Straits Chinese Porcelain

Straits Chinese Porcelain

By Master Glen Chee

Over the years many collectors and academics have explored the definition of Straits Chinese Porcelain as know as Nonyawares, each proposal and opinion has its merits supported by years of collecting experience, logical assumptions and empirical evidence.

My collecting journey has been a colourful and exciting voyage from learning the art of identification and verification, including amassing knowledge and friendships. I do agree to an extend many serious collectors are inherently hoarders, amassing great amounts of porcelains however for me without likeminded friends these precious items remain lonely relics sitting in a cabinet. Many of my pieces trigger fond memories of porcelain hunting adventures, including building friendships through massive eating sessions.  I have considered sharing a set of guidelines for Straits Chinese porcelain identification and verification, however that would require a book to justify the amount of details, as such I have decided to share my lay man observations with regards to Straits Chinese commissioned porcelains. For easy discussion I have categorized Straits Chinese porcelain into 2 types as follows:

Standard Straits Chinese porcelain made for the Straits Chinese Peranakan Community

These standard utilitarian wares were made in bulk and they are usually stamped with a reign mark or a shop/kiln mark, it is not uncommon to encounter Straits Chinese porcelain without a mark. Standard Straits Chinese porcelains, especially the white based Tok Panjang services can be found in large quantities stacked in family heirlooms or in private collections, whereas the gaudy famille rose varieties are getting rare and highly desirable to collectors (see Fig. 1). Standard Straits Chinese porcelains are usually encountered in the Standing/flying phoenix series, Double Pheasant series and Four Seasons flowers series in white or full coloured ground (see Fig. 1a).

Figure 1. Standard Straits Chinese porcelain made for the Straits Chinese Peranakan communities. These white based dinner services were used for the Tok Panjang. Courtesy of G.C Art & Heritage Collection.

Figure 1a. Standard Straits Chinese plates in green ground, however all coloured wares are getting scarce. Acquired in Singapore and from the United Kingdom. Courtesy of G.C Art & Heritage Collection.

Straits Chinese Commissioned Porcelains

Straits Chinese Commissioned Porcelain are customised ceramics specifically ordered by affluent Straits Chinese Peranakan families during the 19th to early 20th Century and these ceramics are represented with special identifying features bearing a Straits Chinese Peranakan family surname, business name, or in some cases a specific combination of colours, shapes and motifs preferred by certain families (e.g. Chong Cai series). In some ways Straits Chinese Commissioned Porcelain are similar to Armorial Porcelain made in China and exported to the West for specific European aristocrat families. Describing commissioned porcelains simply to a novice, I have used use the analogy of visiting a tailor to customise a formal suit in accordance to specific measurements instead of visiting the emporium or agent to purchase off the shelf.  

These commissioned dinner services and other utilitarian wares were mostly made of porcelain; however, some very wealthy Straits Chinese families did commission their dinner services in silver. Commissioned porcelains are generally highly desirable for any “Nonyaware” collector due to their special designs, rarity and historical provenance.

  • The Butterfly Surname Series commissioned for Yap, Zhou, Pan Families

These commissioned porcelains in particular the Yap wares are probably the most well documented commissioned porcelains. A Tok Panjang almost full set is exhibited in the Singapore Peranakan Museum (see fig. 2). In the last few years of “Nonyaware” resurgence such wares were frequently listed in local auctions in Singapore and Malaysia. I have listened to differing opinions with regards to Yap Ah Loy wares and one particular argument has some merits. It was argued Yap Ah Loy was not a Straits Chinese Peranakan even though one of his wives was a Nyonya, as such it was unusual for the porcelains to have his surname affixed, it would have been custom to have his wife’s’ surname affixed onto these wares and it was further argued these wares should be classified as Chinese porcelains commissioned for a Kapitan Cina.

Figure 2. Various “Yap” and “Pan” butterfly surname wares., the mark “Te Shen Gong Shi” is exclusive to Kapitan Yap Ah Loy. Courtesy of a Kuala Lumpur Private Collector and G.C Art & Heritage Collection. Acquired in Kuala Lumpur and United Kingdom.

