Fonds Harold Medill Sarkisian

Old China in the lens of  Sarkisian

A few years ago, Jules Nadeau delighted me with the unheard story of an antique and rug dealer who traveled extensively in Asia in the 1940’s. It was an engaging topic we discussed every time we had hot capuccinos together. My friend writer has tons of archives about the long life of Harold Medill Sarkisian. More exciting for me, the well-traveled scholar took some amazing photos while he was stationed in China. Being deeply interested in old photography, especially Chinese pics, I had a look at his material of the last century. It’s totally fascinating!

I started to scan the best shots to see if I have enough of them to publish a book about old China. And eventually, set up a series of « Sarkisian Exhibitions ». Stored in a basement in Denver for 70 years and never seen until 2021, hundreds of images document a period of great hardship and resistance of the Chinese people.

François Nadeau


Born in Denver, Sarkisian was the son of a well-known Armenian medical doctor. He graduated in Colorado and later took Asian studies at Harvard. In 1937-38, because of a deep urge to explore the « Far East », the brave graduate spent months in traditional Kyoto and later in Peiping (as it was called) to practice both languages. In 1940, with his attractive wife Ethel Henshaw (popular fashion model in New York), he returned to the land occupied by Japanese imperial troops. The couple lived in Chongqing, Chengdu, Guiyang and Kunming while doing various jobs in provinces targeted by enemy war planes.

The couple returned in 1948 to help struggling rug cooperatives in the Northwest. They complimented the resilient people of Sichuan and Yunnan in their letters home and diaries. They socialized with like-minded progressive people like Edgar Snow and Rewi Alley. Daily life for laowai was not easy then but « Sarki » (his nickname), being versed in local language and culture, examined local customs of the laobaixing. Agfa and Kodak films were hard to find for his Rolleiflex and Leica cameras and having them processed in distant Hong Kong was expensive.

In the Peiping of 1938, it is quite funny to see the Colorado man wearing a long mandarin gown. Before Liberation poverty could be observed everywhere. Monuments seen in the vicinity of the West China Union University (Chengdu) are now difficult to identify. What about cyclists, truck drivers and red-robed monks? Workers are busy at their weaving looms and hawkers are selling food. Young girls and boys give a friendly face at the Sarkisian lens. No matter where, all pixes were made by lao pengyou deeply in love with China and its welcoming population.