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

April 21, 2017

By Joel Bahr, | April 21, 2017 | Originally published in Berkeley News

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.