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.
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.
Perhaps the most famous among them was the "Terra Cotta Warriors" exhibit, a four-month show in 2008 that drew more than half a million visitors to the Bowers and which Time magazine named as one of the country's top 10 museum exhibits that year.
A more sweeping and layered sequel to that landmark exhibit, the "Warriors, Tombs and Temples: China's Enduring Legacy" is now at Bowers through March 4.
Shih has also been a driving force behind other exhibits seen as coups by Bowers, such as the one in the year 2000, when the museum brought over Chinese artifacts from the Forbidden City in Beijing, as well as the 2010 "Secrets of the Silk Road" exhibit.
For the latter, Keller and Shih managed to persuade Chinese authorities to lend them three of the so-called 100 "Caucasian mummies" unearthed along the old overland trading route.
"We were told for the better part of 15 years that it would never happen," Keller said.
When "Warriors, Tombs and Temples" opened in October, Zhao Rong, a visiting dignitary from the province of Shaanxi in north-central China where the Terra Cotta Warriors and other excavated Chinese national treasures originated, surprised Keller and other Bowers representatives by bestowing an honorary ambassadorship on Shih.
Shih, a Chinese American, was born and raised across the Formosa Strait in nationalist Taiwan. The Shihs have lived in the U.S. since the late 1970s.
"Be it known that Mrs. Anne Shih is hereby granted ambassador of Shaanxi cultural heritage, and is commended with expressions of appreciation for her contributions to the promotion of the cultural heritage of Shaanxi Province, 'The Cradle of Chinese Civilization,'" the certificate proclaimed.
According to museum officials, this recognition is unprecedented in U.S.-Chinese relations as they pertain to Shaanxi, and she is the first U.S. citizen to receive the honor. Shih can now serve as a roving goodwill emissary in diplomacy pertaining to the province's cultural affairs, according to a copy of the certificate.
The piece of paper also represented a personal milestone for Shih. She had worried about whether Chinese authorities would give her and her husband Danny problems about their Taiwanese ties — which apparently they didn't — when the couple first traveled to the People's Republic on the first of many trips since the late '90s.
"This means a lot for me," Shih said. "For me, working with China for over 16 years, this is the first time I can say they given me a big recognition."
The Keller-Shih tandem dates to May 1995, when Keller first took notice of Shih, who then sat on the museum's Chinese Cultural Arts Council. Keller, who lives in Newport Beach, was relatively new on the job. He had led Bowers since April 1991, after quitting his previous job as an associate director of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.
As Keller described it, in his first years on the job at Bowers, he had been trying to organize an exhibition of precious jade artifacts from Taiwan but failed.
Keller sent two delegations to Taiwan to get such an exhibit, but they came back to Orange County empty-handed.
In May 1995, the council's president mentioned to Keller if Shih — who was standing with her in Keller's office but had not been part of those previous missions to Taiwan — could do anything for Bowers while in Taipei, because she and her husband were very influential there.
Half-jokingly, Keller replied: "Get me the jade exhibit."
Two weeks after that meeting, Shih returned from Taiwan and told Keller that she had found a private jade collector who was ready and willing to loan to Bowers pieces from his collection.
But 10 weeks before the show was due to open in Orange County, a political ruckus flared. The show was canceled after officials discovered that the collector had inserted an inflammatory, anti-Chinese statement inside the accompanying catalog. The collector got wind that show organizers were looking to expunge the statement from the catalog.
Keller recalled that the collector called him at his home to angrily tell him that he was pulling his pieces out of the show.
Shih then intervened to help Keller arrange a replacement show, one considerably larger, in time for the scheduled opening.
Bowers was able to draw from the collections of 18 other jade collectors in Taiwan, whom Shih had personally visited in the run-up to the opening.
The jade episode was one of several adventures that Keller and Shih would eventually experience together in organizing subsequent Chinese art shows at Bowers.
For example, before Bowers staged its 2004 show, "Tibet: Treasures from the Roof of the World," with the issue of Tibet being a political hot potato, the planned show went through at least three threats of cancellation by the Chinese government, including a threat of canceling the show a month out before its opening date, Keller said.
More recently, Shih said she was able to overcome a personal challenge — undergoing chemotherapy after her 2010 diagnosis of breast cancer — while working to pull together the current "Warriors, Tombs and Temples" show.
During the interview in Keller's office, Shih would sometimes turn to Keller to remind him about the number of trips they made to the Far East in order to clinch a particular exhibit. She could rattle off the number of trips for each of the exhibits by name.
She said it was easy to remember the numbers, because each trip was strewn with its own set of perils.
"Unforgettable ... ," Shih said in her limited English. "Always a difficult situation happens."