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Saturday March 14, 2009

Passion for Nonya ware

Collector Datin Seri Kee Ming Yuet’s enduring passion for Straits Chinese porcelain spans 40 years and has spawned two books in her name.

The latest book, Peranakan Chinese Porcelain — Vibrant Festive Ware of the Straits Chinese (2009), published by the Periplus Publishing Group, has again stirred the imagination of collectors as to the classification of such collectibles.

“Periplus was interested in doing a new book on my collection,” says Kee when asked why she decided to do another book focusing mainly on her own porcelain collection.

“The new pictures are more detailed. There have also been requests that I should have elaborated on the reign marks and factory marks found on the bottom of the porcelain featured in the first book.

“Although I do read some Chinese, it was my husband, Datuk Seri Kee Yong Wee who helped me to decipher the rare markings. Markings such as Yiyiyuan and Dangchaojipin, which refer to the names of the ceramic artists, are quite rare.

“Also, we have enlarged the details, such as the Eight Buddhist symbols and border patterns typically found on such porcelain. The first book has only 150 pictures, whereas the new book has over 800 images. The first book is more on glamour while the second book is better researched,” Kee sums up.

Datin Seri Kee Ming Yuet with her new book, Peranakan Chinese Porcelain-Vibrant Festive Ware of the Straits Chinese.

Straits Chinese porcelain, or more popularly known as Nonya ware (also spelt as Nyonya ware), is widely collected by Malaysians, Singaporeans and expatriates who consider the famille rose porcelain beautiful and representative of a great culture.

Such porcelain were made in China in the late 19th and early 20th century specifically for the Straits Chinese or Peranakan communities on both sides of the Straits of Malacca. In Malaya during the colonial era, the Peranakan were principally found in Malacca, Penang and Singapore.

“Not all the porcelain pieces featured in the book belong to me. I wanted to show as wide a range as possible. Things that I don’t have, like the covered jar or katmau with a lotus-pod finial, belong to Singaporean collector Eric Tay. I’m very glad to have such contributions from those who came forward.

“After all, knowledge is to be shared,” says Kee, who started collecting during the 60s.

“The book is to record the unique heritage of the Baba Nyonya people. It is not an opportunity that is easy to come by. It became so intense for me, telephoning people and pleading with them. There were people whom I approached who didn’t want to co-operate. I just had to accept that. Some people can be so narrow-minded. They said, ‘Why put my things in your book?’

“But I did get help from other collectors who willingly sent me pictures of their rare items. To get all the necessary photographs proved to be tough. It took so much of my time.

“I had to re-use some of the group pictures featured in the previous book because I didn’t want to reassemble my porcelain for group shots. They are too fragile to handle and there might be accidents.

“I didn’t want to think of difficulties or obstacles in doing this book. It would have been too intimidating. I only thought about nice things like (how it would be like) when the book is finally published.”

“I hope this book will go round the world to inspire others to know more about our Malaysian heritage,” concludes Kee.

o The author will give a slide presentation on Chinese Peranakan Porcelain on March 20 at 8pm at Central Market, KL. It is open to the public with a donation of RM40 per person to the Southeast Asian Ceramic Society, West Malaysia Chapter. Nonya ware can be brought for identification. Tel: +6-019-6620979.

Defining desirable porcelain

Straits Chinese Porcelain or Nonya ware is a difficult subject to research and write. There is very little documented history on the production of such porcelain during the late 19th and early 20th century.

After all, they were wares meant specifically for the small South-East Asian market; hardly the stuff that scholars and the elite Chinese would use, let alone collect.

To modern-day collectors of Chinese ceramics, Nonya ware are categorised under the famille rose porcelain group. They were mere household objects for ceremonial and utilitarian functions. But for the Baba and Nyonya community that prized them for their ostentatious colours and motifs, such wares came to represent their peculiar taste and culture.

Datin Seri Kee Ming Yuet’s new book, Peranakan Chinese Porcelain, is certainly commendable. This is the fourth publication “documenting” Nonya ware in the market. For the average collector, the book is a perfect reference to get started on the general motifs and colours that “define” Nonya ware compared to other types of famille rose porcelain.

Generally, the background stories here cover almost every major aspect of the heyday of the Baba Nyonya community. While some may find this superfluous, the ideas presented give a grounding as to why the Baba Nyonya community preferred such wares.

Serious collectors and old hands, though, will quibble about the descriptions of certain items in the book. The vase on page 230, although safely described as “prelude to Nonya ware”, is not the real McCoy. Neither is the washbasin on page 219 and several other items. But the writer is careful enough to describe some of the less definitive Nonya ware items as from the “Tongzhi period”. Compared to her first book, Kee is more careful here in distinguishing what is Nonya ware and what were the wares found in a Straits Chinese home. In Chapter Six, she has avoided the mistake in her first book, by putting coral ground wares under “Other Export Wares in Peranakan Homes”.

While the average reader will find the pictures of the Nonya ware items brilliantly photographed, one major collector complained that the colour separation process was pretty bad. He listed 23 pages of images as needing correction.

The major flaws include the pink spittoon on page 225, the powder boxes on page 222, and the hair oil pot on page 223, where what should have been green turned out blue!

That some of the pictures used here have been used before in a previous book by Kee only gives rise to the impression that the book is a re-hash. If one is already taking so much trouble to invest time and money into publishing a new book, then one really shouldn’t be re-useing old photographs from a similar book.

However, since it’s becoming harder to collect good specimens of Nonya ware, fans will find this book useful in providing insight into the items prized by today’s collectors and what they consider to be rare and desirable.

This book, which costs RM225 a copy, will certainly inspire other passionate collectors to come up with their own publications. There are certainly more grounds to be covered. But will any major publisher take them on?

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