Monthly Archives: March 2011

Searching for Authentic Chinese Antiques on Hollywood Road

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!

Hollywood Road

Custom Furniture in Hong Kong with a Little Inspiration from Robert Kime and Carolina Irving

On my way out the door from Tokyo two weeks ago I grabbed my Brigitte Singh fabric samples from Aleta Online – not our birth certificates or my marriage license mind you – but fabric samples! Just what everyone needs when leaving their expatriate home for an unspecified amount of time. Having arrived in Hong Kong on Saturday to be with my husband while he finishes business this week, this has turned out to be a stroke of utter genius. Desireable new furniture is very hard to come by in Tokyo and one end of my living room has long had an entirely empty space where a coffee table should be. For years I justified it with little kids dancing or playing Twister, but secretly have been wanting to finish it with an ottoman much like the Robert Kime one in Carolina Irving’s New York apartment.  If you are a blog junkie then you know that her apartment, featured in Vogue, Lonny and now on the cover of Rooms to Inspire in the City by Annie Kelly is one of those absolutely perfect spaces. If you are not familiar with it, I highly recommend taking some time to check it out.

The ottoman is actually a very simple octagon, with wooden legs and stretchers along the bottom for support. She has customized it with a beaded fringe trim.

On the Robert Kime site, the ottoman is more of a rectangular octagon with simple nailhead trim.

I had ordered the Indian block print fabric samples from Aleta a while ago as I am planning on using one of the Cream Hibiscus patterns for the beach house. But I couldn’t resist getting a sample of my favorite, Grey Jali Buta, even though I didn’t think it would work there. A few weeks ago I had an epiphany and realized it would be the perfect covering for an ottoman in my Tokyo home. The only question was how? Presented with the opportunity here, I just can’t pass it up.

So today I took my trusty sample and went to Horizon Plaza out in Ap Lei Chau, home to many furniture warehouses and designer outlets. At the recommendation of a designer friend, I visited Artura Ficus, a furniture maker and seller.  We had a chat and made a plan and I’ll be receiving sketches later this week. Later that afternoon, I ran over to Altfield Interiors, formerly in the Prince’s Building and now in the Galleria. One of the premier purveyors of high-end fabrics in Hong Kong, I was quickly able to find a casual Zoffany walling trim for my project. I want something to give the ottoman edge that extra punctuation, but decided against a tassle fringe. I’ve got so much going on in that room – Chesterfield sofa, kilim rug, antique bamboo altar table, ebonized Aesthetic Movement chair – that simpler is better. I also want to be inspired, but not to copy. While I forgot to photograph it, the trim is the picot shown below but in a dark blue-ish teal like the leaves in the fabric.

Quick addendum: I went back today and took a photo of the trim with the fabric. Here it is…

Having furniture made in Hong Kong or China can be much less inexpensive than in America or Europe, but it can also be fraught with shoddy workmanship and mistakes. Join me in monitoring this project carefully.

Image credits: 1. Not sure of this one, will update when I can, 2. Vogue October 2006, photo credit: Francois Halard, via Style Court, 3. Robert Kime, 4. Aleta Online, 5. Zoffany

Butterflies from Jim Thompson

I just picked up one quick souvenir of Thailand, this butterfly pillow cover from the legendary Thai silk house of Jim Thompson, although this one is a casual cotton. I think I’ll use it in the back bedroom/TV room with other items shown here and here.  If not, it will look lovely on the dark green wicker furniture on the front porch.

I am hoping to post extensively on antiques in Hong Kong this week while simultaneously trying my hand at a bit of home-schooling. Wish me luck!

Junking in Singapore…Arab Street and the Dinky Di Store

Singapore is such a crossroads of cultures – Chinese, Malay, Indian and elsewhere, former British colony, port city and now a powerhouse Asian financial center – and the neighborhoods and shops reflect that heritage. Russian sailors have pawned goods at the docks and immigrants of all types have made their mark on the cuisine and culture. To get a taste of that diversity we headed out for Arab Street and Little India earlier this week to do some serious market shopping and to visit a friend’s favorite junk store.

Arab Street was about 2 blocks long, a rainbow of color with scores of dealers selling Indian sari and dress fabrics as well as Indonesian batik. I loved the batiks and this photo doesn’t begin to do them justice, but they weren’t exactly what I was looking for..

I had one of the first of many “can’t carry that now” moments upon seeing these kilim footstools and ottomans. They were actually light as a feather and I thought they would be perfect in the back bedroom at the beach house for extra TV watchers.  I had been planning on the ubiquitous Moroccan leather poufs seen everywhere right now, but now I’m not so sure.

Imagine my chagrin at opening the April Elle Decor a few days later and seeing them used in Antonello Radi’s 16th-century Umbrian Palazzo. Yet another reason to wish I wasn’t currently a nomadic evacuee!

