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City's History Lives on Through Avid Collectors

After visiting its warehouse in Pudong, Zhe Fu made up his mind to donate a large amount of his collection to the Shanghai History Museum.

A passionate protector of history, the 76-year-old antique collector's house was fenced and locked. The historical relics were protected by infrared rays, as well as two German shepherds that guard at the gate.

What happens to the precious collection after their owners pass away becomes the primary concern for devoted lovers of historical relics. Zhe had personally invested most of his life and money into the collection, which he treasured so much that he was willing to give it all away to ensure it would remain in good hands.

Private donors like Zhe are vital to efforts to preserve the past, especially to museums like the Shanghai History Museum.

Devoted collector

Zhe, recovering from cancer, could easily tell if any of his fellow history lovers had passed away, after a stroll along the antique market.

"When items among his collection appear in auctions, the guy must have died," he explained. "His family who doesn't share the same love would sell the collection and share the money between them, as soon as he passes away. Leaving your collection to families would cause this problem."

This is the last thing a devoted collector wants to see, he said.

It takes decades to gather all those pieces together, but once he is no longer in charge, they scatter very quickly, becoming untraceable again.

The strong desire to keep the collection intact is the most powerful reason for collectors to donate.

So far, Zhe has donated about 1,600 items including postcards, historical letters that recorded British opium trade in Shanghai, and postal materials issued by Japanese invaders in China.

Part of his donation to the Shanghai History Museum, a series of postcards featuring Shanghai from the early 1900s is on display at the Xujiahui Library. The museum has also helped edit a picture book on the same subject, which was published recently.

Zhe has been collecting stamps and other postal materials since childhood.

He worked and lived in Hong Kong and travelled widely around the world, enlarging his collection all the time.

Now he has a systematic collection of postcards and letters of historical importance categorized by the regions of China, as well as different historical themes.

The letters donated to the history museum belonged to the Sassoon company and Jardine, Matheson & Co Ltd, concerning the opium market, as well as their business strategies. "They were hard evidence of the British opium trade in China," Zhe said.

People at auctions are usually more concerned about whether the antique piece is in good condition, but Zhe is always attracted to the content.

"They thought I was crazy, holding on to something like trash," he said.

Each of these letters cost Zhe nearly 10,000 yuan (US$1,235) to acquire, but now he gave them up for nothing to the Shanghai History Museum.

But sometimes donating doesn't ensure the security of one's collection.

The recently deceased Chinese writer Ba Jin donated his book collection to the national library years ago. Some of these books bearing Ba Jin's signature later appeared in the second-hand book market, leaving Ba Jin's family deeply hurt.

In Zhe's case, he donated some items concerning Ningbo in East China's Zhejiang Province, as the city planned to build a history museum.

But later he was told that the funding was re-assigned to build the Ningbo grand theatre, and he decided to stop donating to the city.

Lately, a large corruption case was discovered. Eight government officials were sued for embezzling in the grand theatre project.

"If these people sell my donated items, it would definitely break my heart," Zhe said.

Now he is considering donating more items about Ningbo to the Shanghai History Museum.

"People from Ningbo contributed to about half of the old Shanghai economy," said Dr Hang Kan, vice-director of the Shanghai History Museum. "We plan to have an exhibition on Ningbo next year."

Actually, a large amount of the cultural relics at the Shanghai History Museum come from donors like Zhe.

Interesting items

The Shanghai History Museum branched out from the Shanghai Museum in 1984. The Shanghai Museum focuses on collecting and displaying cultural and art relics from ancient China, such as bronze, porcelain, paintings and calligraphy pieces.

In contrast, the history museum mainly collects, studies and exhibits pieces about the history of Shanghai, mostly from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s.

Most of the museum collection has come from purchasing or receiving donations of historical significance. In fact, the museum put much effort working with non-governmental resources, especially collectors like Zhe.

These resources are very important for every museum, including Shanghai Museum.

"For example, one-third of Shanghai Museum's seal collection came from one donor," Hang said. "Three or four donors have made the largest contribution to Shanghai Museum's most important collections, such as paintings, calligraphy and porcelain."

Focusing on the more recent history of the city, the history museum relies more heavily on public resources.

"We can't possibly have the museum without donations from local residents," Hang said.

Even though the museum receives government funding like Shanghai Museum every year, it can't afford to keep purchasing large amounts all the time.

The history museum tries all means to find and persuade potential donors. Last year, someone brought an old shield badge to the history museum for appraisal.

"The badge was a Henry Lester trophy. We became very interested," Hang told China Daily.

The Henry Lester Institute of Technical Education had only four grades of graduates in Shanghai from 1934 to 1945. Its junior and senior high school together had another six grades.

But among these people were architects, experts, and government officials, who exerted important influence upon China as well as internationally.

Lester had a small alumni in Shanghai called Lester Boys. The history museum then called on these alumni members, now all in their 70s or 80s, to bring together items about the Lester institute, and organized an exhibition at the original site of the school.

"They were very moved to find their youthful faces on old pictures in the exhibition," Hang said.

All the pictures and relics from the school were donated to the history museum after the exhibition.

The most difficult problem the museum now faces is that it doesn't have a good exhibition venue.

The museum does have an exhibition hall in the Oriental TV tower, but it is too small.

The museum staff communicate with various institutions to have theme exhibitions, and the municipality has promised to build a new museum for it, possibly near the area assigned to host the World Expo 2010.

Zhe said he would give more items to Shanghai History Museum after arranging the materials and studying the facts.

(China Daily December 15, 2005)

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