Sweet ob­jects of de­sire

Bring­ing to life grand Per­anakan cul­ture.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Living - By JEREMY TAN star2@thes­tar.com.my

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 in­teri em­bel­lish­ments.

Ong con­sid­ers it a ex­plain­ing: “I was b ma­ter­nal grand­mot ing sto­ries. I lived in day of Per­anakan c and am now try­ing

The ex­te­rior of the Seven Ter­races. Seven shop­houses were con­verted into a struc­ture that care­fully pre­serves h and out. — Filepic

Blue and white porce­lain sweet meat trays span­ning two cen­turies from the reign of the Kang Xi em­peror to the time of Deng Xiaopin ex­hi­bi­tion. — JEREMY TAN

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