Film: "My Shanghai" -- A True Story of Love, War, and other Seasons"
"Life's Four Seasons through Japanese Prints"

The Film: "My Shanghai"
"A True Story of Love, War, and other Seasons"

Coming Soon (March 2014): The Documentary Film "My Shanghai"

"My Shanghai" -- World Premiere 2014 San Luis Obispo International Film Festival -- March 5-9, 2014

Virginia McCutcheon -- Pam Wells

Preface -- Two Stories ["Virginia McCutcheon's story"] and ["Pam Wells' story"]

This article speaks of multiple topics--primarily as an introduction to the film "My Shanghai" (2014) which tells the story of Virginia McCutcheon, a British woman who survived imprisonment by the Japanese during World War II. The film embraces Virginia's “art of life,” as this remarkable woman unleashes her wit and wisdom on love, loss, art, and the art of survival.

Additionally--this article also explores the "behind-the-scenes" film-making experiences and thoughts of film-maker P.H. Wells. In particular--her journey and transition from author to the more complex roles of film producer and editor.

Laced throughout this story is the theme of how Japanese prints have touched someone's life in a profound and lasting manner.

When Ms. Wells (Pam) contacted Ukiyoe-Gallery to learn more about a British woman’s small but cherished collection of Japanese prints, and described the tie-in to her "in-progress" documentary film, we immediately offered not only our print expertise, but also asked how we might get further involved in the project.

We quickly offered the suggestion of co-authoring an article with Ms. Wells about her "My Shanghai" film, and also made a modest contribution to the development and funding of this endeavor.

Shortly thereafter—we also learned that Pam had previously visited The Portland Art Museum as part of her research for the documentary. (As a local organization with which we've previously collaborated, please see our related article, "A Visit to The Portland Art Museum").

Pam also offered up her perspective on the The Portland Art Museum's recent Japanese print exhibit)-- providing her interesting viewpoint as a "filmmaker" as contrasted with that of being a "printmaker."

Where to best begin??

"A Cold Day in Shanghai" (1941) -- [Virginia McCutcheon's story....]

“It was December 7th for you, December 8th for us....” said Virginia McCutcheon of the day war broke out in the Pacific in 1941.

"The Japanese cruisers and navy were all around Shanghai, and they started to shoot the guns up. We all ran onto the rooftops of every house to watch them because we thought--My God, what’s happening?"

Virginia McCutcheon -- Recounting the events of 1941

"It suddenly came over all the radios that America... that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. You know, all the navy, the British and American navy ships, were all in the harbor. They sank one of the British ships right on the Bund there."

"And we watched the whole thing."

Bombs hit British and American ships in Shanghai’s Whangpoo River (Dec 1941)

"I Wish I'd Met Virginia Sooner" -- [Pam Wells' story....]

In the words of Pam Wells....

"I really wish I’d met Virginia sooner. We have a family tie, but her stories hadn’t (yet) traveled my way."

"Now I feel very fortunate to have made that connection and to be given the rare chance to document her life."

P.H. Wells -- Filmmaker

The idea for the film took root more than two years ago on Memorial Day, 2011.

Unknown to me, Virginia McCutcheon had been featured on a front page article of "The Tribune" newspaper in San Luis Obispo County, California which told about her wartime internment at Lunghwa Camp near Shanghai, China.

Quite unexpectedly that same day, my cousin Ginny Palmer sent me a link to the front page of the San Luis Obispo's "Tribune."

I clicked on it and there was a picture of Ginny and her mom, Virginia, on the newspaper's front page!!

The headline boldly read: “POW of the Japanese--Los Osos woman’s extraordinary saga of World War II”--and Virginia McCutcheon had instantly become a local "celebrity" as a survivor of Lunghwa Camp in China during World War II.

Shanghai Map (1930's) -- "Lunghwa Camp" (1942-45)

"Lunghwa Camp" (known there as the "Lunghua Civil Assembly Centre") was one of several internment camps established by the Empire of Japan in Shanghai for containment of European and American citizens who were residents there in China prior to the Japanese Army occupation which began early December 1941. Linghwa was used to intern 1,988 people during the War years.

"The camp was large, containing seven concrete buildings, five large wooden barracks (originally built as stables by
the Japanese), and numerous outbuildings. There were fifty-nine dorms and 127 rooms for families." [Wikipedia]

[Click to view San Luis Obispo County "The Tribune" May 29, 2011 "POW of the Japanese--Los Osos woman’s extraordinary saga of World War II" article, subtitled "Virginia McCutcheon was imprisoned in a camp in China for nearly four years and often lived in fear of execution."]

Pam continues....

I should note that although Virginia and I share family ties (she's my cousin’s mother-in-law), I’d never actually met her. Her "stories" had simply never traveled my way. That was all about to change....

