ASSIGNMENT

 

 

As I entered a photo shop to buy a film the other day, it was sheer serendipity to find a stack of autographed books lying on the counter called “Assignment Shanghai"    a photo journalism's masterpiece, by Jack Birns.

   Turning the pages of a copy on display, I saw pictures of billboards lining the broad streets of the International Settlement and the French Concession, handcarts along the busy streets, and the familiar rickshaws and Pedi-cabs. 

   The domestic life we refugees saw so much of each day in crowded alleys and lanes, and where laundry was hanging on bamboo poles above children at play, all came to life on the black and white photographs. 

Jack Birns, who was on assignment for Life, was at age 28 based in Shanghai between 1948 and 1949. He captured through the lens of his Rolleiflex the agonizing human upheaval on the eve of Mao Zedong‘s rise to power; Chinese refugees, soldiers, and beggars on the street, the chaos of an expanding civil war.

With much delight, yours truly immediately bought three books, one for me, the other for friends.

     A few days later I received a telephone call from the photo shop informing me that the retired photographer, Jack Birns, wanted to know who that person was that bought three of his books. I mentioned earlier to the clerk of the store that I lived in Shanghai. Birns also requested my telephone number so that he could talk to someone that lived in Shanghai during that era. Most of the refugees were still in Shanghai at the time he was on assignment, waiting to immigrate to another country, especially the United States. 

    It was soon after, that my wife, Yvonne, and I were invited by the Birns for an authentic Chinese dinner at a popular Chinese restaurant in West Los Angeles. We exchanged a lot of interesting information, in particular about all the Jewish newspapers I brought to show, which were in circulation in Shanghai that Birns was unaware of.