I had the opportunity to meet an individual based in Kuala Lumpur that was distantly related to the Yap family through marriage and he informed me the Pans and Zhous were related with the Yaps through marriage as such their choice of butterfly motifs were not by accident! In my view further research is required however we cannot deny the fact that these porcelains were commissioned for Kapitan Yap Ah Loy a historically prominent individual and owning a piece of history appeals to some collectors.

  • The Khoo Joo Bee “Qiu Ru Mei Zhi” commissioned porcelains

My collecting journey had led me to encountered various Straits Chinese porcelain bearing the stamp of Khoo Joo Bee ranging from the four-season flowers wares and magpie series (see fig. 3 and 4), and more commonly on the double pheasant series. Madan Khoo Joo Bee was a Nyonya and was the wife of Kapitan Chung Thye Pin, a very powerful and affluent man in the Straits Settlements. He was the son of Kapitan Chung Keng Kwee, the Hai San secret society chief and Chung Thye Pin was appointed Justice of Peace and was the last Kapitan Cina of Perak. These wares were probably commissioned as wedding gifts by relatives and the mark of “Qiu Ru Mei Zhi” was stamped on each item. I recalled receiving a phone call from a Melaka intermediary notifying a Khoo descendant was looking for a buyer, I immediately activated another buddy from Kuala Lumpur and we both galloped towards acquiring some beautiful items and followed by more massive eating.

Figure 3 Lidded bowl decorated with Four Season Flowers with Magpies motif commissioned for Khoo Joo Bee. Acquired in Melaka from a Khoo descendent. Courtesy of G.C Art & Heritage Collection.

Figure 4. Four seasons flowers plates (without magpie motifs) commissioned for Khoo Joo Bee. Acquired in Melaka from a Khoo descendent. Courtesy of a Private Collection and G.C Art & Heritage Collection.

  • The Cheah Hong Lim “Wan Seng” commissioned porcelains

These wares very rarely encountered, the Singapore Peranakan Museum has a few pieces, including a kamcheng exhibited, and I also had the good fortune to encounter a few exquisite pieces ranging from plates, bowls and kamchengs within private collections (see Fig. 5). According to the museum these porcelains were commissioned by the family of Cheah Hong Lim, as evidenced by his shop mark “Wan Seng” in dialect or “Shen-Yuen” in Mandarin (Life Garden in English). One of the unusual features is the usage of the Qilin and Phoenix combination motifs on these Wucai or Blue and White with gold gilded wares. Cheah Hong Lim is a Straits Chinese Peranakan philanthropist, appointed Justice of Peace in 1876 and he was highly regarded in Singapore.

Figure 5 Unusual Qilin motif together with a Phoenix. This bowl previously belonged to Dr Ho Wing Ming and was featured in his book on page 55. Acquired in Singapore. Courtesy of G.C Art & Heritage Collection.

  • Tan Kim Seng’s Pak Choy commissioned porcelains

 Pak Choy with four season flowers motif dinner wares of 144 pieces were commissioned exclusively only for Tan Kim Seng affixed with an auspicious hall mark (see Fig. 6), he passed away in 1864 therefore logic dictates these blue underglaze wares were commissioned between 1840s to 60s (Tao Kuan to Hsien Feng Qing reign period) which predates most of the bright famille rose Straits Chinese porcelain. The period also corroborates with the very fine depiction of Pak Choy motifs by skilled craftsmen and the unusually good quality porcelain during the earlier period. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to acquire a big Pak Choy bowl formerly owned by Dr Ho Wing Meng and referenced and documented in his book as illustrated under image 7, page 31 and the others were acquired as a lot locally in Singapore and Malaysia.  I also had the luck to review 2 tea cups with the same motif and hall mark in a private collection in Melaka during 2015. These Pak Choy wares were also referenced and documented in Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society Vol. 58, No. 2 (249) (1985), pp. 152-154, and mentioned in Kee Min Yuet’s book, pg 239. These Pak Choy Four Seasons wares are not to be confused by the Thai Pak Choy wares, the Thai variants do not depict the four-season motifs on their borders.

Figure 6 Pak Choy wares commissioned for Tan Kim Seng. Acquired in Singapore. Courtesy of G.C Art & Heritage Collection.

