Looking back to my thirty-five years’ love affair with collecting antique Chinese ceramic spoons always brings back joyful and exciting memories. I can vividly recall scouring for these much ignored and elusive common dining utensils in three continents. When I first became a novice collector in the late 1960s, I had to endure painful learning experiences which are documented in my posting of February 2008. However unpleasant these experiences were, they have taught me an indelible lesson in collecting that it takes years of experience and learning to become a shrewd and cultivated collector, and there are no short cuts to it.
At that time, good quality antique pieces were still available in several reputable antique shops in my native Singapore and neighbouring Southeast Asian countries at prices that were a mere fraction of their current market values. In places like Hong Kong, Macau and China prices were much lower than in Singapore and supplies were plentiful as China was then more concerned with political and economic developments than worrying about the outflow of their huge quantities of various kinds of antiques. By allowing the sales of these antiques to other countries to satisfy international demand would earn them the urgently needed foreign exchange in so-called hard currencies, like the American dollar and the British pound sterling, which would enable them to pay for imports which they needed for national development. It was only years later that they started to restrict the export of good quality antiques when the stocks of these finite historic legacies had run low. Consequently, international market prices for fine Chinese antiques, especially ceramics, shot up by leaps and bounds everywhere because the demand for these had far exceeded supply. Singapore was no exception.
It was four years after I started collecting Chinese ceramics that I began to notice that a rather unique kind of colourful and gaudy ceramic ware, known as Nonya ware, mostly of the 19th to early 20th century vintages, had made their appearance in a few secondary antique shops and flea marts. They came in different varieties, sizes, shapes, forms and motifs and were decorated in blue and white, monochrome or polychrome palettes. In the bygone era, Nonya ware was highly popular with the affluent local-born Chinese families in both Malaysia and Singapore who would have them specially made in China with specifications to suit their tastes and requirements. The tea and dinner sets would be used only on auspicious occasions to reflect their prominence in society. It became a status symbol to own them. Their entire collections would be handed down to the next generation as family heirlooms. After the older generations had passed on, some unsentimental younger descendants would often sell them off cheaply to antique shops or flea marts due to economic reasons or ignorance of their market worth. Among these Nonya pieces were different types of ceramic spoons which, despite being lowly priced at the shops compared with other more popular Nonya items, had few takers except for a handful of expatriates working in Singapore. There were two main reasons for the lack of interest in these spoons. First, the serious collectors would deem it beneath contempt to have these common dining utensils in their collections. Also spoons, which are a necessity in every Chinese household, both rich and poor, for their daily meals did not appeal to lesser collectors as worthy of collecting. Consequently, most reputable antique shops and other lesser shops would not carry them in their stocks. However, these and other non Nonya spoons were sometimes available mostly at the flea marts. Influenced by the snobbish attitudes of the more experienced collectors, I too, gave these spoons a miss even though I was initially quite fascinated by some of the finer pieces whose beauty was far from skin deep. In retrospect, I had forfeited a golden opportunity to acquire an assortment of these Nonya and other types of spoons and paid a high price for being a crowd follower instead of being guided by my own artistic inclinations.
A couple of years later, I chanced to read an interesting article in the famed Hong Kong based art magazine, Arts of Asia, about the impressive Chinese spoon collection of an American couple working in Hong Kong. They gave a vivid account of the joys and frustrations of searching, finding and buying different varieties of Chinese spoons in Hong Kong and Macao, mostly dating from the 18th to the early 20th century. The couple had accumulated several hundred pieces of these over a number of years, with the help of a trusted antique dealer there. They were still eagerly looking out for more finds to add to their collection. These spoons had rewarded them with endless hours of enjoyment and would continue to do so for many more years to come. This article reignited my latent interest in collecting spoons, and I was resolved to buy some before their prices went up.
From then onwards, I spent many a weekend visiting a couple of art and craft shops and flea marts in my home town, which previously had spoons for sale, but I was disappointed that only a few spoons of lower quality but high prices were available. The shop owners told me that spoons were harder to come by now as more collectors, especially local ones, had begun to buy them, thus putting pressures on prices. Another reason was that, compared with other more sought after ceramic wares, spoons were still more affordable for the new spoon collectors caught by the bug of collecting. Over a period of more than a year, I succeeded in buying only twenty pieces of average quality spoons. However, my luck improved significantly when I took a week-long holiday in Penang in neighbouring Malaysia. One of the first things I did was to visit Penang Rd and Rope Walk, where there were a number of antique shops, arts and craft shops and flea marts. What a delightful and rewarding outing it turned out to be! Among the old ceramic items on display, there were many old Nonya and other spoons awaiting patronage. After spending several hours there, I was able to harvest no less than 50 pieces of above average quality spoons, more than two-third of them were Nonya pieces, at vastly lower prices than those I previously paid in Singapore flea marts. The next day, I visited more shops in other parts of the city where there were a number of established antique and arts and craft shops. Good fortune was again on my side and I made several other memorable purchases. I added another 40 pieces of spoons to my collection, not to mention my purchases of other good quality ceramic wares which I would have gladly bought at higher prices in Singapore.
