A love for historic treasures
Anything that dates back to 1911, the year that the Republic of China was established and when China’s last imperial dynasty, Qing dynasty (1644-1911), came to an end, is of interest to antique collector Qin Tongqian.
For almost 30 years, the 51- year- old businessman has been collecting parts of ancient Chinese homes and storing them in a large warehouse in his hometown, located in the outskirts of Shaoxing, Zhejiang province.
Inside this warehouse are pillars, doors, window frames, roof tiles and corbels, all of which come in wooden, brick and stone versions. Most of them have been salvaged from scrapyards while others were purchased for exorbitant prices from fellow collectors and original owners.
Experts from the antique collecting market say that Qin’s collection is so expansive — they estimate that there are more than 300 old houses and 10,000 pieces of furniture — that the warehouse is akin to five museums.
But none of the items contained within are for sale. Instead, Qin describes them as “comfort food for a homesick soul”. He says that his love for ancient paraphernalia is akin to a woman’s love for high heels and bags, or a man’s obsession with cars and sports.
Born and raised in Shaoxing, Qin is a high-school dropout who made his fortune building gardens in villas occupied by expats during the 1980s. His interest in antiques was piqued in 1988 when he was captivated with how refined the workmanship was for a set of old but charming Chinese furniture in the home of one of his foreign clients. Before long, Qin found himself spending millions of yuan on such antiques.
Qin is not alone in this niche but vibrant industry. Yiwu in Zhejiang province is known as the hotbed for such hobbyists, most of whom belong to the nouveau rich crowd, as it is located close to Dongyang, a famous town where the best and most expensive wood carvings are produced.
The collectors from Zhejiang, whom local middlemen call the “big bosses”, hold onto the largest share of the market for such antique homes. They are also believed to be the last batch of collectors who have access to these discarded homes.
Collectors can engage various services to search for their perfect old homes and there are also special real-estate agents who work in this particular field. Customers can even engage after-sales services that reassemble and restore these decrepit buildings to their former glory.
What differentiates Qin from other collectors, many of whom are coy about showing off their collections as they fear it will reveal the extent of their wealth, is the decision to have his collections made available to the public, though people may not necessarily be able to buy his prized antiques.
In collaboration with the highly acclaimed luxury hotel group Aman Resorts, Qin showcases the old homes in his collection in an Ahn Luh Resorts luxury development in Zhujiajiao, a water town in the outskirts of Shanghai.
“The antique houses only become animated when there are human beings living within, or more transcendentally, communicating with them,” said Qin, about his motivation to make the homes in his collection available to the public.
“These resorts will be like theme parks for antiqueaholics like me to sleep, eat and spend time the way our ancestors did. Just like my love for collecting antiques, these resort projects are not about making money.”
Qin Tongqian has spent millions on his hobby of collecting old homes across China.