Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Tips on Collecting Nyonyaware

The Nyonyaware dining set commissioned for the wedding of a wealthy Malaccan nyonya to Kapitan Yap Ah Loy. This priceless collection is now in Singapore including the dining table and chairs.
Ceramics made for the Baba Nyonya of the 19th & early 20th centuries, continue to draw intense interest from antique collectors in Malaysia and Singapore with one Penang collector purportedly paying over RM60,000 for a lidded pot recently.

It wasn’t any old pot but a green-coloured kamcheng with a 13-inch diameter rim. One which you can put a-year-old baby in it. There are no known antique kamchengs larger than that size other than reproductions.

Popularly known as Nyonyaware or Straits Chinese porcelain, such ceramics are still highly sought-after and have caused intense rivalry among collectors, especially in Singapore.

Among the top collectors of Nyonyaware on both sides of the Causeway, is retired Singaporean academician Eric Tay, 67. He will give a lecture and workshop on identifying and collecting Nyonyaware on Oct 7 from 2pm-6pm at the Central Market, Kuala Lumpur. The event is organised by the Southeast Asian Ceramic Society, West Malaysia Chapter.

Tay taught fine arts as well as textile design and graphic art before retiring in 2000 from the Institute of Technical Education in Singapore. Since his retirement, Tay has devoted his time to studying and collecting Nyonyaware.

Some of Eric Tay's prized Nyonyaware are kept in an elaborate Baba Nyonya brown-and-gold antique cabinet.

In his pursuit, Tay has focused on collecting the rarest specimens in terms of colour, size and shape.

Says Tay: “I started collecting Nyonyaware in 1990 mainly bowls, plates, spoons, flower vases and tea cups. It was cheaper for beginners to buy at that time. I also had some bowls and plates from my family. My paternal grandmother was Peranakan but my grandfather was from China. My maternal grandparents were from Siak, north Sumatra.

“The first item purchased was an eight-inch diameter white plate with a standing phoenix motif with a pink border. The asking price was S$900 (about RM2,100) but I bargained it down to S$500 (aboutRM1,200). Today the piece would fetch about the same price as I had over-paid.”

Since then, Tay has been buying more Nyonyaware. He has amassed about 250 pieces comprising kitchen wares, ceremonial and religious items as well as articles of leisure. They include bowls, plates, kamchengs (lidded pots), chupus (covered jars), teapots, tea trays, cosmetic boxes, condiment dishes, vases and flower pots, tiffin-carriers, finger bowls, spittoons, joss-stick holders, cricket and soap boxes.

Although a seasoned collector, restraint is sometimes not Tay’s strongest point.

“When negotiating a sale, I normally buy up the whole lot, as I have better bargaining power,” rationalises the avid collector. “I keep the desired pieces and sell off the rest at 10% to 15% more to recover part of my cost.”

And the enteprising man has quite a few favourite pieces. For example, a coral red kamcheng, turquoise-coloured floral tiffin-carrier, olive-coloured joss-stick holder, a chupu with motifs painted inside as well as on the exterior.

The first item purchased by Eric was an eight-inch diameter white plate decorated with a standing phoenix motif and a pink border.
Rare mirror-image pair

“The most expensive items would be a pair of ‘mirror-image’ 11½ -inch peppermint-green squat kamcheng with phoenix and peony motifs on the lid and body,” answered Tay proudly. But he declined to divulge how much he paid.

“Collectors normally source Nyonyaware through friends and runners or from garage sales, supermarket notices, newspaper classified advertisements and antique shops. But shops specialising in Peranakan items are rather limited, whether in Singapore or Penang.

“Previously, Christie’s, Glerum, Bonhams as well as local auctioneers held Nyonyaware auctions. But due to the increasing scarcity and the appearance of reproductions being passed off as genuine items, such auctions have ceased.”


Besides poking around for Nyonyaware in his native Singapore as well as the usual hunting grounds of Malacca and Penang, Tay bought such ceramics in Australia and London.

“When my contacts call to inform me of any availability, I will be there as soon as I can take off. There were occasions when I travelled to Malaysia three times a month but not all visits were fruitful. There have been periods where nothing is available for two to three months.

When negotiating a sale, I normally buy up the whole lot, says Eric. He recently bought several hundred porcelain spoons just to get at several with rare designs.
“Every telephone call is an adventure. The items may turn out to be beautiful, rare and unusual or mundane. I have learnt not to anticipate anything. With Nyonyaware, it doesn’t mean that with money, one can go out to buy what is desired. Alternatively, one can be surprised and rewarded when unexpectedly something beautiful and rare crops up at a reasonable price.

“I do not have in mind any ultimate Nyonyaware to collect. I leave it to luck.”


When buying Nyonyaware, Tay’s decision is based on the following criteria:

· Quality of porcelain or glaze

· Finesse of the motifs

· Condition

· Shop marks & “reign” seal marks

· Colour: clarity, brilliance and intensity

· Rarity

· Price

A reproduction Nyonyaware that can be passed off as an antique to novice collectors.
· Reproduction or “recycled” porcelain

Tay points out that due to the scarcity of Nyonyaware in the market, unscrupluous vendors have been sending Chinese ceramics of the early 20th Century to be painted over in Nyonyaware colours and re-fired in China. Unsuspecting collectors have been fooled.