As I was fully satisfied with my lucky ceramic acquisitions there, my family and I spent the rest of our holiday sightseeing and enjoying the justly famous Penang street food which, without a doubt, was and still is, the best and cheapest in Malaysia and Singapore. Many Singaporeans go there just for the hawker food and for the equally famed pungent local durian fruit, which came fresh from its several durian orchards. After visiting many of the well-known landmarks, we finally ended up in the historic but somewhat run-down Penang Museum, which was housed in a stately looking building. We were the only visitors there. A very friendly museum staff volunteered to guide us around and he explained to us the history and significance of the major exhibits. My interest was aroused when we came to the section on Chinese and other ceramic collections of Southeast Asian countries, and I spent sometime admiring the rare Nonya ware pieces. Among them was a set of refined Chinese spoons, which were often found in the homes of the rich local-born Chinese families there. Sensing my obvious interest in the Nonya collection, the genial museum guide inquired if I would be interested to view a private Nonya ware collection at the home of his once-rich family friends, who had asked him to look out for potential buyers for their extensive collection. I accepted the invitation gladly. He later telephoned this family and a family member offered to fetch me from my hotel the same night to see the collection. What a bountiful evening it turned out to be. The large bungalow of colonial architectural design, though old and dilapidated, must have been grand in its heyday. There were plenty of different shapes and sizes of Nonya antiques throughout the house: in the entrance hall, in the living room, in the study and in the dining rooms. They included furniture, cupboards, gold-gilted chest of drawers, intricate wood carvings and dazzling Nonya ceramic pieces in the display cabinets and on the sideboards. There were also many porcelain vases standing at the corners of the floors. To my great delight, there were dozens of perfect condition Nonya spoons and other small pieces of porcelain bowls and plates neatly laid out on a large dinning table for my convenience of viewing. After hours of inspecting and negotiating with my friendly and hospitable host, I bought all the spoons, several other portable ceramic pieces which I could bring home in my car, as well as a number of large wood carvings and furniture items which the owner would arrange to ship to Singapore. I left the house well after 3 AM in the morning fully exhausted, and was grateful for a lift home to my seaside hotel. I made several other return trips to Penang in subsequent years. Alas, by then, there were not many Nonya ceramic pieces and spoons left in the shops and prices had escalated to a level that was approaching the prevailing Singapore prices. This was because Singapore antique dealers and collectors had bought up whatever Nonya pieces they could find in Penang when they were much cheaper than in Singapore. This had seriously depleted the finite stock available to satisfy the insatiable appetite of collectors for this particular ware. It has sentimental values to the people of Singapore and Malaysia who were prepared to pay inflated prices for them.
Besides Penang, the only other Malaysian city that has an even richer Nonya heritage is Malacca, where the Chinese traders had left their permanent footprints since the 15th century. Many had subsequently sunk their roots and set up their families there through inter-marriages with the native women. Their community was continually being augmented throughout the ensuing centuries by migrations of men and women from China, especially during the 19th and the early 20th century. The local-born offsprings of these immigrants came to be called Baba for men and Nonya for women to distinguish them from those born in China. There were, and still are, many wealthy Chinese families there and it is truly the home of Nonya ware. However, being much closer to Singapore in terms of distance compared with far away Penang, it was the most popular destination for Singapore antique dealers and collectors to descend on in search of Nonya ware at bargain prices, years before they would go to Penang after the Malacca shops had practically run dry of these ceramics. By the time I became a buyer of Nonya and other spoons, there were not many such items left in Malacca for me to buy. All in all I was only able to buy less than ten pieces of spoons there at quite high prices. Of these, I was extremely fortunate to acquire one truly outstanding spoon from a well-known local shop simply because I was willing to pay a grossly jacked-up price as I was anxious to add it to my collection at all cost. Be that as it may, looking back more than 25 years later, I did not make such a bad decision after all for such a pedigree piece! Some distance from Malacca is the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, which is not particularly noted for Nonya ware, but I had better luck there in securing more than thirty good pieces of Nonya and other spoons at much more competitive prices than in the home of Nonya ware itself.
