A Museum, A Dream
By staff reporter LIU DONGPING
ANREN Town in Dayi County, Sichuan Province has been nicknamed “China’s museum town” as it houses many museums that display Chinese history and culture. One of them is a museum of old movie-related items. Its owner is Cao Guimin, a passionate collector.
A stationary movie projector produced soon after the founding of the People’s Republic of China collected by Cao Guimin.
Anren is also the hometown of Liu Wencai (1887-1949), a famous landlord during the Republic of China period (1912-1949). The old movie museum just happens to occupy the mansion of Liu Yuanxuan, a prominent figure in Liu’s clan.
It feels as if you are going back in time upon entering this museum. It has on display over 20,000 posters of old movies from before the 1980s, more than 3,000 copies of old movies made before the 1970s, 3,000-odd comics of pre-1980s movies and old film magazines, six old projectors made before the 1970s, and countless tickets and bills of fare, as well as old film stereo sets. Cao has devoted over 20 years to establishing this museum and its comprehensive collection.
Divided into different exhibition zones, the museum has a nostalgic atmosphere, evoked with posters pasted on the wall of classic old movies such as Five Heroes on Langya Mountain and old film melodies playing which almost every Chinese knows – such as Why the Flowers Are So Red. There are also posters of iconic Chinese film stars such as Zhou Xuan (1918-1957) and Zhang Ruifang (1918-2012).
Many “firsts” in China’s film history feature among Cao’s collection, such as the first movie ticket released by a cinema on the Nanchang Road in Shanghai in the early 1900s; the first book on film and cinema – How to Make a Movie – published in 1921; and the first administrative regulations on the operation of theaters published in 1930. Other precious items include a filmstrip of a battlefield in Europe during World War II and the book Hollywood – A Film Empire published in 1946.
The film projector produced by the German company Friedrich Krupp AG collected by Cao is the oldest projector extant in China.
Cao has another rare piece in his collection – a specimen of a banknote bearing the image of Hong Yong-hee, a North Korean actress who starred in The Flower Girl in 1972. It marked the first time in the world that the image of an actress had been printed on a banknote. Cao’s full collection of items related to The Flower Girl, including the script, tape, posters, postcards and the banknote, also drew the interest of Kim Jong-il, late leader of North Korea who was also an avid collector of movie items. He especially asked his cultural counsellor to make contact with Cao.
The cultural counsellor visited Cao’s museum and took a look at his exhibits about North Korean movies. When leaving, the cultural counsellor asked Cao if he could sell the banknote with the image of Hong Yong-hee to Kim Jong-il as the leader liked it very much. Cao replied that he would have gladly given one to Kim if he had two, but he couldn’t because he only had one.
Later the cultural counsellor invited Cao to be the executive producer of a film jointly made by China and North Korea. In September 2009, Cao was invited to participate in the “China and DPRK Film Week” activity during the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries. During the event, Cao invited the actress Hong Yong-hee to sign her name on a poster of The Flower Girl that he had collected.
Another item in which Cao takes great pride is a film projector produced by the German company Friedrich Krupp AG. On the projector are Chinese characters showing that it passed through customs on June 8, 1896, in Shanghai.
According to Cao, the projector first played a movie in Shanghai on August 11, 1896. In 1904, the projector was transported from Shanghai to Beijing to show a movie during the celebration of the 70th birthday of Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908). However, it suffered a malfunction and burned out. Today we can still see that black spot on it.
Obsessed with Old Movies
Cao’s legendary experiences with films are as fascinating as his collection. A native of Yangzhou City in Jiangsu Province, Cao grew up in Gansu Province, where his father, an armyman, was stationed.
When Cao was a child, he liked reading comics books. He would read them for hours, and not stop even when it was meal time. When he was 11 years old, his father accidentally dropped some of Cao’s comics onto the stove and they immediately burnt to ashes. Cao was heartbroken. He admitted that his affection for movie-related items was more than just a passing interest, but rather an inherent passion that has lasted throughout his entire life.
In 1986, Cao collected a poster of the Chinese comic movie Erzi Kai Dian (Erzi launched a business), marking the starting point of Cao’s collection. Since then he has often visited cinemas around the country and collected various posters of old films.
Cao Guimin and his collections of old movie film strips.
