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Each exhibit is a new set of challenges

Duo tells their story of negotiating in the Far East and bringing prized collections for display in the Bowers Museum.

January 25, 2012|By Imran Vittachi
  • Anne Shih stands next to a Terra Cotta Warrior actor at the Bowers Museum. With her knowledge of Chinese culture, she has helped in delicate negotiations in East Asia that have enabled the museum in Santa Ana to bring acclaimed exhibitions Orange County.
Anne Shih stands next to a Terra Cotta Warrior actor at… (DON LEACH, Daily…)

SANTA ANA — Before he began to work closely with Anne Shih in the mid-1990s, Bowers Museum President Peter C. Keller had traveled to the Far East on business many times.

Still, the 64-year-old veteran Los Angeles-area museum executive, by his own admission, lacked some of the cross-cultural seasoning and nuance that are ingredients for success at chopstick diplomacy.

"Being a typical American who doesn't understand Chinese culture, I would go, we would talk, have toasts at a dinner, and then nothing would happen," Keller reminisced about his past mindset during trips to China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Shih changed that perspective. In the course of a collaboration that has lasted nearly 17 years, and as his sidekick on dozens of trips to China, she has helped Keller grasp the intricacies of the Chinese mind.

And among her other voluntary duties (she has raised millions of dollars in funds for the museum in Santa Ana and has spearheaded its gala dinner campaigns), the Huntington Beach resident has served as a closer in delicate negotiations in East Asia that have enabled the museum to lead the way in bringing acclaimed exhibitions of Chinese antiquities to Orange County, Bowers officials said.

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As Shih, who is not fluent in spoken English, explained, it really can come down to simple and mundane gestures, such as how one uses chopsticks at the banquet table. One of the most basic things she taught Keller was this: Whenever the steaming plates on the Lazy Susan swung toward him, she advised him that, as a show of respect to his Chinese colleagues and counterparts, with his set of chopsticks he should always remember to serve the person to his right before serving himself.

"It's all about personal relationships," Keller said in an interview at Bowers, as Shih sat nearby. "She's cultivated the relationships that make things happen."

He was alluding to how Shih, 65, who now chairs Bowers' Board of Governors, has diligently and painstakingly followed through over the years with hand-written cards and letters, personal visits to her contacts' homes overseas and constant trans-Pacific phone calls.

"This is like my home," Shih said. "I have a sleeping bag in my office."

Her human touch has reaped big dividends for the Bowers Museum and its supporters across O.C.

Keller and other officials at the Bowers credit Shih as being a catalyst who has helped the museum bring a string of noted Chinese art and antiquity shows that have broken Bowers' attendance records.

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