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Wang Hing: Discovering the True Identity of a Silversmithing Genius

by Adrien von Ferscht (03/07/14).

宏興: 發現一個天才的真正身份

A table centerpiece, done in the high-Chinese style by the Canton silversmithing shop Wang Hing, circa 1880. Until now, the identity of the man or family behind Wang Hing had been lost to history. Now, after receiving an e-mail from a woman in Hong Kong, we know the story.

The 1842 Treaty of Nanking became the catalyst for many changes in Canton; not only had a new order had been established in the China Trade itself but Chinese Export Silver went through a rapid metamorphosis. What had been faithful high-quality copies of the neo-classical Georgian style were transformed into overtly traditional Chinese decorative motifs adorning what were essentially classic Western forms.

The treaty, although ostensibly an agreement between the Daoguang Emperor and Queen Victoria, favored the British overall, but other nations were beneficiaries by default, in particular America. Post-1842, we also witness a huge increase in the number of retail silversmiths operating in Canton and all the other treaty ports that ensued, as well as Peking. To service the retailers, the number of silver workshops mushroomed.

Apart from the tea trade, the other engine that drove this new age of the China Trade was opium; it was, after all, opium that caused the momentum for the standoff with the Chinese that resulted in the treaty. While all the component trades that comprised the China Trade flourished in their own right after 1842, opium was always in the background. It was not uncommon for retail silversmiths and their compatriots in other trades to be involved in the trade, given a significant number of the new retail silversmiths were entrepreneurial merchants by nature.

One retailer that resisted the trade fiercely was Wang Hing & Company; a name that has become synonymous with Chinese Export Silver. As with almost all retail silversmiths, the trading name was a fictitious name chosen for its auspicious invocations and it is because of this that very few of the actual owners’ true names are known to us today. The fact that the Chinese also had an aversion to recording the reality of business transactions in writing also does not exactly help those of us that seek to carry out research.

Wang Hing was probably the most prolific of all the Chinese retail silversmiths in the 19th century, yet the identity of its owner has always remained a mystery. We know, for example, that Hung Chong & Company, a contemporary of Wang Hing, was opened by Fok Ying Chew, who later sold the business in 1902 to Sum Luen Sing. We only know this from personal travelers’ journals of the day and editorial in The Chinese Repository. Wang Hing, though, remained an enigma.

Earlier this year, I was overjoyed to receive an e-mail completely out of the blue from a woman in Hong Kong who is married to a direct descendant of the family that owned Wang Hing! Many e-mails and a lot of research later, I have the great pleasure in presenting the story of that family and of the unique insight it has opened up on 19th-century Canton and a subsequent move to Hong Kong that came to an abrupt end when Wang Hing & Company was obliterated from the map.

The photograph above is the earliest record we have of members of the Lo family, showing Lo Hung Pok in the middle, the third grandson of Lo Kit Ping. Lo Hung Tong, on the left, was Hung Pok’s third sibling brother and Lo Hung Fan is on the right, the fifth sibling brother. As with many affluent merchant families of the time, there were “at least” 15 children in the Lo family and they were dressed in the traditional West Gate Canton style in this photograph.

Wang Hing & Company was begun by the Lo family during what must have been a tumultuous time after the signing of the Treaty of Nanking in 1842. It was an upper-middle-class wealthy merchant family who were specialists in trading jade and it was exactly this that Wang Hing first opened its doors as. The Lo family originated from Foshan—then a small town to the west of Canton—already known for its affluent merchant population. By the mid-19th century, the family had become prosperous merchants living in Xiguan, an area of the sought-after prosperous Liwan district, populated with large, stylish merchant villas and mansions with the Lizhiwan River close by; the river being the small boundary between Canton and Shameen Island, where the Thirteen Factories foreign trading area had relocated to. Sadly, we have not yet discovered the name of the original Mr. Lo, but the business was taken over by the eldest son, Lo Kit Ping, in the mid-to-late 1860s.

