Floral Tours De Force: Wang Hing’s Chinese Export Silver


The object in question is a superb bowl made by Wang Hing in the form of an open cinquefoil prunus blossom flower head that has beautifully crafted prunus blossom tendrils entwining the main exterior body and also forming the feet. The bowl interior is parcel gilded.

I have decided I must be a very privileged person. Not only am I constantly viewing outstanding items of silver as my academic research progresses at a pace, but I get to see so many spectacular examples of Chinese Export Silver that people from all around the world share with me. The latter phenomenon has become one of my main sources of new information and I often find it acts as a catalyst for tangential research that leads to stunning discoveries.

Probably the most prolific Chinese Export Silver maker was Wang Hing. As with the majority of Chinese silversmiths of this period, Wang Hing was a fictitious name designed to be auspicious—a good omen fronting the production. The fact a silversmith was prolific could often be a recipe for mediocrity; this is not the case with Wang Hing. It is true there were many items produced under his maker’s mark that were probably part of what we might think of as a diffusion line in today’s marketplace, but there were also so many pieces produced that display astounding workmanship. These were often personalized items for clients who were obviously connoisseurs of quality.

One such item was shared with me last week and, when I opened the image files, all I could muster was “wow!” A colleague at the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore was the messenger of these good tidings; the object, however, sits proudly in a London gallery in St. James’.

The object in question is a superb bowl in the form of an open cinquefoil prunus blossom flower head that has beautifully crafted prunus blossom tendrils entwining the main exterior body and also forming the feet. The bowl interior is parcel gilded.

Wang Hing operated between 1854-1925 at Zetland House, 10 Queen’s Road, Hong Kong, as well as at 1 Sai Street, Canton, and in Shanghai. I would date this piece circa 1885-1890, based upon the quality of the item, its detailing and the form the maker’s mark takes. It is a relatively small object but it is a huge tour de force of the art of Chinese silversmithing.

Small items of Chinese Export Silver are often pure gems, and floral motifs are often the vehicle that helps make them so.

A small, swing-handle sweetmeat basket by the Chinese Export Silver maker Tuck Chang & Company, Ltd., of 67 Broadway, Shanghai, circa 1890. It is superbly created with a mélange motif of chrysanthemum blooms and foliage. Tuck Chang operated between 1890-1915 and, although he was in business for just 25 years, he was also a prolific maker of quality items.

Following the floral theme, here is a highly unusual candlestick by the Canton maker Cum Shing. Made circa 1880, it is modeled as three lotus flowers, the central stem forming the sconce with foliate detailing attached to a domed base with an engraved traditional wave motif—the whole attached to a carved wooden base.

This is a circa-1870 goblet by the Hong Kong Chinese Export Silver maker Leeching. Goblets were a favorite with Chinese silversmiths to display both their expertise and their imagination. Invariably, foliage was the medium they chose. This piece has the highly polished cup resting in a basket of reticulated bamboo leaves that are attached to a faux bamboo stem that spreads its roots in an embossed motif on the base. It is a remarkable piece.

Reticulated silver is something at which the Chinese Export Silversmiths excelled; it was a medium that well suits the intricate classic traditional foliate and blossom motifs, as this stunning bowl by Wang Hing demonstrates. The stunning and intricate iris blooms and foliage form the open cagework and irregular naturalistic rim.

Again by Wang Hing, this circa-1895 bonbon dish is formed of six reticulated lobes around a central plain circular polished bowl. There are three motif panels repeated twice on the bowl of iris, prunus and bamboo. The rim is cleverly formed in the shape of a lotus flower. The whole is sitting on three ball feet.

The master, Wang Hing himself, excels yet again with this circa-1880 bonbon dish of 12 segmented panels with alternating reticulated foliate motifs of bamboo, prunus and chrysanthemum—again resting upon three ball feet.

All of the items pictured above are outstanding examples of the extraordinary artistry and skill of the Chinese Export Silver makers. A picture is gradually emerging from my research that, unlike contemporary silversmiths in Europe and America, Chinese workshops were run on a totally different scale and employed what can best be described as a production-line model; a series of expert and master silversmiths, each carrying out their particular expertise to an article under the watchful eye of the person in charge of the object—that person’s name usually being represented by the Chinese character chopmark. When I envision the backstreets and alleys of old Canton and Shanghai, I see a maze of industrious silver workshops and the noise of hammer against silver; a hive of industry.

This chopmark is from the Wang Hing dish above. In addition to the Wang Hing “WH” mark, the Chinese character mark tells us that Zao Ji was the silversmith in charge of this particular piece.

Canton itself in the 1830s and ’40s was a seething hotbed of cultural and commercial competition during the period of the Opium Wars. Bounded to the south by the Pearl River and cut off from the general population by the city’s sizable and well-guarded walls, the claustrophobic foreign factory sector of Canton was small enough to be measured in footsteps: 270 paces from one end to the other along the riverfront and a mere 50 from the shore to the shops and factories, or “hongs,” as they were called. On this tiny strip of land, all of the vast amount trade between China and the West was carried out. This was a commercial ghetto. Artisans, merchants and the general populace went about their daily business in the narrow crowded streets as they had done for centuries. Rickshaws and “chair” carriers plied their trade in the cramped streets while passenger vessels, junks, sampans and houseboats crowded together in the Pearl River and adjoining canals.

Here, in this extract from a 19th-century traveler’s journal, we encounter for the first time what we have come to think of as a well-known silversmith, whose name is probably fictitious and a name that fronts a retail store, specializing in silver, among other luxury export commodities—one of the many emporia that existed in Shanghai and Hong Kong:

Queen’s Road, Hong Kong, circa 1865, from a chromolithograph after a drawing by Eduard Hildebrandt.