The best places to view Nyonyaware in Singapore and Malaysia:

· Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore

· Penang State Museum

· Muzium Negara, KL (limited items)

· Antique shops in Malacca (limited range & mundane items)

In his talk on collecting Nyonyaware, Tay will focus on:

· Definition of the Peranakans and Nyonyaware

Fake Nyonyaware: (Left) A miniature indigo-blue kamcheng that has been re-painted and re-fired in China. (Right) The original white kamcheng before the faking process.
· Usage of Nyonyaware

· Design motifs & symbolism

· Colour significance

· Standard design format on Nyonyaware

· Design adaptation from Chinese ceramics

· Anatomy (parts) of Nyonyaware

· Common Nyonyaware & commissioned items

· Reproduction & recycled “Nyonyaware”

Participants may bring as many Nyonyaware items for identification. Those who have over-sized items can arrange for a visit to their homes.

Exacting standards of the Baba Nyonya

Nyonyaware which is also known as “Straits Chinese porcelain” refer to a unique type of ceramics made in the 19th Century and early 20th Century in China for the Southeast Asian market.

For a glimpse into the world of the Baba Nyonya in their heyday, refer to the publication, "The Straits Chinese House, Domestic Life And Traditions" by Peter Lee & Jennifer Chen.
They were meant for export specifically to the Baba Nyonya or Straits Chinese of Penang, Malacca and Singapore as well as similar communities in Indonesia. As traders, merchants and entreprenuers, the Baba Nyonya in Malacca became very wealthy by the 19th Century. In fact, they financed or lent money for the development of Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

The origins of the Baba Nyonya can be traced to the common practice of intermarriage between immigrant Chinese men and local women on both sides of the Straits of Malacca. The exact origin of the community has yet to be determined by historians.

Politically correct

But by the time of the formation of the Straits Settlements in 1826, this unique group of people whose mother tongue was Malay but culturally Chinese, were commonly referred to as “Straits Chinese” or “Peranakan” (local-born). These “Straits-born” Chinese distinguished themselves from the newly-arrived Chinese labourers or “sinkehs” at the time. (Nowadays, such terms have become anachronistic because the Straits Settlements ceased to exist after 1946 and everyone born on this side of the Straits of Malacca are all Straits-born. The politically-correct term of reference for the Straits Chinese today is Baba Nyonya.)

By the turn of the 20th Century, due to their accumulated wealth and means to an education, the offspring of the merchants later became part of the British Colonial administration and gained greater status as social elites. Even before that, with their money, they distinguished themselves in the development of a highly refined culture. That gave rise to exacting standards in their lifestyle. Such standards dictated that even their cuisine, their crockery and their embroidery must conform to the concept of refinement or “halus”.

Technically, their preferred type of crockery – what is now known as Nyonyaware – were quite difficult to make in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century. Wood-fired kilns depended heavily on the skills of artisans. The firing process of the ceramics in the preferred colour combinations such as green, blue, yellow, brown, orange, red, pink and even lilac or mauve, required technical finesse. The rendering of the motifs too, required the steady hand and artistic eye of a skilled artisan. To this day, collectors would pay much more for a technically superior piece fired in a rare colour. But there are Nyonyaware with sloppy motifs and colours that seem to “run”. Generally, Nyonyaware were made with vibrant colours and were decorated with exotic motifs, usually dominated by the mythical phoenix depicted against rockery and peony.

Eric's collection is focused on rarity, size, shape and intensity of the colours as well as finesse of the motifs.

Although the product of a bygone era, these objects reflect the rich legacy of the vanishing Baba Nyonya culture of Malaysia and Singapore. Such ceramics range in price for about RM100 for a tiny saucer to tens of thousands for a large lidded pot or kamcheng.

Besides significant collections in Muzium Negara (National Museum) in Kuala Lumpur and the Penang State Museum, important collections have ended up in Singapore. Some years ago, the Asian Civilisations Museum I at Armenian Street (closed for renovations indefinitely) showcased a grand exhibition of Nyonyaware. That exhibition included the dining set commissioned for the wedding of a wealthy Malacca nyonya (lady) to Kapitan Yap Ah Loy, the man who developed Kuala Lumpur in the mid-19th Century.


According to Nyonyaware expert Eric Tay, the best definition of the ceramics, is found in the 1981 publication by the Southeast Asian Ceramic Society, West Malaysia Chapter, entitled Nonya ware and Kitchen Ch'ing.

Explains Tay: “It is difficult and unwise to be overly specific in defining Nyonyaware. Items which do not conform to the standard design genre or format are surfacing from time to time. These are specially commissioned pieces by the Peranakans and manufactured in the United Kingdom and Europe. In my talk, I will touch on these pieces, with examples. One must be open-minded through research, discussions and investigation to define Nyonyaware.

One of the most desired colours of Nyonyaware is pink or the different shades of it - ranging from mauve to salmon-pink. Large kamcheng exhibited at the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore.
“Sadly, most collectors today will only define Nyonyaware as those pieces they have encountered in antique shops, in friends’ homes or in their own family collection. Specially commissioned pieces according to specific design layout, colour scheme and motifs by wealthy and notable families of a bygone era are seldom seen as they form family heirlooms. But they are still considered Nyonyaware.”

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