This is the map of Shameen Island at the time Wang Hing & Company came into being. The “canal” at the northern side is the Lizhiwan River and the bridge across it enters directly to Liwan; the bridge on the east side enters directly to the West Gate of old Canton City. Shameen (Shamian) was leased to the British under the Treaty of Nanking as the foreign trading area which the British then sublet to different nations for their “factory” or, as the Chinese referred to them, “Barbarian Houses.” The term “factory” was used in the China Trade as a remnant of the former Portugese dominancy in the trade; the Latin word “factor” means “doer”—a mercantile fiduciary. The factory, therefore, is their office (trading post).

This is a drawing of Shameen Island shortly after the 1842 treaty signing and development had begun. The bridge across the Lizhiwan River can be seen clearly and the merchant villas are already developing in Xiguan. This all quickly developed and by the 1880s had become a chaotic, bustling and incredibly prosperous hive of trade as we can see below. The Chinese are true masters of what appears as organized chaos!

Some of the merchant mansions along the river in the very particular Xiguan style.

The doors, gates and stained glass windows of the Liwan district quickly gained a reputation—even by wealthy Chinese standards—as exceptional and these were considered grand mansions.

This photo of the courtyards, stained-glassed windows and interior of a Dubao Lu Street mansion is typical of a Canton merchant’s house, including the equally typical Manchuria stained-glass fretwork windows.

The large Lo family lived in a grand merchant house on Duobao Lu Street adjacent to the river. Merchant houses at that time were a fusion of pseudo-Western style that retained a traditional central courtyard. A very particular Xiguan style developed and the doors, gates and stained glass windows quickly gained a reputation. Even by wealthy Chinese standards, these were considered grand mansions.

The Lo family was not a minority wealthy merchant family; the entire Liwan district was comprised of mansions and its own high-end shopping streets. Having now had the opportunity to dialogue with the Lo family (which includes a 93-year-old young lady living in Guangzhou today), what comes over strongly is that the decision to expand into the silver trade was not taken lightly. It was taken with the conscious decision to design the pieces personally and to oversee the manufacturing process, and it was this family pride in maintaining a level of quality that allowed the Wang Hing name to be synonymous with a consistency of quality and style. Wang Hing silver is also almost exclusively in the high Chinese style, which seems to be consistent with the traditional values the family maintained.

This reticulated lidded canister with blue glass liner made by Wang Hing displays a comfortable fusion of traditional Chinese decorative motifs and a classic Western form with the subtle addition of the bottom acanthus frieze looking neo-classical at first glance with a hint of the ruyi about it.

Even a small piece, such as this reticulated lidded canister with blue glass liner (above), demonstrates an obvious attention to small detail. The fact Wang Hing understood that blue glass would create a far more dramatic effect than the usual clear bubble glass that many Canton silversmiths opted, for shows a striving for perfection. Blue glass was not native to China and would either have been produced in Hong Kong or even imported from Bristol in England.

En Ning Lu was the fashionable shopping street of the Liwan community.

The Lo family in Canton was a typical entrepreneurial merchant family, drawing strength from the age-old Chinese tradition of a business or skill being handed down from generation to generation. The social rise from their Foshan roots was a rapid one, not only investing in the Wang Hing venture, but they also established and owned what was considered to be the largest and most luxurious movie theatre in Canton in 1932, having more than 1,500 seats, The Jin Sheng Cinema on En Ning Lu, literally around the corner from the Lo residence. Jin Sheng operated as a cinema until 2007, albeit not connected with the Lo family since the Cultural Revolution. Surviving family members of that era still remember receiving free tickets for their friends.

In a recent anthropological study carried out by Hong Kong University, it was discovered that almost all of the large theatres in Canton (Guangzhou) had been created by merchant families, many of whom originated from Foshan. As theatres, they were used for staging traditional Chinese opera, which was still popular until the 1870s. With the coming of cinema, many of the theatres were converted and the Jin Sheng was the most luxurious of them all. It throws light upon an interesting equation which demonstrates the merchants had a deep sense of culture which, knowing their trading background, seems to have presented a means to further profit.

Wang Hing & Company grew from strength to strength and in the early 1920s it was decided to build a flagship shop in Hong Kong. Zetland House was erected at 10 Queen’s Road, a purpose-built emporium for silverwares, jade, lacquerware and all manner of luxury traditional wares.

