Mon, May 24, 2010
Lifestyle > Culture

An eye on the past

2010-05-24 11:07:41 GMT2010-05-24 19:07:41 (Beijing Time)  China Daily

A Wet Day In Shanghai, by Sapajou, from Sapajou: The Collected Works I.

In the four years since its founding Earnshaw Books has published 11 titles on old Shanghai. And the niche publishing house, which operates out of Hong Kong and Shanghai and proclaims an interest in "China's past, present and future", evidently, hasn't yet had its fill of pre-1949 Shanghai.

"Till 1949 the balance of power was shifting, there was intrigue and the sexy stuff one would like to write about. Back then it was a city people looked at for inspiration," says chief editor Derek Sandhaus, reflecting on the company's obsessive engagement with Shanghai and early 20th century Chinese history.

Also, as he points out, the focus on the 1930s makes it easier to connect with a Western audience, because of their shared history with China during that period.

The newest from the Earnshaw stable is Stateless in Shanghai by Liliane Willens. The daughter of Jewish-Russian refugees who were given asylum in Shanghai in the 1930s, Willens found herself suddenly "stateless" with the founding of New China in 1949.

The story of Willens' time spent in a tense, indifferent Shanghai, running from pillar to post for two years to get an exit permit, is told with dispassionate eloquence.

Also on offer is Sapajou: The Collected Works I, edited by Nenad Djordjevic. A White Russian who came to Shanghai in the early 1920s, Sapajou, or Georgi Avksentievich Sapojnikoff as he was named, was one of Shanghai's most prolific and admired cartoonists in the 1920s.

The first in a three-volume series of Sapajou's artworks compiled from the North China Daily News and North China Herald, his work is a delightful commentary on China's social and political life during the period 1923 to 1931.

From Albert Einstein's visit to Shanghai to General Chiang Kai Shek's tussle with the Soviet agent Mikhail Borodin and the outrage at attempts to restrict the city's notorious nightlife, however grave and political his themes, Sapajou's sophisticated cartoons are charged with an unusual restraint and his acerbic characterizations. Tales of Old Shanghai by Graham Earnshaw, who is also the founder-editor of Earnshaw Books, is a captivating collage of archival images (cartoons, sepia-tinted photographs, advertisement, picture postcards, maps, newspaper clippings, book covers, bank notes, cinema posters) and words (extracts from a 19th-century trader's letter to the British consul, JG Ballard's novel Empire of The Sun, Fortune magazine's article on Shanghai in 1935, a tip on how to pronounce "Bund", lucid, pithy write-ups on Indians in Shanghai and Sir Victor Sassoon).

The company has also repackaged and published several books on Shanghai history that are out of circulation, with fresh introductions. These include the American entrepreneur and adventurer Carl Crow's books, Foreign Devils in the Flowery Kingdom, 1940 and 400 Million Customers, 1937. Crow arrived in Shanghai in 1911 and stayed 25 years, setting up a newspaper and China's first Western-style advertising agency, compiling acquired wisdom that he published for the benefit of fellow foreigners in the Middle Kingdom.

"Carl Crow had a real love and appreciation of Chinese culture, he wrote anecdotal guides to China for outsiders which are just as applicable today," says Sandhaus. "For example in 400 Million Customers he writes that Shanghai is the only port city in the world that doesn't have seagulls."

It still doesn't.

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