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Old graduates tell stories
By Wang Jie

SHANGHAI-NATIVE photographer Deke Erh (Er Dongqiang) has become a legend for documenting the city's history and tumultuous changes through pictures of architecture, city streets and people.

Erh has recently adopted new (for him) mediums to tell stories of old Shanghai - words and video recorded interviews. The cameraman is also a wordsmith, filmmaker and sound man.

His latest work is titled "Zhongshan Park Project," a three-part installation about an old suburban tea house, his recent book interviewing graduates and teachers of the old Shanghai American School, and his work-in-progress about graduates and teachers of three prestigious universities of old Shanghai.

The exhibition in one large hall is underway at the Edo Museum near Zhongshan Park through December 31. It is one of a series of events of the 9th Shanghai Biennale that will kick off at the end of this month.

In the tea house section, Erh sets out a few old benches and tables, plays recorded tea house background sounds and his video recordings of interviews with old patrons. The scene is the water town of Zhujiajiao in Shanghai's suburban Qingpu District. All the visual materials and oral materials are from Erh's archives.

"China has witnessed such amazing changes in the past 10 decades. To listen to the stories of individuals is the biggest happiness in my life," Erh says.

Visitors immediately hear the chatter and clatter of an old tea house where Erh interviewed 108 elderly patrons with different backgrounds, professions and attitudes toward history and society today.

Zhujiajiao canal town, which dates back around 1,700 years, once was bustling and filled with merchants. It even had 33 different newspapers there, Erh says.

The tea tables and benches are arranged as if to invite visitors to step into the old tea house and taste the flavor of the bygone era.

The spotlight of the show is another part of the hall - Erh's latest book, "Deke Erh and Shanghai American School Students and Teachers 1937-1949," containing the stories of 86 students and teachers based on Erh's intensive interviews in English and Chinese. It is in both Chinese and English. The subjects' pictures are on the walls.

Many graduates, both foreign and Chinese, went on to eventually hold important positions in China and overseas.

Abrupt changes

The years 1937 to 1945 (China's War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression) were tumultuous and many students lived through part or all of the conflict in China.

"These students at the American School were affluent and happy at the beginning, which could be read through their smiling faces," Erh says. "But abruptly everything changed. Some fled the country, some stayed. For Europeans and Americans unable to flee to safe zones before the city fell to the Japanese, what awaited them was internment in concentration camps."

The book, a labor of love, is the result of his painstaking efforts to discover the history of his own father, Er Yukuan, a man about whom he knew little. He only knew that he died in the late days of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) and that he had attended the Shanghai American School.

In 2008, Erh flew to Salem, Massachusetts, in the United States to take part in an alumni gathering of the Shanghai American School. He set up a workshop and began intensive video recorded interviews, starting with 50 subjects.

"Interviewing subjects recollections can be subjective, of course. There can be mistakes or deliberate attempts to cover up and distort the past," Erh says. "One person could give varying accounts of an event and might not tell exactly the same story twice. So I often interviewed them five or six times."

The third part of the exhibition is about Erh's next, similar narrative project on the alumni of Shanghai's three prestigious universities in the old days: Aurora university (later merged into Fudan University), University of Shanghai and St John's University (broken up in 1952).

The three turned out members of the influential upper class.

"Those who are still live today are approaching 80," Erh says, adding that it's difficult to track them down through his personal connections. "So I opened a weibo (microblog) to look for them."

This area is dominated by a huge screen of Erh's live weibo account, seeking contributions from alumni and professors.

"I am so excited that there are already people responding to me. I have found nearly 10," Erh says. "Time is very short since many have passed away, taking their memories to heaven."

According to Erh, the exhibition will travel to various Zhongshan Parks in other regions such as Xiamen in Fujian Province, Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province and elsewhere, including Taiwan.

Next year it will return to Shanghai's Museum of Contemporary Art with a more concrete and detailed exhibit.

Deke Erh's exhibition

Date: Through December 31, 10am-4pm

Venue: Edo Museum, 1562 Wanhangdu Rd (Gate 3 of Zhongshan Park)

Official weibo: http://weibo.com/u/2987019260

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