The Wang Hing & Company flagship shop in Hong Kong, called Zetland House, was erected at 10 Queen’s Road, a purpose-built emporium for silverwares, jade, lacquerware and all manner of luxury traditional wares.

Here we have a view down the newly fashionable Queen’s Road around the time of the opening of the Wang Hing store. It was in this atmosphere that Wang Hing flourished and the area became the destination of choice for the many Western clubs and institutions and the ubiquitous horse racing, tennis and golf clubs that abounded, providing business to produce silver trophy cups.

It was Lo Hung Tong, one of the three siblings we met before in a previous photo, who ran the emporium and was to be the last chairman of Wang Hing & Company. Wang Hing also opened a sister emporium in Shanghai to cater to the burgeoning international community there.

This rose bowl carries the Wang Hing mark and is decorated with the traditional dragon chasing the flaming pearl motif. It also carries the following inscription: Presented by the Imperial Chinese Government to Capt. A. Sharp U.S.N. in Commemoration of the Visit of the American Fleet to China Amoy, October 1908.

Here we can see the official state luncheon where the rose bowl was presented. The two gentlemen in the foreground turned towards us are Imperial Manchu Prince Yu Lang and Rear Admiral Seaton Schroeder of the United States Navy. Although this particular occasion was special, the fact that a piece of Chinese Export Silver has the capacity to take one on a journey of social history is not unusual; in-point-of-fact, it is extremely common and very much part of the attraction of this silver category.

Not only do we have record of the actually occasion, but we can see the souvenir menus presented to all the attendees—a rather interesting culinary mélange!

Chinese traditional motifs are highly appropriate adornment for trophies and other commemorative items, since they all have a multitude of representational and auspicious meaning. Chinese dragons, for example, traditionally symbolize potent and auspicious powers, particularly control over water, rainfall, hurricane and floods. The dragon is also a symbol of power, strength and good luck. The dragon was symbolic of Imperial power and strength. When combined with traditional Western classical motifs, there is often a recipe for a very powerful combination of symbolism, not to mention a veritable cornucopia of aesthetic delights that Wang Hing seemed to thrive on.

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Here we have Wang Hing & Company at its very best with a superb example of Sino-Victoriana. It is also a superb example of social history of the times and how a retail silversmith in Canton is supplying a major bespoke trophy to the Indian Mercantile Community in Kuala Lumpur. The inscription reads: Selangor Races 1893 Mava Cup, Presented by The Indian Mercantile Community, Won by Romano, Selangor Turf Club.

While still overtly Chinese, the decorative motifs on the presentation cup (above) do also allude to more localized imagery yet skilfully captured on a Western classical form. The general busyness of the decoration is reminiscent of Indian Bhuj silver, highly “colonial” in feeling while still remaining obviously Chinese in origin. This particular trophy recently appeared in auction the America and sold for $38,810. It weighs a hefty 2.4 kilos.

In Hong Kong, Wang Hing thrived for almost 20 years, creating and producing a vast amount of Chinese Export Silver. In 1941, disaster suddenly struck with the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong and, after several bombing raids over an 18-day period—when the Zetland House store was destroyed and the Crown Colony was surrendered to the Japanese forces—the Lo family managed to flee back to mainland China. All the company records and the stock was lost forever, along with almost all of the family mementoes.

Despite the unfortunate end result, Hong Kong was well-prepared for air raids. A network of underground tunnels, the entrances to which are on the right, was made available to the general public.

The sad moment when the Japanese army staged a victory parade down Queen’s Road in December 1941 after the official surrender by the British. Note the absence of Hong Kong people. The road was renamed Meiji-dori in the new regulation to ban all English and Chinese signage. The renowned Peninsula Hotel became the Matsumoto.

For the Lo family, they were back in mainland China. Both Shanghai and Canton had fallen to the Japanese. According to the Japanese, they did not declare war on China and always referred to the war as “The China incident”— a peculiar phrase given that prior to the invasion, the Chinese economy had been at the peak of prosperity and the Japanese immediately strove to reverse that.

