of the candles of the Menorah was the way into family histories. For many of us the history of the Jews in China is new, as with the Jews of Calcutta, whose story (partly that of her husband’s family) is to be told by the 2001 NSW Writers Fellowship winner, Bem la Hunte, in her next novel.

Crossroads is seductively intimate, occupying a small space at the top of the museum building. Through the design and selection of materials (much of it on loan from Australian families) the exhibition interweaves Western and Eastern imagery within the rich red and gold that frames a fascinating history. Shanghai was home to Sephardi (Oriental) Jews, mostly from Baghdad, from the mid 19th century. This small community, 800 by the mid 1930s, some of its families very wealthy, played an influential economic and cultural role. They were joined in the early decades of the 20th century by Russian Jews fleeing first Tsarist and then Bolshevik rule. A participant in the documentary Crossroads: Jewish Stories from Shanghai (director, Jonathon Robinson, Paradox Films) says, “Life in China was a utopia. We had the operetta, the was a cultural life.” Others comment that they experienced no anti-semitism, “We were just foreigners.” Theirs was a culture of one belief but many languages—Russian, French, English, Chinese and Arabic—and, remarks one woman, cuisines: “you could get cooks that could cook anything—Iraqi, British, Russian...”

By 1941, a wave of refugees from Europe that began in the mid 30s had swollen the community from 4,000 to some 25,000 inhabitants. No visa was required to enter China. Exit visas from Europe had been the great barrier to escape—homage is paid to Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Lithuania who issued visas to thousands who would otherwise have been murdered. Highly organised community groups in Shanghai helped refugees with welfare, jobs and education. Despite inistent Nazi pressure, the Japanese did not eliminate Shanghai’s Jews, but did force many into the over-crowded Hongkew district. At the end of the war, most migrated to other countries, including Australia, Canada, USA, Israel and Brazil. The exhibition displays photographs, everyday belongings, religious objects and documents, including ample evidence of oppression: “Stateless refugees are prohibited to pass here without permission”, says one sign.

The CD-ROM, The Menorah of Fang Bang Lu, a work-in-progress by Andrew Jackubowicz (Writer/Producer) and the new media artist Tatiana Pentes (Creative Director) is engrossing. There are texts by the authors telling the stories of their own family connections with Shanghai. Jackubowicz recounts a trip to China, the search for what was once his family’s home and buying an old Menorah (a candelabra for use in religious ceremonies) but this one with a music box in its base! He finds it buried in a pile of objects in a shop. Pentes’ grandfather is Shanghai band leader Sergei Ermolaeff (Serge Ermoll). The central experience of the CD-ROM for the user is a pictorial one that wisely sidesteps elaborate textual detail. The impact is impressionistic, but it works in the way that family albums and old photographs invariably do—they require us to query, to imagine, to project, to search the image for points of recognition. Pentes has used a simple but effective layering of images. A click on a Menorah candle opens a family page which in turn opens to a circle of 7 images, a graphic index of topics that cover a family history and its place in Shanghai culture. Click on one of these and you enter another layer with a row of images across the top of the page. Below these is a delicate, ghostly, halftone black and white collage of a large clockface, a child, and a wintry, mountainous rural scene—the Europe lost to these refugees?

As the cursor hovers over an image at the top of the page, the same picture appears enlarged below for closer perusal, sometimes accompanied by a brief text, the font subtly evoking both Hebrew and Chinese writing. As you move from image to image (documents, tickets, precious objects, curios, wedding and school photos, casual snaps) and then onto another aspect of a family’s life (leaving Europe, relations with Chinese, life under the Japanese, leaving Shanghai...), a sense of personal history emerges. And they’re very different histories, although they all share great pleasure in Shanghai life before the Japanese take over the city. The Gunsbergers meet on the Tran-Siberian Railway on their way to China and soon marry—there’s a wedding gift of a glowing Russian Art Deco coffee service, looking like it was made yesterday. There are snaps of the family left behind, killed by the Nazis, Fred Gunsberger as scoutmaster in Shanghai, the margarine factory he worked in and which brought financial ruin, Fred after the motorcycle accident in Australia that left him blind. The Moalem family were Sephardic (Babylonian/Spanish), their prosperous Shanghai history reaching back into the 19th century, their stay in China after the war longer than most. Canada rejects them, Australia accepts them in 1950.

There are other aspects to the CD-ROM (eventually destined for online transmission) including paintings and postcards stamped with Nazi icons (a chilling sight) and a sketchbook of Shanghai street figures that scrolls at length right to left across the screen.

The CD commissioned to accompany the exhibition features the kind of music heard in Shanghai in the 30s and 40s—Yiddish song, Schumann, Gershwin, Ellington and Russian and Baghdadian traditional tunes—along with compositions by Kim Cunio (the son of a retired opera singer from Shanghai) that evoke the intercultural feel of Shanghai (Crossroads, Kim Cunio & Heather Lee, Lotus Foot CD, LFP 104.2).

Crossroads is an effective, informative and multilayered exhibition, well worth experiencing, and especially intriguing to engage with in the company of older Jewish Australians passing through. Hopefully, the online version will be available soon.

Crossroads: Shanghai and the Jews of China; Project Manager Alan Jacobs; Curator Jane Wesley; Sydney Jewish Museum, 148 Darlinghurst Rd, Darlinghurst: currently showing until March; The Menorah of Fang Bang Lu, an Installation as a Work in Progress, Carnival, Performance Space, Oct 5-14

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 12

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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