Crabs, Mooncakes and some Special Antiques
I just have time to update the blog while enjoying a couple of ‘mooncakes’ given to me by the lady how owns one of the antique warehouses I visited earlier. Today is the mid-Autumn festival in China, a public holiday (though thankfully for me one that doesn’t stop the furniture workshops going about their business) that is also referred to as the ‘Mooncake Festival’ due to the tradition of eating and buying as gifts these little round, sweet buns that represent unity. Made from flour, water, peanuts and sesame seeds, they seem to be more important as a symbol than as a tasty treat. I’m sure millions must get thrown away the day after the festival but I’ll do my best to make sure mine don’t go to waste!
I spent Monday – my last full day in Shanghai – with Michael, the manager of our workshop here, going through details of our latest container due in the UK in a few weeks and discussing some future developments. We visited the workshop, located on the outskirts of the city, where it was good to meet up again with the production team and to see some of the latest designs and pieces that they have been producing. Like most furniture manufacturers, the workshop in Shanghai is increasingly gearing up to cater for the rapidly growing Chinese market as well as producing Shimu’s range of classical Chinese furniture. Products for the domestic market include pieces that are similar to our own designs, but they have also been developing a more western style range – also made from reclaimed elm – that they are starting to have some success with in and around Shanghai.
In the evening we met up with Mr Zhang – owner of the workshop and a man I have known now for over ten years. Whilst he now has less to do with the furniture business on a day to day basis, it is still always great to see him on my visits to Shanghai. His English is at about the same standard as my Chinese, and as we normally meet these days over dinner we spend a good majority of our time together with few words spoken, clinking glasses and grinning at each other while we tuck into various local delicacies – hairy crab, fried frog and many other dishes that I usually eat first and ask about later.
On Tuesday after a final meeting with Michael I took the short flight to Beijing and the following day met up with one of my contacts here to head off to a couple of Chinese antique suppliers. These were two that I have visited before but only in recent years and, whilst I don’t tend to buy large quantities from them, they always seem to have a few items that are interesting or unusual. As well as a small, good quality collection of antiques, one of these two is also producing some nice reproduction furniture or ‘re-edition’ as they call it here –essentially new furniture made from old and with a completely new finish. This particular workshop’s pieces are largely based on old Gansu cabinets, but given a fresh twist using interesting colours and patterns, often with traditional paintings on the doors or drawers. We bought some of these pieces recently and shipped them with our last container of antiques and have just finished photographing them. They should be up on our website in the next few weeks, so take a look then (or see a sneak preview first on our Facebook page as we’ll post pictures there first).
After a dozen or so trips to Beijing visiting many different antique warehouses, each with their own variation in terms of the quality of restoration and finish and regional speciality, I tend to buy most antiques nowadays from one or two main suppliers. Having dealt with them for several years I know that, whilst their prices may not be the cheapest, the quality and range of their furniture is pretty much unrivalled in Beijing. Two in particular provide most of the antique pieces on our website, including the ‘China Stock’ antiques that we only ship when ordered. I saw one of these on Thursday and, amongst other items, picked up some now quite rare Mongolian trunks and a large Mongolian sideboard, as well as an extremely old and unusual temple cabinet from central Shaanxi province. It will be a while before these are up on our website as they need to be photographed first, but if you are looking for something that will be a good investment as well as a beautiful statement piece of furniture then the temple cabinet could be for you.
Yulin Painted Cabinet
I saw one other very special item on Wednesday with a price tag to match – a cool 100,000 RMB (around £10,000). At first glance I thought this large sideboard was from Mongolia as the style and the colours used are typical of Mongolian furniture. In fact it originates from the city of Yulin in the far north of Shaanxi province in central China, right on the border with Mongolia. Two things in particular give this away. Firstly, the heavy relief carvings on the two central drawers are typical of the ornate carved style of Shaanxi furniture and depict the mythical Chinese unicorn (Qilin). Secondly, the paintings on the three doors are definitely Chinese in style. Mongolian paintings tend to show flowers or valuable artefacts belonging to the owner, but these depict characters in the Chinese dress of the time along with architecture that is typically Chinese. Whilst the cabinet is not in an entirely original condition (at least the central door and probably all three have been added at some point by cutting the original fixed panels), it is still a very rare item in an unusual style and in excellent condition. Unfortunately even 100,000 RMB may not secure it for you as the warehouse owner told me that his father (now retired after passing the business on to his son) has decided to keep it for himself.
I’ll be spending the next couple of days sourcing more antiques, including some pieces that I hope can match the special requests of several of our customers, before heading to the main market in Beijing on Sunday to pick out some smaller accessories to ship alongside them. More to follow soon.