China had been exporting large quantities of trade porcelain to the Nanyang (Southeast Asia), particularly to Indonesia and Philippines, from the Song Dynasty (960-1279) onwards, in exchange for spices, bird nests, cinnamon, rare hard woods and other exotic produces of this region. It became a status symbol immediately and changed the way of life of the privileged and rich in these countries drastically. Much of these ancient relics have survived the vicissitudes of time because of the natives’ customary and delightful practice of burying these precious objects with the dead for use in their next life!
These artifacts first saw the light of day again when Nanyang farmers dug them up accidentally when tilling their lands, or in the course of construction works. Once their economic value became obvious, many farmers and fishermen quickly abandoned their traditional livelihoods and turned to the potentially more lucrative, but clandestine, grave-digging activities in order to assuage the insatiable demands of collectors and as a quick route to wealth. Unfortunately for posterity, such indiscriminate and unscientific excavations had damaged, or even destroyed, a great deal of archaeological finds and irreplaceable evidence which would have been of immense benefit to historians and other scholastic researchers.
During the 1960s and 1970s, a significant amount of these Chinese export porcelains were brought over to Singapore by Indonesian antique dealers, in wicker bags filled to the brim, for sale to both local and expatriate collectors. These included bowls, plates, dishes, vases, jars, covered boxes, figurines and other articles in various shapes and colours, such as the blue and white, celadon, polychrome, monochrome and other wares, spanning more than a thousand years of Chinese history. Almost all of these pieces came from the provincial kilns in Guangdong and Fujian in southern China. Compared to the refined ceramic wares manufactured exclusively for the more sophisticated Chinese domestic market, these export porcelains were coarser in quality and less well potted but nevertheless have a charm of their own, often decorated with deft brush strokes and whimsically-executed motifs. They were found in abundance throughout Indonesia, from Sulawesi to Bali to Sumatra to Java and to the Riau Archipelago, which is only a short sea distance from Singapore.
As far as I know, although large amounts of these trade porcelains were also found in the Philippines, hardly any of its antique dealers came to Singapore to sell their pots, possibly because there was sufficient domestic demand for these wares in their own country. These Chinese relics could be bought in Singapore from these travelling Indonesian antique sellers for as low as $40 for a 16th century Ming bowl, $200 for a small 14th century Yuan plate and $300 would make you the proud owner of a 12th century Song dragon-motif jarlet! Although they were made as utilitarian objects, and not as works of art, they appealed to both Singaporean and expatriate residents as they were very cheap compared to similar wares made for the home market. Also, not many of these refined Chinese pieces were readily obtainable in the Singapore shops and one had to buy them in the upmarket Hong Kong antique shops or from reputable international auction houses overseas at prices which would put them beyond the reach of the average collector anywhere. Over the years, these Chinese export wares have been enthusiastically sought by collectors and museums in different parts of the world to fill a gap in their collections.
The modus operandi of these Indonesian dealers was that they would fly to Singapore and stay at one of the cheap hotels along Bencoolen Street and carried out their business activities there. They would telephone individual collectors and invite them to view the pieces in their hotel rooms. They preferred to sell directly to collectors, rather than to antique shops, because of higher profit margins. Unsold articles would later be offered to a single antique shop on a package deal at a huge discount.
I was introduced to several of these Indonesian vendors and spent many a delightful lunch hour and evening inspecting their goods, which were spread out on the bed, and haggling with them over cups of black coffee. Rarely did I leave empty-handed or disappointed. Initially, a novice collector would, most probably, be taken advantage of in terms of price, quality or condition of the articles. There was a tendency for him or her to fall for the so-called “bargain pieces”, which the more experienced collectors would avoid like a plaque. These were usually the defective pots with some chips or cracks, or those that had been skilfully-repaired or re-decorated, which the dealers would palm off to unsuspecting beginner collectors. Thanks to an expert collector who was my mentor, I learned that, when in doubt, one should not hesitate to ask the vendor to allow one to immerse the chosen piece in boiling water as no repaired works are likely to withstand such intense heat. I put this advice to test on a couple of occasions and immediately brought out the more honest side of the dealer’s character!
Be that as it may, once mutual trust and confidence was firmly established between the seller and the buyer, such “teething problems” should not recur. I had many memorable buys from some of them, which are now worth substantially more than what I had paid, not to mention that I had also gained much useful practical knowledge from them which cannot possibly be gleaned from books.
I would like to share an amusing incident with the readers. On one of my lunchtime forays to a Bencoolen hotel to buy antiques, I ran into an old school friend just outside the hotel. He greeted me warmly and, with a twinkle in his eyes, sincerely assured me that the secret of my hotel assignation would be safe with him. He was, however, surprised that I would conduct my extra-marital escapades even in broad daylight! When I told him that I made regular visits to the hotel in order to buy antiques from Indonesian dealers whenever they were in town, he was somewhat offended that I could invent such a bizarre story and would expect him to fall for it hook, line and sinker. Even today, I am convinced that he had never accepted my version of what actually happened that day. I do hope that he would be reading this article and be convinced of my truthfulness in our mutually awkward encounter.
All good things must come to an end some time or other. These Indonesian dealers abruptly stopped coming to Singapore from the 1980s onwards. By then, the finite quantities of Chinese trade ceramics found in their country had been substantially depleted, coupled with the fact that the demand for them in the domestic market had already out-stripped supply, as more and more local and overseas collectors would pay vastly-enhanced prices for the articles they liked.
Today, I reckon there are at least several hundred collectors of Chinese export porcelains in Singapore and with many more elsewhere. Some of them were, or are still, members of the cosmopolitan Southeast Asian Ceramic Society in Singapore, of which I am a long-standing member, whose main objective is to generate greater awareness and interest in the antique ceramics of China and that of the ASEAN region.
Lam Pin Foo