If you were lucky enough to wander wide-eyed through Bowers Museum’s recent Guo Pei exhibit — made of show-stoppers like a gown with hand-woven bamboo that has been shaped into a boat and gilded with gold lace — you have Anne Shih to thank.
But that wasn’t Shih’s first art coup. In fact it was the 14th exhibit she helped bring to Bower’s (as a volunteer) since 1997, which is why she is referred to as the museum’s “secret weapon.”
Convincing Chinese officials to ship some of their ancient Terracotta warriors to Bowers is considered Shih’s biggest victory.
The 2008 exhibit drew half a million visitors and Time magazine named it one of the country’s top 10 museum exhibits that year.
This year Shih had arranged for the warriors to return to Bowers (for the third time), but then a man snapped off one of the 2,200-year-old warrior’s Terracotta thumbs while it was on exhibit in Philadelphia.
Chinese authorities were not happy and canceled the remainder of the U.S. tour. What to replace it with?
Well if you’re Shih, you dig into your brain and flip through your enviable connections. And then you remember you’re good friends with famous haute couture fashion designer Guo Pei.
“Guo said, ‘Of course!’ ” Shih recounted. " Anything you want.’ ”
She has made hundreds of art-hunting/networking trips overseas, dozens just to China, where she can bridge the cultural gap and bring back the country’s treasured antiquities.
With all her influence and power (she has raised more than $25 million for Bowers), she is disarmingly approachable.
Those who know Shih, 72, describe a cheerful woman who is salt of the earth. She keeps a sleeping bag at the Bowers to take afternoon naps since she is often making transcontinental calls after midnight.
She hugs the museum’s volunteer docents when she sees them, as though they are old friends.
Asked why she gives so much of her time and energy, she talked about how she was raised.
When she was a girl, Shih was close to her grandmother, whose feet had been bound as a child and were curled up in old age. It was Shih’s job to wash her grandmother’s feet every Sunday with cotton.
She would cook for her grandmother too. And they slept in the same bed.
“We were very close,” she says.
Twice a month she took her ahma to the Buddhist temple and hoisted her up the many stairs, step by step.
“That is my childhood,” she says, smiling. “I liked it.”
To this day she has a treasure box in memory of her grandmother. It contains her tiny shoes and a silver flower from the black band that she wore around her head after she was widowed.
Shih studied banking at Taiwan University as a young woman and then married Danny Shih, an importer who stays out of her limelight.
The couple left Taiwan for New Jersey in ’79 — and then saw snow fall from the sky for the first time.
“My husband said, ‘Look, all the ladies go out and shovel.’ I said, ‘I cannot,’” she recounted, laughing.
They headed to Huntington Beach a couple years later and there raised two children who have now given them three grandchildren.
Next year Shih and Pei will travel together to Kenya and Tanzania to see the Maasai, an African tribe known for their beadwork.
Shih said Guo has already promised to send her more of her opulent creations for a second Guo Pei exhibit at Bowers in 2021. Shih will hand-pick the pieces herself.
“I have a passion for art,” she says. “But also a passion for contribution to society. This is my major goal.”
For more information on Bowers and their current exhibits, go to bowers.org.