By the end of the 1980s, Cao’s economic conditions improved. He spent RMB 50 on a film copy of Battle on the Black Mountain which was made in 1958. Then he bought a film projector for RMB 1,000 through an installment plan. He learned how to play a movie on the projector and watched the Battle on the Black Mountain again. He had watched it once before when he was little, but he didn’t fully understand the movie then. Some of his friends asked him to help find old films, and would buy copies themselves. After watching them, they were willing to give those old film copies to Cao in support of his collection. That significantly encouraged Cao, who has since devoted himself to looking for, and collecting, old film-related items.
Cao used to work in Nanjing and Shanghai, where he almost “turned the local antique market upside down” looking for every possible “treasure.” In fact, his Krupp-made projector was found by a ragpicker called Xu in Shanghai.
Cao got to know Xu at an antique market on Fuyou Road in Shanghai, and they soon became friends. Cao often advanced sums of money to Xu so that when he found any good items, he could sell them directly to Cao. However, Cao left Shanghai and forgot he had prepaid Xu RMB 400. In 2007, Cao, then in Chengdu City, Sichuan Province, received a call from Xu. “It is good to find you again. I saved an old projector for you,” said Xu. After seeing the photo, Cao decided it was a very old film projector. He asked Xu to freight the machine to Chengdu. He was thrilled at seeing the engraved Chinese characters “The 22nd year of Guangxu’s Reign of the Qing Dynasty”(1896). Later Cao took this old projector to a TV program on China Central Television (CCTV), where experts are invited to evaluate collected treasures. Cao’s projector amazed all the experts, to the extent that they weren’t able to evaluate this oldest projector ever found in China.
Cao believes that film is a cultural product that embodies the wisdom of generations. Films reflect people’s thoughts and spirit and serve as a way for them to explain and express their feelings about truth, goodness and beauty, as well as mendacity, evil and vileness. To make a film projector requires knowledge in areas such as optics, chemistry, mechanics, dynamics and electricity. Cao admitted that his passion for film has never faded and will last forever.
A Lifelong Dream
In 2009, Cao came to Anren with his collection. The reason he chose Anren was to do with the climate. “Preserving filmstrips requires temperatures ranging from 12 to 25 degrees centigrade and humidity of above 65 percent. The climate in Anren is perfect,” explained Cao.
Upon hearing about Cao, managers of a cultural development company in Anren decided to help him realize his dream of sharing his collection with other film lovers. They supported the establishment of the movie museum at Liu Yuanxuan’s Mansion in the town. On the day the museum was formally established in 2011, Cao felt gratified in the knowledge he had built a paradise for old movie lovers like him.
In fact, Cao has given up much in pursuing his dream. He resigned from his job as a manager in a state-owned enterprise, and his wife left him because he spent too much money and energy on his collection. Cao has also accumulated a huge amount of debt. However, no difficulty stands in his way. “As I appreciate every piece of my collection, they seem like children, and I feel I can’t live without them,” Cao said.
Thanks to Cao’s collection, other film lovers now have the opportunity to realize their lifelong dreams. For example, an old woman in Shandong Province participated in the production of a documentary about New Year woodblock prints in the 1970s, but had never seen it. She wanted to watch it very much, but it was not easy to find such an old documentary. Her family members made contact with Cao in 2009 and he found he had bought a copy of it in Guang’an City, Sichuan Province in 2005. Cao immediately transferred a copy onto a disc and sent it to the old lady. Not long after, Cao received a call from her family. They told him how happy she had been to watch it. The woman passed away a week later.
In the museum are various stationary movie projectors. The oldest is a Songhuajiang 5501 type 35 mm stationary film projector. It was modeled on a projector bought from the U.S.S.R. and produced by the Harbin Film Machinery Plant in the early 1950s. Cao bought the projector from a retired projectionist in Shaanxi Province.
One day a special visitor came to the museum. The old man asked for a chair and just sat beside the Songhuajiang 5501 projector for half an hour, before bursting into tears. He turned out to be an engineer who had participated in the development and production of this movie projector. It was totally beyond his expectations that he would ever see the machine again in his old age, so triggering so many memories about his career. He thanked Cao and said he had nothing left to wish for after seeing the projector again.
Cao is now in his late 50s. He has been thinking of how to preserve and pass on his collection to future generations. “I have spent most of my life collecting over 200,000 old film-related items. I can’t afford to lose any of them,” said Cao. He said he has the simplest wish as a collector: to donate the museum to society when he gets too old to manage it so that all people can share in his treasures.