A British Shameen Island resident eye-witness wrote after the invasion of Canton: “I rode slowly back to Shameen along familiar streets making a wide detour to see what was happening. It was a sad sight. All shops were closed and shuttered. Everywhere people were madly rushing. There were no vehicles, just people hurrying on foot with what baggage they could carry. There was an atmosphere of fear, an anxiety all around me. People were saying that the Japanese had entered the city and that their tanks had driven along the East Bund and up the central Taiping Road. As I rode along streets near this area they were completely deserted and deathly silent—so different from the noisy, crowded streets of two days before.”

Here we see Canton burning, viewed from the bridge at the Shameen British concession area. For the Lo family, it was to be hard times for four years, as it was for the majority of Chinese under occupation. It took the bombing of Hiroshima to force the surrender of Japan. Wang Hing still existed, but in name only.

Admiral Chan Chak accepting the Japanese instrument of surrender in Canton on Sept. 3, 1945.

The years of unrest in Canton between the departure of the Japanese and the formation of the eventual Peoples’ Republic of China caused the Lo family to disperse. Some returned to Hong Kong, some went to Hangzhou and some stayed in Canton. With the declaration of the Peoples’ Republic, all private companies were nationalized and all the records of private enterprises were seized. This is the day Wang Hing & Company passed into the realms of history, as did many of the retail and manufacturing silversmiths whose names we are now familiar with.

Luckily, so much of their production over the 155-year manufacturing period found its way out of China. Luckily, too, we are just beginning to appreciate how special this silver category is. Here are just a few of the items created by Wang Hing:

A rectangular casket by Wang Hing & Company, circa 1890, raised on scrolling feet with copious repoussé decorative work of coiled dragons breathing flames towards a central cartouche on the lid. The sides bear traditional allegorical scenes depicting figures at leisure—one with a figure riding a stag, another with a figure resting on a table and further figures seated upon rock work before a bamboo cluster within a fenced garden. The interior is parcel gilded.

A superb late 19th-century Chinese Export Silver galleried tray decorated with prunus motif against a textured, cross-hatched ground set around a circular cartouche. The reticulated gallery takes the form of a single, enlarged prunus blossom. The tray sits upon three fluted ball feet.

A stunningly worked card case by Wang Hing & Company, circa 1885, gloriously decorated with this traditional allegorical scene. A gem of a card case.

Lastly, proving that small is beautiful, this circa-1900 cream jug (along with its matching sugar basin, below), are stunning examples of Wang Hing’s creativity and imagination. The insects are actually stylized wasps (féng)—the allegorical combination of wasps with bamboo has the meaning “May you live in abundance.”

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A fitting end to a long-lost master.


“Great works are performed not by strength but by perseverance.”

— Dr. Samuel Johnson, 1709-1784


Thanks: to Danny Cheng in Hong Kong for his translation skills; to Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions, U.K.; AC Silver, Newcastle upon Tyne, U.K.; Skinner Inc, Boston, USA; S&J Stodel, London; Sotheby’s, Paris; Christie’s, South Kensington, London; United States Navy Archive; urbanartantiques.com; Honk Kong Library Archive.

Unless otherwise stated, all images are from the www.chinese-export-silver.com archive.


Adrien von Ferscht is an Honorary Research Fellow at University of Glasgow’s Scottish Centre for China Research, a Fellow for Arts & Culture at the Asia Scotland Institute and works with museums and universities around the world. He is a consultant for Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions and his ever-expanding website, Chinese Export Silver, is the largest online information resource on the subject. His new 250-page Third Edition of the “Collector’s Guide to Chinese Export Silver 1785-1940,” is the largest information reference resource for this unique silver category. The single purchase price acquires the Catalogue plus all subsequent editions free of charge. Adrien also encourages people to share images and ask questions at avf@chinese-export-silver.com“> avf@chinese-export-silver.com.

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One Response to “Wang Hing: Discovering the True Identity of a Silversmithing Genius”

  1. Carol Dargan says:

    Can you show picture of Wang Hing and Co. signage on bottoms of silver items? As in , How to identify?
    Thank you.

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