Such is the tale of Sioma Lifshitz, better known as "Sam Sanzetti," who ended up making a name for himself in a trade not usually associated with immigrants of the time: photography. Yet Sanzetti was able to build up the most successful photography studio of the day in Shanghai, eventually opening up four branches throughout the city. When he left China after 30 years, in the 1950's, he did so with 20,000 photographs in his bags.
Sanzetti explains how he ended up in China. It's a story of several migrations. Sanzetti was born in 1902 to a Jewish family in Russia; his father was a schoolteacher. At 13, he followed his parents to Harbin, China, where he worked for two years as a delivery boy in a department store. At 15, he went to work for the Chinese Eastern Railway as a lathe specialist. Two years later, he re-joined his parents in Russia, after a railway labor strike. His family had moved to Siberia, where revolutionary forces had just taken over. Sanzetti started to work on restoring a demolished metal factory, and he was sent to Vladivostok to acquire some parts required for the job. "There," writes Sanzetti, "I was prevented by the Japanese to carry out my mission and for some time was in hiding, and the day after the 'slaughter night' staged by the Japanese I escaped to Shanghai. I arrived in Shanghai in May 1921."
According to an article written about Sanzetti in a 1928 photography magazine, he already had some experience taking photographs before he arrived. Once in Shanghai, he started working at the studio of a local photographer, "and after a few months became so interested in studio work that when an American business man offered to establish a studio for him in Shanghai he was quite willing to accept the offer." The studio's reputation grew, and the rest is history.
Sanzetti spoke fluent Chinese Mandarin and Shanghainese, and married a Shanghainese lady. He left Shanghai in 1957 for Israel where he continued his activity as a photographer. He stayed there until his death in 1986.
For more pictures, see the Photography of China web site
See also another presentation of Sam Sanzetti and his work in a German on line text: "So sah Shanghais teuerster Fotograf seine Kunden."