Sorry about the poor photo quality but give me chops for inventiveness as I have no scanner available. I simply took a photo of the pages!

I was actually on the hunt for some Indian fabrics and cushions. There were only 2 dealers on Arab Street selling block printed cloth and other goods. Browsed the tablecloths and found some actual print blocks for a DIY that I have planned this summer. Didn’t buy the elephants but the small flowers on the right hand side of the picture came away with me.

The selection of pillow covers, tablecloths and place mats was tremendous. I was happily browsing when I got the call from my husband that he was leaving a day early for the airport and taking our wonderful Philippina helper and all her sisters to the airport with him. I had to smile for a moment at the thought of him traveling with a gaggle of women. But his leaving, while making me happy that he would be safe, also represented our last stand in Japan for now. So while many people are often overwhelmed at markets and I never am,  all of a sudden I couldn’t focus or even think about which cushions I might like to buy. Everything felt irrelevant. Shortly afterwards another friend called with the news of the US Embassy evacuation notice. I cried.

I have since regretted leaving this behind…

After a restorative and yummy lunch of Muslim-style Indian food we headed to Little India to a friend’s favorite antique store, although calling it an antique store may actually be a stretch. You have to love the name – Dinky Di – as it so perfectly describes it! She warned us in advance that this was truly a junk shop, with almost no room to even turn around and things piled haphazardly everywhere! Just my kinda place…

The interior lived up to its description. But with patience comes rewards, and we slowly but surely picked through what must be a lifetime of accumulation.

I loved the vintage mahjong set, but didn’t think I needed it.  On the other hand, this pair of mounted butterflies would look perfect in the back guest room at the beach house…

Currently I have 3 antique hand-colored book plates hanging, but have been stashing some other butterflies to add in there. This is the same room that I wanted the kilim footstools shown earlier for and I have been looking for a dhurrie or Bessarabian kilim for the floor for quite some time.

I am kind of bummed that butterflies have become the trendiest thing lately, as I have loved them for years and helped my sister-in-law acquire a little collection of wonderful  prints. But they have been everywhere, from the New York International Gift Fair to Angel Dormer’s apartment in the January 2011 issue of Lonny

…to the Myra Hoefer designed house in the current issue of House Beautiful, of which I don’t have a photo, so here is a shot of her store instead. If I was back in Tokyo, I’d want to pull out the pages of her apartment in Paris that I have been obsessed with for years. This will have to do for now.

My friend found a tidy little collection of small cloisonné vases, probably from the 1970s.  She also scored an amazing leather-cased collapsible telescope for her husband’s anniversary present. You can just see it behind the vases.

Now on to my purchases…Notice a theme to my haul? My ongoing prediliction for aged brass has clearly not abated. These need a little clean-up but I love the lines on the candelabra and the old betel nut holder will be perfect for soaps on the bathroom shelves. The paperweight stopwatch will look lovely on top of a pile of books on the coffee table. And I couldn’t leave the butterflies….

Our stay in Singapore was truly wonderful due to the incredible hospitality of our friends. I cannot thank them enough!

We are now in Thailand, and once again the Mac is dead, so my dream of blogging from the road is fairly curtailed. The kids need the R & R so off to the pool we go.

Before I sign off, I wanted to mention that the design community is kicking off ways to help Japan as well, from Lonny to Design to Help Japan at Elle Decor. Take a look and do what you can!

When the Going Gets Tough, the Weak Get Going…to Singapore and Thailand

So I guess the truth is, I am not tough. Along with much of the rest of the expat community, I am leaving (fleeing?), ostensibly just early spring break, as school is now closed this week as power and train service is unclear.  I shrug and tell myself next week was spring break anyway, but still I feel guilty to be going. There has been so much panic mongering (I don’t think I will ever be able to trust CNN again after watching their coverage), and I don’t want to join that train, but nonetheless, I can’t seem to keep myself off it. Unfortunately, my husband is staying behind to work. The constantly difficult piece of my expat life is being so often separated from him, but as soon as I find myself getting lachrymose, I just think of the suffering being endured by so many here in Japan and I get my perspective back. We are so lucky to be headed out to vacation!

I’ll be blogging on the road (the Mac seems to have come back to life after drying out), bringing you art and antiques from Singapore and Thailand. I need something to get my mind off the situation at home! I have also been featured on an Ocean Grove blog called Blogfinger. The writer of the blog, Paul Goldfinger contacted me for more information about our experience here in Japan and wrote an article about us. Check it out here if you are interested.

I just wanted to remind everyone of options for donations towards relief and rebuilding. Here’s a great link with information on multiple agencies working to help.

Thank you all again for your wishes, comments and prayers on our behalf.  And to make you smile, here is a photo of the Japanese Self Defense Force rescuing a 4 month old baby!

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