25 Nov Straits Chinese Antique Auction – Series 6/2019
By Glen Chee
One important aspect of collecting Straits Chinese antique porcelain aka Nyonyawares is understanding the provenance of each item, however most collectors ignore the historical aspects of collecting and focusing more on the artistic beauty and investment value of their wares. Tracing and ascertaining provenance is difficult in most situations, old families generally sell their wares quietly and prefer to remain out of scrutiny due to various reasons. We are fortunate that some families have left their names or business trade mark affixed or engraved on some Straits Chinese artefacts allowing discerning collectors to have glimpse of history. This Series 6/2019 auction MNP auctioneer shared that some lots were acquired from the descendants of prominent old families of the Straits Settlements, as such allowing bidders to own a piece of antique porcelain with traceable provenance.
Kapitan Chung Thye Pin
Many local roads in Perak and even buildings are named after famous people on such person is Kapitan Chung Thye Pin.
Kapitan Chung Thye Phin MSC, JP (28 September 1879 – 1935) was a wealthy and powerful Malaysian tin miner and rubber planter of Hakka ancestry who was raised on the island of Penang known at that time as British Straits Settlements. He was the 4th son of Kapitan Chung Keng Quee, Mandarin 2nd Class of the Imperial Chinese Court and leader of the Hai San secret society in British Malaya. Chung Thye Phin’s godfather was Chin Seng Yam (Chin Ah Yam), the leader of the Ghee Hin, once the enemy of his father who was leader of the opposing Hai San, both factions (Ghee Hin and Hai San) fighting for domination of the tin fields of Larut. Madam Khoo Joo Bee a Nyonya was the 6th wifeof Chung Thye Pin (disputed information).
He expanded his father’s tin mining business and owned large interests in some of the Straits Government’s monopolies. His mansion was beyond opulent and was featured as a Chinese palace fitting for Imperial standards and was commonly photographed onto post cards of that period. He was a member of the Perak Advisory Board and the last Kapitan China of Perak and Malaya. At the time of his death he was said to have been the wealthiest man in Penang. There was a big turnout at his funeral in Penang (7 April 1935) including many prominent personalities from the Federated Malay States and the Straits Settlements and the funeral procession was a quarter of a mile long.
Kapitan Chung Thye Pin building
Due to his wealth, power, influence and marriage with a Nyonya lady it is not surprising Chung had special sets of porcelain customized for his utilitarian and for special festive occasions usage.
Collectors do occasionally encounter commissioned wares bearing mark of Khoo Joo Bee, probably commissioned sets given to her as wedding gifts, there are some exquisite wares bearing no name marks however these are easily distinguished as commissioned wares from the high quality of porcelain and/or beautifully enameled inside out pieces.
Blue and White with gold gilding bowl was part of a dinner service commissioned for Chung Thye Pin
The featured lot 52 is exquisite commissioned pieces acquired from directly from the Chung family.
Lim Kek Chuan
Lim Kek Chuan was one of the Kingpins of the opium trade in Perak, he was born in Penang in 1858 and was educated at the Free School. Lim started business as a rice merchant with shops in Burma and India. Subsequently he went into tin mining in Perak and held various monopoly business licenses, including the opium trade. He was very powerful and influence during his time. He went into a lucrative partnership with Chung Keng Kwee, the Hakka Kapitan Cina of Perak, the big five families spent more than $2.8 million to dominate all the revenue farms from upper to lower Perak for seventeen years, from 1880 to 1897. In the mid-1890s, the big five, led by Lim Kek Chuan and some prominent Hakka, grouped themselves into the Penang Opium Syndicate. They formed an alliance with Kedah’s Choong family, close friends of the Sultan, and pumped in about $1.4 million to keep the leases of all Kedah opium farms for fifteen years (1895–1909).
Lim was also a fellow of the Society of Arts, London, and President of both the Penang Chinese Chamber of Commerce and the Chinese Recreation Club. In Penang, his office was at 15 Church Street and his family home at Diamond Jubilee Lodge at Mount Erskine Road. His eldest son, Lim Soo Chee was born at 1880, he continued his father’s opium business and married a great granddaughter of Khaw Soo Cheang, governor of the Thai province of Ranong.
Marriages between prominent Penang Straits Chinese Peranakans and those with Thai connections were common in that period, as such resulting in Peranakans influences among Southern Thailand and also it is not uncommon to encounter Nyonyawares in old Thai families and antique shops.
In this auction a few special featured lots consisting of crisp porcelain decorated with Crickets and insects among the four season flowers affixed with “Kek Chuan” mark was part of a large dinner service commissioned for Lim Kek Chuan, these were probably made during the Tongzhi period. (Lot 35 – 39)
Heah Swee Lee
Heah Swee Lee was born on 1874 and passed away on 02 November 1924, he a wealthy rubber and sugar magnate, a polo sportsman and Perak State Councilor. He was the President of Penang Chinese Chamber of Commerce during 1916-1917.
An old neo-classical style building landmark in Penang, originally called Northam Lodge, was built by the prominent architect James Stark in 1911 for Heah Swee Lee. The house was a focus of George Town’s high society. At the housewarming, the Straits Settlements Legislative Councilor A. R. Adams congratulated the owner on his ‘splendid domicile’ and the architect on the ‘excellent results’. The mansion was later to the Soon family and rename Soonstead.
The Penang Polo Ground was donated by Swee Lee, who became the first non-European member of the Polo Club. His son Heah Seng Hye did one better by becoming the first non-European Captain and playing with HRH The Prince of Wales at the Selangor Club, Kuala Lumpur in 1922.
Swee Lee’s sons indulged in adventurous hobbies-one was a game hunter and taxidermist, another pioneered Penang’s fist wireless station. Heah Seng Hong, an amateur pilot and photographer, took many excellent pictures of his family and the mansion, including interior shots and aerial views.
This auction features a beautiful kamcheng from the descendants of Heah Swee Lee. (Lot 81)
· Chinese Southern Diaspora Studies, Volume 1, 2007, The Big Five Hokkien Families in Penang, 1830s–1890s by Yeetuan Wong
· The Peranakan Association Singapore magazine Feb/March 2008
· Opium in the Straits Settlements, 1867-1910, Cheng U. Wen, Journal of Southeast Asian History
· Penang Chinese Chambers of Commerce website