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Shanghai Memories
A Jewish War Refugee-Turned-Photographer
Text by Fan Dian

 

Chen Shaokuan (1889-1969) served as a naval admiral in the Kuomintang National Revolutionary Army.    1954: One-year-old Sun Xun with his mother.     Sanzetti with Shanghai children.

In 1921, Sioma Lifshitz, also known as Sam Sanzetti, a Russian of Jewish heritage, jumped on a British boat from Vladivostok, beginning an incredible journey to Shanghai.

Born in 1902 on Russia’s Crimean Peninsula, Sanzetti never attended school, but received education from his schoolteacher father. At 13, he followed his parents to Harbin, China, where he worked two years as a delivery boy in a department store. When his family moved back to Russia, Sanzetti began working construction rebuilding a demolished foundry, and his employer dispatched him to Vladivostok to acquire some parts. “There,” writes Sanzetti, “I was prevented by the Japanese from carrying out my mission and was forced into hiding. The day after Japan’s ‘slaughter night,’ I escaped to Shanghai.” At that point, he was 17.

In the years that followed, Sam Sanzetti made a living shining shoes. Eventually, he opened a photo studio, and business expanded until he was operating four Shanghai branches and employing 41. Over three decades, he took more than 20,000 photos and attracted celebrity clients, including the Italian envoy to Shanghai during the Mussolini regime, the local representative of the Pope, India nobles, the mother of Soong Tse-ven (1891-1971), a prominent businessman and politician of early 20th-century China, movie stars, and tycoons.

As the most successful photography studio in Shanghai at the time, he catered primarily to the middle class and above, who could afford such an expense.

In 2013 when a documentary about Sanzetti’s studio aired, Sun Xun noticed his father, who was working at the Fufeng Flourmill in Shanghai at the time. “After his return from the United States in 1950, my father managed his family business,” he explains. “He majored in business administration at a college in the US, and upon returning, he attempted to operate the business using the concepts he had learned abroad, but failed because no one else in the family agreed with him. He eventually gave up and avoided the business in favor of sitting around at home.” In Sun’s memory, his father didn’t like to talk and kept his nose in books most of the time, so the family endured a heavy, boring atmosphere. The family’s happiest moments happened while taking photos at Sanzetti’s studio. “My father could hardly speak any Shanghai dialect,” continues Sun, “but when we went to the studio, he talked with Sanzetti non-stop. My father seldom took us out for coffee or movies, but took us to Sanzetti’s studio all the time because he was happy with the quality of his photos.”

 

 

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