For most Malaysian Chinese families, the Lunar New Year and other special occasions would not be complete without a serving of candied fruits, nuts, seeds and more on multi-sectioned sweetmeat trays.
Known as chuan hup in Mandarin, or chien hup and chien pua in the Hokkien dialect in Penang, they are believed to have been first used during the later part of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and signify good luck and prosperity.
According to George Town Heritage Hotels (GTHH) founder and lifelong antiques collector Chris Ong, the platters’ name essentially means a complete box or a gathering of various items.
“They gained popularity in the Qing Dynasty during the reign of Emperor Kang Xi (1654-1722) and were used to serve desserts such as fruits and sweets after dinner to guests.
“Originally, they were produced in blue and white porcelain and were round. Later, more colours and more elaborate designs and shapes were introduced as society became more sophisticated.
“Most of them come from Jing De Zhen in China’s Jiangxi Province, which has been the centre of imperial porcelain production since the 10th century, and still is today.
“The number of sections in a chien hup range from three to nine, to distinguish one’s status from commoner to royalty,” explains Ong, 58.
An exhibition of these antique trays was held at the Seven Terraces Hotel in George Town over the last weekend; the event coincided with Heritage Day celebrations marking the ninth anniversary of George Town’s listing as a Unesco (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) World Heritage Site.
Ong contributed 40 pieces from his personal collection to the exhibition, which was held in the reception hall of the heritage boutique hotel located on Stewart Lane.
Displayed on four mother-of-pearl opium beds, the collection included early blue and white porcelain trays dating back to the 1780s, in the time of Emperor Qian Long.
Equally gorgeous were turquoise-coloured, nine-sectioned lotus trays typical of those favoured by aristocrats and nobles starting from the early 1700s in the latter parts of Emperor Kang Xis reign, up to the late 1800s under Emperor Tong Zhi.
There were also wooden and lacquer ones with gilding and Chinoiserie from the era of Britain’s King George III, spanning 1750 to 1820.
Contrasting those were more colourful porcelain trays made between 1820 and 1970 – from the reign of Queen Victoria up to present monarch Queen Elizabeth II. These had intricate motifs of flowers, phoenixes and roosters.
Also displayed were about two dozen kam cheng, or closed vessels, that were an integral part of baba nonya (as Peranakan men and women are respectively called) occasions and ceremonies.
Used to serve tea to one’s elders or bird’s nest soups to new in-laws at wedding ceremonies, their sizes and decorations – like those of the chien hups – were often indicators of a family’s socioeconomic standing.
“These were objects of great desire. I inherited my first one from my grandmother when I was just 15. She in turn got it from a Kapitan Cina many years before.
“It fuelled my passion for collecting antiques, which started when I was just 12. While my friends used their ang pow money to buy various things, I saved it to buy antiques,” reveals Ong.
Despite their great value, he believes in using and sharing these artefacts with the public rather than hiding them away, to keep traditions of the past alive.
“Some of my chien hup were sourced from friends who spoke of how their ancestors in British colonial times would use them to serve various condiments for curry.
“At Seven Terraces today, we use it to serve popiah at Chinese New Year. The various condiments are placed in the different sections so guests can help themselves, as they would have in those bygone days,” he says, adding that, “Our aim is to make Seven Terraces a repository of Peranakan culture, where we can educate and share with visitors, both local and foreign, about the fascinating aspects of the city’s history.”
Heritage conservation is certainly something close to Ong’s heart, for he grew up just down the road in adjoining Muntri Street. He was also schooled at the nearby St Xavier’s Institution.
An investment banker by trade, Ong lived overseas for the better part of three decades before returning to Penang in 2006 to take care of his mother. He did not succeed in buying back his ancestral home along Muntri Street but managed to get one across the street, which he now lives in.
Concerned by the rampant development taking place on the island, Ong began advocating the adaptive reuse of heritage buildings. He restored Clove Hall in 2007, turning it into his first heritage boutique hotel.
In 2009, he purchased what used to be his great-grandfather’s garage, transforming it into the eight-room Muntri Mews. Ong says the structure was used as communal parking for horse carriages and was originally owned by the family of Khoo Sian Ewe (1886-1964), an important George Town landowner.
“The mews was one of only four in Penang. And I ended up owning two,” he says, with the other being Noordin Mews on Noordin Street, though both this and Clove Hall were subsequently sold off.
In 2010, he acquired a row of dilapidated colonial-era shophouses and carefully restored them to their former glory. During the refurbishment, seven of the buildings’ interior courtyards were fused together into one large open space, hence the name Seven Terraces.
A year later, another row of 10 modest houses along Muntri Street was acquired. They were formerly quarters for workers serving families in the area. Following several years of restoration, it opened as the 16-room Muntri Grove.
Another property was transformed by early 2016, the 12-room Jawi Peranakan Mansion on Hutton Lane, to bring the number of establishments under Ong’s GTHH stable presently to four. It also has two food and beverage outlets – the Kebaya Dining Room and Mews Cafe.
Each property preserves the grandeur of Penang’s golden age, highlighting period architecture alongside a well-curated assortment of interior furnishings and embellishments.
Ong considers it all a labour of love, explaining: “I was brought up by my maternal grandmother and she loved telling stories. I lived in her world, the heyday of Peranakan culture in the 1920s, and am now trying to recreate it.”