Ginny and I exchanged some quick emails --

Pam: "Wow, I had no idea! Your mom Virginia has a stunning place in history."

Cousin Ginny replied: "HEY Pam--maybe you should write her story!!!!!!!!!"

Pam (paraphrased): "Are you crazy? I'm making THE MOVIE!"

As would soon be discovered--there was much MUCH MORE to Virginia's story.

Shanghai Falls Quickly -- "We've Taken Shanghai!!" [Virginia McCutcheon's story]

Virginia--speaking again of Dec 7, 1941:

"We were all pretty confident that... "Oh--this was just going to be one of these [incidents], you know..." They’re not going to do anything to us way out here in China. And then we saw all this stuff going on, and they were battling the Chinese who were trying to stop them from coming into the city."

"And suddenly, before we knew it, there were the Japanese guards pouring over the bridges, saying, “Get away!” It was all such a shock. We didn’t know what was happening. So they all took over command on all the bridges, and took control of Shanghai."

Shanghai Street Scene (late Dec 1941)

Pam: "Did you feel you were personally in danger?"

Virginia: "The shells were going over my house, you know, and some shrapnel came flying into one of the rooms I was sitting in, right into the wall, a big piece of hot shrapnel came through the window. And they were just firing into Shanghai, gradually trying to break in. And we were trying to stop them, of course, but that was a losing battle. So then, then everything happened."

"The Japanese troops were roaring up and down the Bund and all the streets and getting drunk, and shouting and laughing and holding bottles of beer in their hand."

“We’ve won!! We’ve taken Shanghai!!”

Shanghai Scenes

Making a Film -- How It All Began.... [Pam Wells' story....]

This "desire to make films" had been brewing within me for quite some time. I’d been writing for a long time — several screenplays, a novel, multiple-hat tricks at a small newspaper — and had even come on board as an Associate Producer on a friend’s film, "A Rendezvous."

Pam Wells -- Film-maker

The motivating impulse I'd needed to "go it alone" and actually BECOME a filmmaker came suddenly on Memorial Day 2011 in the form of a family telephone call from my cousin. This relative’s 91-year-old mother (Virginia McCutcheon) had been featured in a front-page story of "The Tribune" newspaper in San Luis Obispo County, California. Under the headline “POW of the Japanese,” Virginia described her internment at Lunghwa Camp near Shanghai, China, during World War II.

The additional details of what I would soon thereafter upon meeting Virginia--beyond her wartime experiences--would soon shape the film for me.

Yes--of course I could have written her memoir--but I wanted to preserve with film something no written account could possibly capture: her voice, her posture, her presence.

Film would be the only possible way Virginia's story could be fully told.

"Life's Four Seasons--Seen through Japanese Prints" [Virginia McCutcheon's story]

Winter... Fall... Summer ...Spring

In the film "My Shanghai," Virginia's life story is told through the metaphore of "four seasons," as depicted in Virginia's prized collection of Japanese woodblock prints (seen below) which she collected while living in Japan following the War years.

Hasui's "Yagumo Bridge" (winter) -- Koitsu's "Great Lantern" (fall) -- Hasui's "Nagoya Castle" (summer) -- Hasui's "Tanigumi Temple" (spring)

Virginia made it clear that, unlike German concentration camps, Lunghwa was a working environment: austere, strict, but not harsh or punitive, and not without recreation. "There was a lot of hanky-panky going on," she says, and described meeting her husband-to-be, Bill McCutcheon, in the camp mess hall.

Married right after the War, their life together took an unexpected turn in 1951 when they moved to Japan. Without bitterness, Virginia chose to embrace the Japanese culture.

Now more than 60 years later, two things continue to hold a special place in Virginia’s heart and home: her practice of the flower arranging art of ikebana in the "sogetsu style," and her love for the Japanese woodblock prints she collected in Japan during the 1950s.

At that long ago 1950's time Virginia chose four prints to represent each of the seasons. Three by Kawase Hasui: “Snow at Yagumobashi Bridge, Nagata Shrine” (1934) “Nagoya Castle” (1932) “Staircase to Tanigumi Shrine” (1947 and one by Tsuchiya Koitsu: “Great Lantern at Asakusa Temple” (1934).

"As Leaps Go..." Making a Film.... [Pam Wells' story....] ...

In the words of Pam Wells: "How do you go about making your first film?"

Ginny Palmer waits as director P.H. Wells discusses the shot with cinematographer Ron Macbeth (June, 2012)

As leaps go, the move from screenwriting to documentary filmmaking is not a huge one. At least this is what I told myself when I met 91-year-old Virginia McCutcheon, a woman who, to quote a 17th-century Japanese poet, “shall forever know that life was not wasted.”

