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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

SEPTEMBER 10, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 36

Forgotten Exiles
A CD-ROM recalls White Russians' high life in Shanghai
By ROSE TANG and YASMIN GHAHREMANI

Sergei and Xenia Ermolaeff never really fit in in Sydney. Their fancy suits, fur coats and heavy Russian jewelry seemed out of place in the Australian suburbs. So did their outrageous yarns about living it up on the jazz-club circuit in pre-revolution Shanghai, where they supposedly rubbed elbows with the likes of Chiang Kai-shek. Even family members never really believed their stories, discounting them as the heavily embellished musings of old and feeble minds.

That is, until granddaughter Tatiana Pentes, a multi-media artist, began sifting through the Ermolaeffs' belongings after their deaths. What she found - hand-dyed photos, music scores, letters, vinyl records and documents in Russian, Chinese, Japanese and English - confirmed their tales. The memorabilia became the inspiration for Pentes' CD- ROM, Strange Cities.

Named after a jazz song written by Sergei, the project has won praise at multi-media festivals in Cannes and Australia for its remarkable portrayal of White Russians in China -a long-forgotten exile community whose history was wiped off the records during the Cultural Revolution. "White Russians" is often used to refer to members of the bourgeoisie who were loyal to the czar during the Bolshevik Revolution. Many fled to Europe or China, where they tried to carve new lives for themselves. Sergei's lyrics resonate with the emotions of their times:
Here are the sounds of Strange Cities, and strange waters and a strange star shines above
Here live strangers with strange joys and sorrows; to them we will be strangers for ever
Pentes' CD- ROM brings that period to life, while focusing on the extraordinary experiences of the Ermolaeffs. The couple met in Tianjin when Sergei was playing at a jazz club with his band, the Music Masters. They married in 1933 and joined Shanghai's thriving immigrant community, where the estimated 25,000 White Russians ranked second in number only to the Japanese. Former merchants, army officers, rich peasants or academics, many lost everything after the Bolsheviks rose to power in 1917. In Shanghai, the exiles took whatever jobs they could find, the most unlucky ones ending up as rickshaw pullers, beggars and prostitutes.

Pentes and her video-artist husband traveled to Shanghai in 1997 to shoot video and still photos for her project. Strange Cities combines those elements with a rich assortment of old pictures, press clippings, recordings of speeches by Lenin and Soong Mei-ling, archival footage of Shanghai, Manchuria and Russia, as well as cabaret performances. Several fictional characters have been added, including a young narrator based on Pentes and her sister. Sergei's music provides the soundtrack. Now his granddaughter hopes her CD-ROM will help bring their story to the world (it is currently being shown at galleries around Australia).

The Ermolaeffs had been among the more fortunate of the Russian exiles. Sergei's jazz talents gave him entry to Shanghai's booming music scene. "It was a magnificent entertainment capital," recalls Sergei Jr., Pentes' China-born father. "Shanghai was the New York of Asia." The Music Masters became the house band at prestigious hotels like the Cathay.

With the glamorous Xenia often in tow, Sergei played for visiting celebrities such as Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard. As his reputation grew, he wrote music for Charlie Chan movies and even performed at the wedding of Soong and Generalissimo Chiang. Success brought opulence. "Xenia lived in a world of haute couture and Siberian furs," says Pentes. "Her biggest decision each day was which outfit to wear and whether to have lunch at the Shanghai Racecourse or somewhere like the Park Hotel."

The communist triumph in 1949 brought all that to an abrupt end. Within a couple of years, the White Russians were kicked out, penniless refugees once again. The Ermolaeffs sought asylum in Australia. Arriving during the country's fervent anti-communist campaign of the 1950s, they were ironically labeled red because of their Russian heritage. "People were turning each other in," says Pentes. "It would have been a very hostile environment."

Suburban life must have seemed banal to the Ermolaeffs. Xenia worked in a biscuit factory, then as a nanny and nursing assistant. Sergei became a blacksmith's assistant during the day and played at suburban clubs and restaurants at night. They never returned to Russia or China. "They were foreigners in a foreign place," says Pentes. "They were always nostalgic about being a foreigner elsewhere. In Shanghai they missed Russia. In Sydney they were nostalgic about Shanghai." Both became severely depressed. The Sydney College of the Arts, where Pentes shot some footage for Strange Cities, was once the mental hospital where Xenia received shock therapy for manic depression.

Politics once again put the Ermolaeffs on the outs after Sergei Jr. divorced, leaving his children to be raised by their mother and her left-leaning partner. The family branded the Ermolaeffs as right-wingers and aging eccentrics. "We thought he was just an old guy with too much poetic license," Pentes says of her grandfather. "In my family, there was lots of pain associated with Shanghai. For years, nobody talked about it." But her project has allowed Pentes' family to rediscover their Russian roots, she says. Her mother's partner converted to the Russian Orthodox church two years ago, as did Pentes herself.

When she filmed in Shanghai, Pentes found most records of the White Russians had been destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. The old Cathay Hotel - renamed the Peace Hotel - still stands on the Bund. But the old jazz men playing Moon River there have no recollection of Sergei Ermolaeff and his Music Masters. "No, I don't remember," says 82-year-old drummer Cheng Yueqiang. "There were many Russian bands here at the time." Shanghai may have forgotten the Ermolaeffs and the other strangers who came through Siberia and then left without a trace. But their lives are memorialized in Strange Cities.


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