website statistics

Tales as Old as Time: Antiques' Great Return

With their unmatched rarity, craftsmanship, and intrinsic historical and emotional significance, antiques are making a grand return to the homes of many city dwellers – especially the young.

June 21, 2022

Among my family’s most prized possessions is a framed collection of old Hong Kong postage stamps taking pride of place above our entryway console – lightly hinged, plastered with faces of a young Queen Elizabeth II, and lovingly collected by my late grandfather over decades starting from the 1950s. While their once vibrant colours might have faded with time, this remains the most special piece of art in our household, one that my brother and I have spent many an hour staring at while imagining the bygone era they capture. 

I’m certainly not the only one taken with the allure of collectables. Over the past few years, a new crop of shops and galleries have popped up across the city to meet the demand from a rising and, I’m told, increasingly younger number of collectors for restored and antique works, be that quaint décor pieces or large furniture, that carry an intrinsic value and beauty.  

Scholar's louhan day bed from Altfield Gallery

It’s perhaps no accident that the trend has coincided with a boom in environmental awareness. Haven’t we all been tempted to dump our cabinets or plates at the hint of a scratch, in favour of new and shiny – and often insanely affordable – replacements? Yet with domestic waste including furniture making up 46 percent of the staggering 5.4 million tonnes of solid waste disposed to landfills in 2020 (according to government statistics) it makes sense that many of us are now searching for an antidote to the fast, mindless consumerism we’re used to. After all, if done right, you really can’t get much greener than going pre-loved. 

Photo: Altfield Gallery

“There is no doubt that antiques are the greenest possible items for sustainability,” says Amanda Clark, founder of Altfield Gallery, one of Hong Kong’s longest standing dealers, specialising in fine 18th and 19th century Chinese antiques. Altfield Gallery’s elegant Ming-era antique vernacular furniture, louhan day beds for gentleman scholars and exquisite altar tables that decorated old reception halls, give a glimpse of how people lived in the past. “They will last over many human lifetimes and become heirlooms as they pass down the generations. We’ve seen the young become more appreciative of the processes of handcrafting along with the use of natural materials that make up the beauty of antiques, and not think in terms of ‘fashion’, which constantly changes. That fine workmanship is so often part of the joy of
old pieces.”  

For over a century now, many of those old pieces have been found along Hong Kong’s historic streets, like Sheung Wan’s Hollywood Road and Upper Lascar Row, and around Aberdeen, Jordan and Yau Ma Tei, where memorabilia and artefacts abound and craftsmen are found brushing and sanding away at objects right at their storefronts. Indeed, this once prime trading port boasts a steeped relationship with antiques, which Clark has witnessed firsthand since founding Altfield Gallery alongside business partner David Halperin back in 1982.  

Photo: Altfield Gallery

“When we opened the business, we were part of the community of antique dealers along Hollywood Road, which was not full of coffee shops and art galleries back then! Most of our clients were expatriates, tourists and business visitors who enjoyed adding a touch of Asian style into their homes, while local Chinese taste leant more towards Western and modern. This has changed over time; there is no doubt that there is a great pride now in works with design motifs encapsulating Chinese culture that mix so well into any contemporary home. I think we all live in and celebrate a mix of East and West.”  

That time-capsule quality to vintage pieces is also what drove Allen Yuen – whose lifelong love of antiques bloomed on Hollywood Road where he grew up – to start collecting 17th and 18th century Victorian-era antiques. A dancer and choreographer by day, what began with curios he picked up from flea markets on his tours across Europe grew into a tremendous collection, of which hundreds of items he displays proudly at his Causeway Bay antique shop Galet Antique, and Sheung Wan coffee shop Le Galet, opened late last year. Both have become favourites among Instagram spot-hunters and photographers.  

Photo: Galet Antique

“I absolutely love antiques and am quite obsessed,” Yuen says with a laugh. Stepping into the dimly lit antique shop he opened in 2018, that passion is palpable. The shop is evocative of 17th century Parisian salons, and replete with ornate carved lampstands, vintage typewriters, rotary dial telephones and a Master’s Voice wind-up gramophone (one of Yuen’s first and favourite antiques); every corner oozes a cinematic quality that transports the visitor through space and time.  

“The thing with antiques is that every texture, colour, grain pattern, and story is completely unique and each expresses an irreplaceable beauty” muses Yuen. “Feelings, atmospheres, and imagination can take a long time before they’re realised in a performance, so I bring them to life through these antiques. Here, I can let my creativity run wild as if I were designing my own stage through the interiors and pieces I curate, a reflection as my taste and life evolve.”   

Photo: Galet Antique

While Yuen has always outsourced the more rigorous restoration work, he has recently taken it upon himself to learn as much as he can from the seasoned craftsmen he works with. “The number of these older-generation restorers in Hong Kong is dwindling, and if we don’t try to acquire their wealth of skills and knowledge, they will be forever lost. This is something I think a lot about.” 

Like Yuen, Clark has invested in specialists from England to teach in-house carpenters and refinishers how to restore antiques, and she echoes the importance of keeping the craft alive. A stone’s throw away, inside a 1948 three-storey heritage building perched on the slope of Peel Street is non-profit organisation Crafts on Peel. Creative director Penelope Luk has been among the city’s most ardent in doing just that, specifically through its artisan-in-residence programmes and thematic exhibits that focus on cross-generational, cross-regional learning.  