I decided that this opportunity should not be wasted.

I’d studied screenwriting and story analysis for several years, I’d written screenplays and had read for an international screenwriting competition. I’d picked up an award and some industry attention, but the goal of being a produced writer was unmet. It wasn’t until a friend of mine set out to make a short film ("A Rendezvous"), inviting me along as an Associate Producer, that I began to consider (some day) doing the same. Still, it seemed daunting -- green screen, Red camera? I was a little blue.

Problem is, I’m not quite ready for prime time. I’m a newbie filmmaker. (Pam Wells, Nov 2011)

So how do you go about making your first film? Well, you can take a class...."

Fast Forward -- A Few Weeks Later... [Pam Wells' story continued....]

The Making of Movies -- "Scene....Take....Date...." -- then "Edit....Edit....Edit..."

I recruited friends....and on a stormy day in June (2012), we packed my Subaru with gear and headed to Virginia's home on the California coast, where we had the luxury of shooting over four days.

Her family provided not only their full support but willingness to be part of the film. And our small crew allowed Virginia to be at her best.

Virginia graciously opened up about herself, her family, her loves and losses, more than she ever thought she could. She awed us with tales of her life in Shanghai and the events that followed. Her experience at Lunghwa -- the same camp made famous in J.G. Ballard's "Empire of the Sun" -- is the center of the documentary, but Shanghai, "the Paris of the Orient," is where it all began.

Virginia was a pro, elegant and open.

She was engaging, witty and sharp. A born storyteller. Sure to be wonderful on camera.

It’s liberating--this working with images and sound. As a writer, I use language to create pictures in people’s heads. As an editor, I use the pictures themselves. I’m free to "nail them together" in any way that tells the story. (PW, Dec 2011)

To date (June 2012) I have about 20 hours of interviews, dialogue and action to transcribe for "My Shanghai" (transcriptions are the written record of the video clips and other audio). Sure, I could hire someone to do it--but there’s no better way for it to soak in than to do it yourself. Then you can "reverse engineer" the script.

Screenwriters will swear you need a script before you can shoot a movie. There are exceptions....

Welcome to "My Shanghai." And to my film-maker's journey....

Life in "Lunghua Camp" -- Food Shortages [Virginia McCutcheon's story....]

Wartime food shortages....

When the Japanese began rounding up British and Americans in Shanghai, the prisoners were allowed to take a mattress and a trunk filled with possessions to camp. McCutcheon remembers taking “Honor Bright,” a 1936 novel about Boston aristocrats, by American author Frances Parkinson Keyes.

“Everybody took a book into camp,” she said. “We formed a library.”

However,in Camp many daily necessities were in short supply or entirely absent.

Camp Food Became Scarce During the Wartime Years

As food became scarce, meals were limited to rice and water.

“We were so optimistic,” Virginia McCutcheon said. “Everybody said, ‘OK — another three months.’ If we’d known we were going to be in there three years and eight months. ...”

Today -- Bountiful Produce at Farmer's Markets

Years later--unlike the hard times of War years--today's peacetime is one of food abundances and almost unlimited choices.

Still today, Virginia often thinks back to the lean times she spent long ago during the wartime years spent while in Shanghai.

Pam's Storytelling Art: The Power of "Ten" [Pam Wells' story....]

(the "twist": a new and unforeseen element)

"Kishotenketsu" is a storytelling art (a structure commonly used in Chinese and Japanese narratives) and is a story-telling format that Pam felt would be best suited to telling Virginia's life story. Pam confesses that she'd never heard of "ki-sho-ten-ketsu" storytelling until she'd already begun crafting her film (PM, Feb, 2013).

Symbolism -- "Yang" and "Yin" (positive and negative)

In short--typical "western" format uses a three-act storytelling format--as beginning (introduction), middle (development), and end (conclusion).

In contrast--Chinese/Japanese format adds a FOURTH element between the story's middle and end--using these 4 steps:
1 "Ki" = introduction of characters and their world
2 "Sho" = development of characters and their situation
3 "Ten" = the twist: a NEW and UNFORSEEN element appears
4 "Ketsu" = connection and consequence

In the eastern tradition, the second act takes us deeper, and then comes "ten" — "the twist, the curve ball, the third act" from nowhere. It’s the new element which has not been plotted with cookie crumbs along the way. You can’t go back and find the clues to this kind of twist. And it doesn’t have to be earthshaking, just unexpected. The story ends with connection even if it leaves some things unresolved.

"I am truly fortunate in this regard. Pity the documentarian who cannot continue to delve into her subject’s story and discover a third act twist. And pity the documentarian who does not experience the telling of a life story as an ongoing adventure in itself, a story still unfolding."

