Hollywood Road from the eastern end at Wyndham Street all the way down to the west by the Man Mo Temple has historically housed the thriving antiques trade of Hong Kong. More recent real estate booms and changing times have put the squeeze on many dealers as restaurants and art galleries willing to pay higher priced rents are taking over and changing the feel of the street. Just before the handover to China in 1997, objects with cultural significance were banned from leaving the country. In the ensuing years, the best of the remaining pieces were snapped up. Even when I lived here 12 years ago, many of the “antiques” were just that – new furniture masquerading as old. There were only a handful of truly reputable and reliable dealers, with some lucky finds found by discerning shoppers elsewhere along the way.
In Tokyo, almost all the Chinese “antiques” available for sale need quotes around the word. I am constantly disappointing friends who ask me to come over and evaluate what they have, only to tell them that their items are not actually antique. I hate being the bearer of bad news, but the truth is there is almost no real antique Chinese furniture left for sale on the open market and what still exists is very high-priced. I was hoping that some of my sources in Hong Kong would still have quality goods for sale. The not-so-surprising news was that there was not that much available. But luckily for the narrative of this post, there were at least interesting antique chairs at almost every shop I visited.
I started at one of my all time favorite shops, Honeychurch Antiques, midway along Hollywood Road just under the escalator. Glenn and Lucille Vessa have run the shop since 1972 and are always on hand, along with the trusty Philip Chang, to knowledgeably answer questions. Famous for their silver case (which merits its own post) full of Chinese export, Japanese and British silver, they also were one of the only dealers to consistently stock Japanese and other Asian antiques alongside Chinese pieces throughout the years. At the store and nearby workshop, I immediately noticed that they had fewer Chinese pieces than ever and that the silver case was fairly empty. When I asked why, the answer, heard for the first of many times during the day, was that the newly wealthy mainland Chinese are buying up everything of interest these days. This trend has also been seen at auction houses worldwide and reported in the mainstream press. Most interestingly, according to the Vessa’s experience, they are even starting to buy quality antiques of cultures other than their own, which really surprised me. Ironically, I started collecting Japanese porcelain in 1997 because I was living in Hong Kong and the Chinese had no interest whatsoever in anything Japanese. Prices reflected that disinterest, which helped me, but is amazing to think of a mainlander being interested in such items now.
In the workshop, Honeychurch had a pair of these 19th century elm wood chairs, called rose, scholar or literature chairs, depending upon who you talk to. The chairs had a nice worn original finish (note the extra wear on the footrest). They also had this later colonial reclining chair from the Canton region, dating to the turn of the century.
My favorite pair was in the main shop, elm wood with provincial joinery from Jiangsu Province. These were older too, dating from the late 18th to the early 19th century. I would have loved to pop these in my suitcase and take them home.
Next I stopped in to Chine Gallery on the south side of the road across from the Lyndhurst Terrace intersection. I expected the gallery of old, the way I remembered it, full of 1920-30s art deco Shanghai furniture with Tibetan and East Turkestan rugs in the back. Instead, Chine has also moved on with the times. Their response to the dearth of antique furniture has been to produce their own brightly lacquered reproductions in traditional shapes. There is no pretense of antiquity at all, which amid all the fakes, is quite refreshing. The chairs I saw there had that Domino/Lonny pop of color Chinoiserie thing going and I actually thought they were charming. They had some brightly lacquered night tables I thought might look good in the girls’ rooms.
I worked my way westward, passing shops full of “authentic” Tang Dynasty horses and other funerary relics. Many of the same porcelain shops are still there, but as I have watched even experts from Christie’s be fooled by Chinese porcelain copies, I avoided them for the same reasons I did years ago. The truth is the Chinese have been copying earlier generations all along – Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) copied the earlier Ming (1368-1644), modern potters copy Qing – and differentiating is truly for the expert.
Across from the Man Mo Temple is Upper Lascar Row, better known as Cat Street. In the past, it had a catch-all flea market feel, with dealer stalls set up outside in front of the shops. Twelve years ago there was a lot of junk there, but it still felt possible to pick up and find something special. These days, the stalls are still there but everything has a manufactured sameness – it is all mass-produced. Fine for some souvenirs, but even my daughters weren’t fooled.
While it doesn’t really count as a Hollywood Road store (being located in Central in the Prince’s Building), Altfield Antiques is one of the only other stores to have a sterling reputation and I had visited there earlier in the day. With little good antique furniture available, they too have had to diversify with Burmese lacquer, Cambodian silver, Indian jewelry and Chinese rugs making up the larger part of their inventory. Altfield’s is known for their high level of restoration and the rich polish they give to their furniture. Some people love it, especially those who like perfect pieces, while others want a more natural finish. You can see the high gloss on these official’s hat chairs and the desk next to them.
Back to the tour…After a quick visit to the very interesting Man Mo Temple, we doubled back along Hollywood Road to make sure we hadn’t missed anything and to finish the far eastern end. I just happened to look up the hill as we crossed small Peel Street and saw the sign for Zitan, one of my old favorites, forced off of Hollywood Road by rent hikes to their more hidden warehouse. I found K.J. and Larry to be exactly the same and they had a similar story to tell. The discerning Western customer was no longer their bread and butter. They had highly ornate pieces, meant to appeal to a mainland Chinese taste and not much else outside of this lovely pair of horseshoe backed chairs (sold already of course) and this art deco marble inset table with matching stools.
These are the kinds of pieces you used to see all the time – items that were good but not worth special mention. I didn’t see any amazing cabinets or altar tables. I am truly surprised at how little inventory there was.
It was at Zitan that I found out some distressing news. The last stop on my tour was to be Teresa Coleman Fine Arts, a wonderful shop specializing in rare antique textiles, such as Imperial robes and children’s embroidered collars and shoes. Unfortunately, they are closing after almost 30 years of business as their rent is being raised to an unsustainable level. Their closing party is from 6-9 p.m. tonight. I believe they will be open for a few more weeks and continue to have an online presence and perhaps offices with “by appointment” viewing. If you have been waiting to buy a great antique Chinese textile, then this is the moment to act!