Arts & culture, Campus & community, Campus news, Film, Visual arts

C.V. Starr East Asian Library acquires massive and rare Chinese film studies collection

By Joel Bahr

UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small

Paul Fonoroff has two rules when it comes to collecting. “You have to be passionate about it,” he deadpans. “And it has to be something that no one else is interested in.”

That maxim helped the Cleveland native amass over 70,000 movie posters, periodicals, photos, lobby cards, theater flyers and other movie ephemera while he lived in Beijing and Hong Kong. Fonoroff’s massive collection — which is the largest of its kind in North America and rivals what can be found at film archives in Asia — was recently acquired by UC Berkeley’s C.V. Starr East Asian Library, opening an enormous cache to researchers and the public.

“I’m very excited that this collection ended up here because it’s so hard to get these materials,” says Chinese language and film studies professor Weihong Bao. “It’s vast, but it’s unique. There’s really rare stuff in there, and it’s exciting for our students and researchers in this field.”

Bao’s excitement is well-founded. Before it was made public, Fonoroff’s collection was notorious within cinema circles. Or, as Bao puts it, “It was one of the worst kept secrets in the field.” Before being shipped to Berkeley, the collection was housed in first one and eventually two apartments in Hong Kong.

“The scope is amazing because it’s not just focused on Shanghai films, but also Southeast Asia, Hong Kong, Taiwan,” says Berkeley professor Andrew Jones, who met Fonoroff at a party in Hong Kong in 1996. Jones, who was studying popular music and urban media culture in early 20th century China, approached Fonoroff about organizing the collection for him in exchange for access.

“It was a huge apartment full — floor to ceiling — of old magazines and books and beautiful printed editions of film magazines and programs. There were whole press runs of entire magazines from the 1920s through the 1980s,” says Jones.

UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small

‘That’s not a foreigner, it’s Paul!’

Marrying two of his passions — film and the Chinese language — Fonoroff moved to Beijing on a fellowship in the 1980s after the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China.

“My father was a professor and would get academic journals, and he sent me a notice about a fellowship for Americans to study in China. He sent it as a joke — if you can’t get a job in Hollywood why don’t you go to China?” Fonoroff remembers. Taking his father at his word, Fonoroff applied, was accepted and moved.

He still hasn’t come back.

While studying Chinese film at Peking University, Fonoroff was offered a small part in a movie, playing a navigation student getting practical training on a boat. The movie was put out by a Beijing film studio and opened the door to a career in Chinese cinema. Fonoroff moved to Hong Kong and became a film critic for an English-language publication, a scriptwriter for a weekly variety show, a bit actor and Jackie Chan’s English-dialect coach before eventually ending up on camera as host of a television show discussing movies. Along the way, he started collecting movie memorabilia, starting with movie magazines.

“I was in a bookstore in Macau while we were shooting [the 1986 film] Tai-Pan ,” says Fonoroff, “and I saw a stack of old movie magazines that went back to the 1920s. It was the first time I’d ever seen anything like that. I didn’t even know they existed because when I was in China, they didn’t really let you look at the pre-1949 things. Once I knew that these things were available, I bought everything, absolutely everything I could.”

Buying everything wasn’t particularly costly. Fonoroff’s preoccupation with these items coincided with a general lack of interest from locals. And his reputation as a cinephile gave him access to movie studios that weren’t reluctant to share their cache, as well as members of the public who gave him items as gifts.

“People who had seen me on TV would write me letters telling me that they were moving and that they had movie magazines that they were planning on throwing away but instead they would give them to me,” Fonoroff says. “Nobody was interested in hanging onto them.”

A web of culture

The often discarded, seemingly worthless magazines and movie posters that caught Fonoroff’s eye eventually turned into a collection that swallowed his apartment. Now it’s the content of his collection that is attracting attention.

“So many of these items are unique or difficult to track down,” says Bao. “This is a problem of the profession, but it’s more of a case in China because they’re subject to precarious geopolitics and different historical moments. So some of the material has become more sensitive, but they’re tremendously important for Chinese and colonial film history.”

Among the sensitive materials are items that have come from film studios in Manchuria, a region that was occupied by the Japanese in 1931, and a movie magazine with a cover featuring Jiang Qing. Qing, a 1930s Chinese actress, eventually married Mao Zedong. Today, materials that feature “Madame Mao” have been deemed politically sensitive and access is tightly restricted.

“There are a lot of materials in the collection that are unattainable elsewhere,” says Jones, who dug through the materials in the apartments to bolster what eventually became his book Yellow Music . “That includes the National Film Archive in China and the Shanghai Library, which is the largest collection of materials from this era. He had things that they didn’t have. To be able to see and hold the materials and get a sense of the whole media ecology of that period – it was indispensable for me.”

More than movies, the Fonoroff collection represents an entire web of culture. Movie magazines and posters serve as time capsules that shed light on a vast, forgotten world. And while the collection is focused on movies, those movies were mirrors for much more. Fashion, music, advertising, the liberation of women in China, the continued growth of urbanization and the complicated push-pull of influence from both Hollywood and Soviet cinema are also on display in this collection.

“It’s a rich archive for gender studies, film studies and media studies in general,” says Jones. “Music, theater, print culture, magazines, newspapers are all present here, and they chronicle China’s movement into a modern, urban life.”

UC Berkeley photo by Cade Johnson

Berkeley ties

Berkeley was ultimately selected as the home of Fonoroff’s collection after a friend introduced Fonoroff to Peter Zhou, assistant university librarian and director of the C.V. Starr East Asian Library.

“I began to see there were so many connections with Berkeley,” says Fonoroff, a nod toward his experience with Jones and others. “It almost seemed like a fated thing.”

Fated perhaps, but the combined efforts of Zhou, Bao, the previous relationship with Jones and the efforts of many others also played a role in getting the collection from Hong Kong to California.

“I decided on Berkeley because Berkeley is very strong in Chinese studies,” Fonoroff explains. “It has a film studies program, there’s the Pacific Film Archive and the Berkeley Art Museum. So here were venues where you could not only show the films, but display the posters. And, of course, this wonderful library.”

Potential collaboration with BAMPFA seems tailor made and talks are already underway about an October exhibition, as well as an international conference. Posters from the Fonoroff collection are currently hanging on the wall at the East Asian Library, which is in the process of cataloging the many other items donated.

As Zhou explains, “This amazing collection makes Berkeley the premier research information center of Chinese film studies in the country.”

About the Paul Kendel Fonoroff collection

The C.V. Starr East Asian Library at UC Berkeley acquired the largest and most comprehensive Chinese film studies collection in North America. A comprehensive website gives scholars at UC Berkeley — and across the world —access to the materials to gain a fresh perspective on the history of Chinese popular culture, media, and social life. The public can also learn more about Fonoroff’s experience as a collector. The collection includes:

  • 436 pre-1950 periodicals in 5,901 issues
  • 239 post-1950 periodicals in 4,638 issues
  • 4,195 posters
  • 21,233 lobby cards, in 2,194 sets
  • 3,332 theater flyers
  • 4,370 scripts, booklets, and novelettes
  • 5,976 pieces of ephemera
  • 9,214 photographic negatives and slides
  • 4,145 stills and publicity photos
  • 837 VHS tapes
  • 2,450 articles and columns authored by Paul Fonoroff
  • 5,637 Mao badges

Media inquiries can be directed to Tiffany Grandstaff, director of communications for the University Library,