I first talked about my interest in "ki-sho-ten-ketsu" last February, and having come this far, I can truly say I was able to delve into Virginia’s story and discover a third act twist. What you discover, as a documentarian, is that recording a life story is an ongoing adventure in itself. Even at 92 years old, Virginia has a story that would be given over time, layer by layer. "My Shanghai" has been designed to reflect that.

Last February [2013] I wrote, "It’s too early to say whether "My Shanghai" will take its final form using "ki-sho-ten-ketsu."

Virginia's life in four acts? Four may not be enough." [Pam, Feb 2013]

Well, it’ll have to do. As production comes to an end [Dec 2013], "the blocks are cut" and "the sheets are printed." And the music is beautiful!

We Support "My Shanghai"

When contacted by film-maker Pam Wells who wanted to learn more about Virginia McCutcheon's small collection of Japanese prints--we immediately offered not only our print expertise, but also acted in an intermediary capacity to help Straw Films to secure permission from both Tokyo's Watanabe Publisher and Doi Publisher to show Virginia McCutcheon's four woodblock prints within this film.

(We also made the suggestion of "co-authoring" this article here with Pam Wells about her "My Shanghai" film--and made a modest contribution to the development and funding of this film.)

Fundraising for a Worthy Cause

You Can Help Out Too....

Please visit Pam Well's "My Shanghai" Facebook page to lend your support.

Facebook's "My Shanghai Film"

The more "likes" there--the better to spread the word about "My Shanghai"!

First Straw Films and Crew

Finally.... "The B-17 in My (Our) Neighborhood" [Pam Wells' story....]

Another worthwhile cause (also near to us--and right there in Pam's town of Milwaukie, OR) is the ongoing restoration of a vintage B-17 Bomber ("Lacey's Lady") which for decades has been a local landmark and roadside attraction which "provided cover" for the cars which parked below as their tanks were filled at this popular gasoline station. Pam tells some about this plane's story--and the amazing details of "how" it was flown from Oklahoma to Oregon--in her article: "The B-17 in My Neighborhood").

You can follow the "link" above to learn more about the truly fascinating story of how in 1947 Art Lacey overcame numerous obstacles to purchase, fly, tow, and then finally hoist his "Lacey Lady" to its resting place above his gas station. It's a very colorful--and almost unbelievable--story.

More can also be found about the "Lacey Lady" restoration at the all-new website: in their article: "The B-17 in Alliance Group").

Milwaukie Oregon's "Bomber Gas Station/Restaurant"

Conclusion and Afterthought

To collectors of Japanese woodblock prints, their prints oftentimes hold special memories and special meanings. Upon viewing various prints in one's collection--many print collectors can then "tell a specific story" about many of their individual prints.

Despite the topic of war in "My Shanghai"--this article is in no way intended to be judgemental of Japan, China, or other country's wartime actions. After all--my nativeborn Japanese wife speaks to this day of the hardships experienced by her family which still lives in in Osaka, Japan. And, of course, Dr. Grund (who supplies some of our prints via Tokyo) is a citizen of Germany. Both were countries with which we here in USA shared wartime conflicts several decades ago.

History happens.... and in the process lives are changed. On all sides--unwilling citizens become conscripts who are used as the "grease that lubricates" their country's war machines.

Suffering happens on both sides--all parties involved become victims.

Time passes, old wounds slowly become healed, and life continues.

Hopefully lessons are learned.

In the words of Virginia McCutcheon of "My Shanghai" to Pam Wells: "It was a great generation. I'm glad I lived the time I did."

Her daughter Barbra is convinced there are more stories that will never be shared.

Filmmaker Pam is just glad that Virginia shared the ones she did.

Literature (and print) sources used in preparation of this and other articles include:

Above documented prints courtesy of: Ukiyoe-Gallery.

Storyline, text, and images with permission and courtesy of: First Straw Films and Pam Wells.

Additional excerpts and images with permission and courtesy of: and Pam Wells.

"Guide to Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints: 1900-1975", by Helen Merritt and Nanako Yamada, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, ISBN 0-8248-1732-X

"Kawase Hasui -- The Complete Woodblock Prints", by Kendall H. Brown & Shoichiro Watanabe, Hotei (KIT) Publishing, Netherlands, ISBN 90-74822-46-0

"Crows, Cranes and Camellias: The Natural World of Ohara Koson", by Amy Reigle Newland, Jan Perree, Robert Schaap, Hotei (KIT) Publishing, Netherlands, ISBN 90-74822-38-X

(c) Thomas Crossland and Dr. Andreas Grund, Jan 2014

Gallery   Terms   Ordering   About Us   We Buy Prints   Library