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Figuring out history of family heirlooms in Shanghai

2014-08-21 10:23 Shanghai Daily Web Editor: Yao Lan
Some of the figures found by Ivan Macaux in his grandparents’ attic. — Courtesy of Philippe Acher

Some of the figures found by Ivan Macaux in his grandparents' attic. — Courtesy of Philippe Acher

For French TV producer Ivan Macaux, bringing his great-grandfather's 109 vintage figurines to Shanghai will be like a trip "home."

"This year is the 50th anniversary of the establishment of Sino-French diplomatic relations. It would be great for these figurines to travel back to Shanghai, to the place where they were born," the 30-year-old told Shanghai Daily.

"The figurines were made almost 77 years ago by a group of orphans in Shanghai," said Macaux.

They were bestowed on General Jules Le Bigot, Macaux's great-grandfather, as a gesture of gratitude for his role in saving many Chinese residents from Japanese artillery fire in the battle that broke out in Shanghai on August 13, 1937.

The Battle of Shanghai was part of China's overall War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1937-1945).

Macaux plans to exhibit the figurines, first in Paris in October, and then in Lyon in December and January.

He also hopes to put them on display in Shanghai, and is now looking for private sponsorship in order to make the exhibition happen.

As a boy, Macaux scoured his grandparents' attic for family relics.

His "Indiana Jones" dream came true in October 2011, when he opened an old wooden trunk in the family house in Puget-sur-Argens, a small village between Nice and Marseille in southern France.

The trunk was originally where Macaux's late grandfather and great-grandfather had stashed memorabilia and souvenirs of their careers as senior French navy officers.

The moment Macaux opened the trunk, "my eyes widened with amazement at a cluster of exotic figurines inside."

They were exquisitely carved out of fine wood, with great attention to detail, and bore typical Chinese features.

They depict street scenes of old China. A mandarin, in full official regalia and dark glasses, is accompanied by a woman, while a peddler sells watermelons to an urchin.

"These figurines represent every walk of life in Chinese society, from elite people to coolies, monks to torturers," Macaux said.

He counted them. There were 109 in all, invariably 10 to 12 centimeters in height. But Macaux could not trace their origins, until something caught his eye.

Consult an expert

It was a label on the trunk, written in French, that read "Orphelinat de Tu Se We, Shanghai," — the Orphanage of Tu Se We, Shanghai. A date followed: June 23, 1938.

Curious, Macaux surmised that these figurines belonged to his great-grandfather, General Jules Le Bigot, who once served in Shanghai, but he had no idea beyond that.

"I'm a TV producer. I knew nothing about Shanghai's history, so I decided to consult an expert," said Macaux.

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