“The Chinese are admittedly clever craftsmen, and the silver-ware which they manufacture is very popular with collectors of Eastern curios and souvenirs, by reason of its quaint beauty. Among the leading gold and silver smiths in Shanghai are Messrs. Hung Chong & Co., who deal largely, also, in blackwood furniture, embroideries, silk piece goods, &c. Their premises at No. 11B, Nanking Road, always present a very attractive appearance. The business was established in 1892 by Mr. Fok Ying Chu who sold it in 1906 to the present proprietor, Mr. Sum Luen-sing. The large trade now carried on necessitates the employment of fourteen assistants and forty workmen. Mr. Sum Luen-sing is the son of Mr. Sum Cheuk Sing, and was born in Macao in 1871. He studied English in Shanghai, and at the age of sixteen joined the ‘Limpu’ line of steamers. Alter remaining in this employment for three years, he obtained a post with the ‘Kangyue’ line. He joined Hung Chong & Co., as an assistant, in 1892. He is married, and has one son and daughter.”

With only a few travelers’ journals as the main source of information on what we have come to regard as master silversmiths of the Chinese Export Silver period, it is actually difficult to fathom whether they were silversmiths who diversified into wider commerce or retailers who specialized in silver. It is equally difficult to fathom whether the actual writers of these journals were writing through somewhat rose-colored glasses and failed to penetrate the other-worldliness of Chinese culture and the Chinese concept of doing business. Hung Chong is a good example—we would tend to regard the name as being synonymous with fine silver, yet journals of the time paint a picture of a general emporium that was founded by Fok Sing Chu—so who or what was Hung Chong remains somewhat of a mystery. But the proof is in the eating and we know today that Hung Chong silver was consistently a high-quality manufactory.

New China Street, Canton 1836-1837, by Auvergne; lithograph by Bichebois, National Library of Australia.

We now have a really fascinating, witty and in-depth look into the world of the Hong Kong-based Chinese Export Silver maker Lee Ching (Leeching), who operated from 24a Queen’s Road and who is generally believed to have manufactured between 1840 and 1880. We look at Leeching silver today and classify it as of high quality and workmanship. For years, we have also regarded Leeching as an actual person—he being the master silversmith. The following shows us a very different reality. These are excerpts from an article written in The China Magazine in 1868. It gives us a wonderful insight into the canny ways of the Chinese silversmiths and retailers in Canton at the time (the spelling and punctuation is that of the original text):

”Like the Silversmiths in other climes, our Chinese Silversmith is highly respectable and does his business in a highly respectable shop. His shop looks supremely down upon all other China shops, through a glass window. As a rule there are no glass windows to China shops—nothing but an opening, but our Silversmiths wares are valuable, and Chinese thieves have a clever knack of hooking things on to the end of a long bamboo and disappearing with them, and Lee-ching’s glass window is intended to keep temptation from such people. There is nothing in the window—no recherche articles displayed to the best advantage, with seductive price tickets loaded with superlative adjectives. If you want to see Lee-ching’s wares you must go inside the shop. Inside we go. The shop may be twenty feet deep by ten or twelve feet wide, and the walls are lined with severely respectable blackwood cabinets ornamented with gilt scrolls, and having glazed doors. The effect of these cabinets, seen in the dim religious light which pervades the shop, is sombre.

“Chin chin!” says Lee-ching, under the impression that ‘chin chin’ is English for “the top of the morning to you.” When I say Lee-ching I mean one of the shopmen, any of whom will tell you that his name is Lee-ching, that that is his shop, and that he made all the things in it, whereas Lee-ching is not a man’s name at all, any more than Great Western Railway Company is a man’s name. It is what, in Chino-English, is called the Shop name. Chinese Shop names, as a rule, give no clue whatever to the kind of business done; they are usually something nice, some fanciful idea, some moral precept.

When A Sing, A Lee and A Tsun set themselves up in business, they do not style themselves A Sing & Co, but the “House of Benevolence and Love” the “Hall of dazzling Light” the “Four points of the Compass” or some such name. Lee-ching means, Increasing profit. Fancy Harry Emanuel calling himself “A hundred per cent,” or Swan and Edgar in London advertising their business as “The Hall of domestic Felicity”! A Chinaman who could read English would discover a parallel to the custom of his own countrymen in the advertisements headed “Why give more” “Beautiful for ever” and “Do you bruise your Oats?” which expressions he would be sure to regard as Shop-names. I scarcely think these Shop-names should be regarded as the ‘style or firm’ under which the partners carry on their business. It would seem to me to be a more exact parallel to call the Shop-name the sign of tlte house. As Will Watkyns of the old time, carried on his furriers business at the sign of the Golden horse shoe, so A Sing and A Tsun of today carry on their business at the sign of “Increasing profit.”

It’s a whole other world; a world teeming with industry being carried out by highly industrious and skillful artisans; a world driven by a whole other culture to that of the West. As for the world of the Chinese silversmiths, it was a world built upon more than 1,000 years of fine silvermaking. That is exactly why Chinese Export Silver needs to be recognized as the highly significant silver category it is.

Acknowledgments to: Danny Cheng in Hong Kong for his translation skills; to Brandt Asian Art in London; and Benjamin Chiesa at the Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore.

Adrien von Ferscht is an Honorary Research Fellow at University of Glasgow’s Scottish Centre for China Research and also works with museums and universities around the world. His ever-expanding website, Chinese Export Silver, is the largest online information resource on the subject. Adrien recently released “Catalogue of Chinese Export Makers’ Marks,” the largest reference work for makers’ marks ever published. You can e-mail Adrien at avf@chinese-export-silver.com.

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