As time marched on, my fascination for old Chinese ceramic spoons had become a passion. I was a familiar face in the local shops on weekends. Knowing my partiality for spoons, some shop owners would telephone me whenever they had these in their shops and I would invariably buy those that suited my taste even if I had to pay a higher price for them. Thus, slowly and steadily, my spoon collection grew and I became known as an avid spoon collector to dealers and some collector friends. One fine day, and quite unexpectedly, a collector friend of ours, who was reputed to have the largest collection of Nonya ware in Singapore and Malaysia, telephoned me and invited me to his home to see his collection. It was by far the most comprehensive and superb collection of this ware that I had ever come across. According to my host, he had inherited some of these from his parents and the rest were added to his collection through selective purchases, mainly in Malaysia, over the years when prices were low and this particular porcelain had not yet become so hotly sought after as it has since become. He had accumulated several thousand pieces, much of these were packed in boxes due to lack of display space in his spacious house. He said that he had from time to time sold some of the pieces to take advantage of the growing interest for Nonya ware and the escalated prices paid for these. He assured me that he would offer me very favourable prices for the pieces that I fancied. I told him that I was not a regular collector of Nonya ware in general, but would certainly be keen to purchase his two sets of spoons, of the rare early 19th century provenance, which were among the finest of its kind that I had seen anywhere. Sensing my keen desire to own these, he quoted what I thought was quite a stiff price because of their rarity. I finally bought them after some haggling over the price. I have never regretted buying these rare and superb pieces and paid a high price for them. What is their estimated value today? according to an expert Nonya ware collector who had seen my spoons, he reckoned that they would be immediately snapped up by a discerning collector at no less than twelve times the price that I paid ages ago! Like any other form of art collecting, rarity is what determines the market worth of any work of art, apart from its intrinsic artistic quality of course. Nonya ware is now quite scarce in both Malaysia and Singapore shops.
In the past decades, I had travelled to many countries, both on business and holiday. As mentioned in my postings from March to May 2008, I would take the opportunities to drop in at the antique shops and antique markets to buy ceramics and, perchance, to acquire a piece or two of spoons that attracted me. More often than not, I was not disappointed. I did quite well in London, in the South and West English counties as well as in Scotland and Ireland. Even in countries like France, Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and Germany, some Chinese spoons would come my way. The quality of the pieces in Europe and Britain was generally higher than the average pieces available in Southeast Asia. Across the Atlantic, I also have happy memories of my spoon chasing trips in California, New York and some other states. My best buys were in San Francisco’s Chinatown and in the posh Palm Springs, at the fringe of California’s Death Valley, where the famed Hollywood star, Bob Hope, lived. In San Francisco, I was thrilled beyond words to be shown an array of Chines porcelain spoons of high quality. My excitement grew when I saw an unusual piece with Iranian script “God is great” written on it. It is of 18th century origin, and was exported by China to the Middle East market. After several cups of fine Chinese tea, I bought all the spoons at reasonable prices. I returned to the shop in subsequent years but they had no more spoons in stock. In Palm Springs, I bought one of the finest pieces in my collection at a surprisingly cheap price. I guess the shopkeeper had hardly any knowledge of Chinese ceramics and the odd spoon was incidental to his trade. My most successful spoon buying trips were, understandably, in China, Macao and Hong Kong. I remember vividly roaming the antique markets in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu and Kunming searching for the seemingly elusive spoons. My enthusiasm and efforts were not in vain. I came away with no less than sixty pieces of spoons that I liked, and a number of these were probably made for the imperial court officials and the rich merchants. Across the border in Macao and Hong Kong, I managed, over the years, to add more pieces to my spoon collection. The small antique shops in Hong Kong’s Hollywood Rd and its vicinity had always excited me with their spoon collections as they had regular customers looking for them. In a family run shop there, I bought a set of eight exquisitely crafted and thinly potted blue and white spoons, of 18th century provenance, which I paid a high but not excessive price for them. As if to allay my doubt of its intrinsic value, the kindly looking lady unhesitatingly gave me a written certificate of authenticity and assured me that I could at any time after one year resell them back to her at no less than ten per cent profit should I decide to do so. They are easily the best pieces in my entire spoon collection and they deservedly occupy a central place in my display cabinets.
In the course of three decades, I had left my footprints in three continents in hot pursuit of the common Chinese ceramic spoons and these experiences have greatly enriched my life. More importantly, they have given me countless hours of delightful pleasure and will continue to do so in the years to come. When I first started collecting them there were very few spoon collectors in Singapore. Three decades later, as far as I know, the number has swelled and is still growing. After years of collecting them, I now have about 600 pieces of spoons, of various categories, colours, shapes, sizes, motifs and differing qualities. The marvel is that all have a theme or story to tell within such a tiny space. As I have said earlier, these spoons, crafted and individually painted by human hands, have a beauty which is more than skin deep. They were produced by master craftsmen at a time when there was hardly any time pressure to meet commercial demands. It was also a labour of pride and love for them. It is a miracle that, despite their constant usage over such a prolonged period of time, these fragile dining tools have managed to survive in good condition, save for some wear and tear, to be admired and deeply valued by keen collectors of spoons everywhere. Hurray and long live the Chinese spoons!
Lam Pin Foo