Photo: Galet Antique

“Urban redevelopment means that many old crafts are slowly disappearing, and so is the valuable cultural history associated with them,” explains Luk. “Craftsmanship is an intangible heritage that’s embedded into Hong Kong’s social networks and communities. It is important for us to revitalise it so that future generations can continue to celebrate this crystallisation of the wisdom of our ancestors.” 

A way to do that, as evident in their current exhibit, Stories Encapsulated: Wood (until May 21), is by bringing together traditional artisans and young craftsmen, as well as overseas creators, to “inspire each other and integrate their collective skills to create new works for today’s lifestyle.” This sparkling collision of techniques and ideas resulted in nine beautiful collaborations in wood, spanning decorative objects and furniture. 

Among them is Chamber of Time, which resembles a three-dimensional book, co-created by Siu Ping Keung, a master of wood carving for over 50 years, and Ken Chow, co-curator of the exhibit and one of Hong Kong’s few millennial carpenters. Chow recounts the “unforgettable” artistic synergy that can only happen through collaboration. “When I finally got to meet master Siu, we found that our core values for carpentry are very similar. We decided to team up right away. We explored topics about woodworking and compiled a lot of random ideas that led to this work.”  

Chamber of Time by Siu Ping Keung and Ken Chow

Since encountering the craft in 2016, the young carpenter has apprenticed in Taiwan and China, and opened Yat Muk Studio with the hope to one day reignite a “quality, rather than quantity” woodworking culture. “I hope someday people won’t only mention places like Europe, America, Japan or Taiwan, but also Hong Kong, when it comes to woodworking. I hope they realise that woodwork made in Hong Kong is just as noteworthy as other places,” says Chow.  

As today’s antique and vintage market evolves to speak to a younger clientele, one thing that is especially encouraging about preserving heritage and celebrating craftsmanship within our homes is that it has been made much more accessible. Digital marketplaces for antiques like 1stDibs and Etsy have become popular (Hong Kong-based Wui Po Kok Antique even recently introduced its first NFT-minted antiques: two Qing and Han weapons), as have rustic furniture crafted in pure natural materials, many of which can be rented by short-term residents from independent brands like TREE and Dalisay.

The Array of Joints by Ken Chow

And home décor store Thorn & Burrow, founded by Tamsin Soolin Thornburrow (who also opened the city’s first zero-waste store in 2018, Live Zero) is where one will find a plethora of vintage treasures and sustainable accessories, such as the beautiful rattan furniture that decorates the Sai Ying Pun store, and the newly launched enamelware range made from porcelain-coated stainless steel designed to last for decades. Thornburrow also regularly hosts green-minded workshops on crafting DIY goods. 

“I am a big believer in second-hand items, especially in Hong Kong where we live in such a throwaway society,” says Thornburrow, whose own home is filled with “more well-built” pre-loved pieces like a Chinese TV cabinet sourced online and items from her great grandmother. “It’s all about making sustainable choices that last. When bringing in new products I also think about the material and the afterlife. For example, if a ceramic or glass vase is damaged, there is a way of recycling it properly compared to a plastic one.” 

A side table painted in Annie Sloan chalk paint | Photo: Tamsin Soolin Thornburrow

And even if one didn’t have the skills of a master restorer, Thornburrow suggests many ways to add years of life to pieces, from repainting old furniture (an eco-friendly furniture paint is the chalk paint from Annie Sloan) to reupholstering old sofas and armchairs. Social media plays a key role in spreading the word, especially among the young. “Most kids in schools have all seen the famous photo of the turtle with the straw in its nose; this probably had a huge impact on them, which funnels down to their parents, who then end up making a change because of their kids.” 

For other conservation-minded collectors and craftsmen, it is all about incorporating mindful practices and fostering an appreciation for artisanship in their everyday lives. Chow discovered carpentry to be a form of meditation and exploration of the mind – something that our frenetic society could certainly benefit from. Amid the years-long journey of endless handiwork, his brain was allowed to slow down and contemplate a multitude of deep questions, which finally led him to the clarity and understanding about his goals in woodworking today. He also calls for support in a more practical sense. “For the sustainability of any craft, it’s impossible to neglect the notion of supply and demand. Artisans in Hong Kong are likely to give up eventually if no one’s buying their products. Therefore, it’s crucial to encourage the public to appreciate the value so that the carpentry scene can develop in a healthy, sustainable direction.” 

Kitchen cabinets, chairs, and wall painted in Annie Sloan chalk paint | Photo: Annie Sloan and Tamsin Soolin Thornburrow

By the same token, what one buys also matters. Where antiques once served as decorative arts to simply beautify a home or be invested in, that is no longer the case. Yuen prefers to see his antiques being used rather than collecting dust, and at Galet Antique, he regularly hosts gatherings where visitors are encouraged to personally interact with his antiques, many still functioning as they did decades ago. “When you use the piece, you develop a relationship with it,” says Yuen.  

Clark has observed that same attitude with her clients who are increasingly enjoying the objects they buy rather than putting them into static displays. “Our vintage Japanese lacquer and porcelain pieces are used for dinner parties, precious vases are used for flower displays, textiles are thrown over sofas, or draped as runners along tabletops. Living with beautiful old things, not just displaying them, adds an incredible sense of continuity and daily enjoyment of the creativity of the maker.” And what better way to celebrate our city’s tremendous heritage and one-of-a-kind cultural fabric than that?

Originally published in ECHELON Issue 7