Another key differentiator is the tiny roots/ soil in between each Pak Choy which can only be seen in the Tan Kim Seng’s Pak Choy series. Strangely these Pak Choy wares are less known to collectors, for me, these commissioned wares are one of its kind with historical provenance, as such highly desirable and rarely encountered.

  • Yellow based Porcelains with Xuan Tong reign mark

Yellow based “Nonyawares” are rare and those stamped with Xuan Tong reign mark with a Chinese numerical of “0”, or “1” or “10” affixed in the centre of the Xuan Tong seal script mark (see Fig. 7). These commissioned porcelains are also characterised by its salmon pink borders and the standing phoenix looking right on green rocks and documented to be commissioned for Chan Say Peng and family. Chan Say Peng was born in Melaka in 1839 and was a multi-millionaire in the Straits Settlements.

Figure 7 Yellow ground Straits Chinese porcelains commissioned for Chan family. Acquired in Melaka. Courtesy of a Private Collector and G.C Art & Heritage Collection.

Commissioned porcelains are all expensive?

There is an assumption all commissioned wares are expensive, this is not entirely accurate as depicted in figure 8 a white based plate decorated with double pheasants’ motif and affixed with a Khoo (Qiu) Shen De mark is within the reach of a novice collector with regards to pricing and availability.

Figure 8 A double pheasant plate, normally produced as standard Straits Chinese porcelain, however the plate depicted bears the stamp of Khoo Shen De indicating it was commissioned for this individual. Acquired from Penang. Courtesy of G.C Art & Heritage Collection.

  • Dragon motifs, Unusual forms and Chong Cai series

Occasionally an interesting Straits Chinese piece depicting dragon motifs will surface in a local or EU auction and in most cases wrongly classified as Chinese famille rose porcelains (see Fig. 9).  I have encountered many “specialists” immediately dismissing them as “fakes” and some deploying scare tactics to encourage owners to flog these “fake” dragon wares for a song. These dragon wares are very rare in numbers as such through logical assumption I conclude these porcelains must be commissioned porcelains, unfortunately till date I am unable to trace provenance for any such dragon wares.

Figure 9. A white ground bowl depicting a dragon and phoenix on the other side. Acquired in Melaka. Courtesy of G.C Art & Heritage Collection.

Tureen lidded shallow bowls are extremely rare in form and these bowls are usually decorated with very fine artwork resembling imperial wares hence indicating commissioned status (see Fig. 10 and 10a). Some commissioned porcelains in rare forms do not depict special characters indicating provenance and they are usually stamped with a reign or kiln mark.

Figure 10. A pair of exquisite 10 inches lidded tureen shallow bowls. Acquired in Melaka and Singapore. Courtesy of a Private Collector and G.C Art & Heritage Collection.

Figure 10a. Observe the very fine artwork and details decorated on the lidded tureens.

The Chong Cai porcelains has intrigued many collectors and to some individuals these are considered the holy grail of commissioned porcelains (see Fig. 11) but strangely these porcelains have not been discussed by academics and only vaguely mentioned in Dr Ho Wing Meng’s book. Nuggets of hearsay information from antique dealers, statements from individuals purporting to be descendants suggests these wares were exclusively commissioned for the Chee and Tan families of Melaka and Singapore.

Figure 11. Chong Cai series are considered one of the rarest designs among commissioned porcelains. Acquired in Melaka. Courtesy of G.C Art & Heritage Collection.

It is about the Knowledge, the Journey and not the Amassing of porcelains

In conclusion, I encourage novice Straits Chinese porcelain collectors to focus on obtaining knowledge and to enjoy their journey instead of merely chasing the final attainment of items. Through my own journey I remember fondly of the exciting hunts and prowls at antique and junk shops, researching for knowledge, galloping from Singapore to Melaka upon receiving tips, meeting ancestors of old prominent families, auction biddings and developing great friendships during my 20 years of collecting.  

Figure 12. Reviewing Straits Chinese porcelain with friends at Penang Luxury Week 2018, from left, Mr. Alvin Tay and Glen Chee

Figure 13. Attending Straits Chinese porcelain auction organised MNP Auctioneers, from left, Mr. Stephen Soon, the author Glen Chee and Mrs Chee