Over the years, having spent a fair amount of time in and out of Hong Kong, it suddenly dawned on me that (up until now), this famous Hong Kong antiques street in Central, has yet to be mentioned here. Adding insult to injury, is that fact that for many years, upon my arrival in Hong Kong, I would make a beeline for this street – usually within the first day or so. For those unfamiliar with Hollywood Road (easily reached via the Central-Mid-levels escalator), this long, narrow winding street initially gained its reputation as an antiques market over a hundred or so years prior, when sailors and traders began to sell antiques and artifacts here which were collected during trips into the mainland China. Today, Hollywood Road (and the streets branching off from it) is littered with small galleries, boutiques and shops selling trinkets, antiques, Chinese reproduction furniture and even contemporary Chinese art. Its even reputed to be a gateway for smuggled antiquities from China. Though these days, I frequent the street less and less, I still find myself drawn to it from time to time, if only just to appreciate the wide variety of items on display here, often in very attractive surroundings.
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Many of the shops here seem focused on porcelain, pottery and terra cotta – with furniture coming in a close second in the remaining boutiques. Finally, a few smaller nooks and crannies deal in the range of tourist trinkets from calligraphy brushes to Maoist memorabilia, to imitation jade figurines. Thick lacquers, glossy finishes and a distinctly southern Chinese red, black and gold themes are everywhere. Table lamps made from deep sea green ceramics are if anything both stylish and contemporary. Shop owners are a mix of feigned politeness to genuinely interesting to locals who seemed to pride themselves on rudeness. Surprisingly often the most interesting and pleasant conversations can be had not with shop owners but basic employees who, free from the pressure of having to “make a sale” chat freely about what little they may or may not know about the item and or its history.
A bit of ancient, a bit of old, and plenty of “just made yesterday.”
As is throughout much of this industry, “old” is a term used freely, and taken with a grain of salt, this may mean anything from “just made yesterday” to hundreds of years old. Some are forthright, though unfortunately, some sellers can be downright unscrupulous. When asked “how to tell if its old or not” one seller of “authentic Tibetan antiques” smiled and gave me the following response:
“If you study these things and understand the product and the industry you will know just by looking at the piece. But if not, then you really need to just trust me on this. See if the piece “speaks to you or not” and go with what your true feelings tell you.
Now this is starting to sound all too familiar. There were some pieces in the shop that were indeed antique, but having sold the same reproduction Tibetan sideboard many times over right down to the same coloration and motif, this piece was definately talking to me and it was screaming “bullsh*t!” Nevertheless, this line must work for them, as a two 40ish western women were in the process of deciding which cabinet they would purchase for their home (at a mere bargain price of 80,000 Hong Kong dollars!!!). If it were me, I would definitely do a bit of reading first before I plunked down my eighty thousand… And that’s not to say that every shop on the street is this way. But be aware – there will always be some with loose ethics.
This might also explain why some sellers become visibly nervous the moment I start inspecting undersides, opening doors and rubbing my hands over edges and joinery. One shop keeper immediately asked me if I was from “such and such society in London!” From this, I have learned that if I want to pose as a tourist, I better act like one!
No photos allowed.
This probably also explains the no photos rule, and the majority of the shops will meltdown when they see a camera, (and the blurry photographs I was discretely taking). Presumably this is to prevent designs being copied or (with good reason) people like myself from posting such photos on their websites. Yet, this always leads me to wonder – what is there to hide and in my own travels I tend to find that a supplier who will not allow a genuine potential customer to snap a photo makes me a bit uneasy and often alludes to things to come. Most of the designs are not original, so whats to protect? When buying or even considering a buy its easy to forget an item in the sea of offerings and when I am back, a snapshot will often remind this was an item I was interested in. I often find that I purchase more of the items I was able to take a quick photo of and forget about the rest.
Trusted sources for the trusted sources.
Applying my new found skills as a faux tourist, I wandered into a larger and very expensive looking shop a few doors down. Stocked to the gills in Chinese ancestor paintings, porcelain and tri-color horses, I perused through the shop for a bit, before eventually speaking with a very pleasant and polite looking Caucasian woman who the staff prior informed me was the boss. Clearly confused as to what I might want to inquire, she seemed focused primarily on getting rid of me as fast and as politely as possible. This I found perplexing, having waited a good half hour to speak with her while she ideally chatted with an, “older then me banker type” gentleman and his wife. Clearly my tourist apparel just did not allude to deep pockets. When asked if they ever “purchase” rather then just “sell,” her brisk and emphatic response was “from trusted sources only.” She did pause to reflect that even they have had trouble with fakes. Glancing at her watch to allude to closing time, she happily wisk’ed myself and my traveling companion out the door, lest my shorts and T-shirt damage their shops image.
Scratching the surface (barely)
One thing that has always both been a great advantage and also annoyed me a bit about Hong Kong is its close proximity to China. With such intertwined cultures, the border a mere 45 minutes north and ad campaigns touting Hong Kong as the gateway to China, one would assume these sellers would be buying right at the source making deep excursions into the heartland of China to build guanxi, drink Baijiu (Chinese white wine) and collect direct from the peasants themselves. Ultimately one would assume they are intimately familiar with all aspects of finding and restoring Chinese antiques.
Unfortunately (with only a few exceptions), I realized this is not the case. Quite a surprise! Many sellers simply cross the border to buy from the factories in Zhuhai and Zhongshan, who in turn may even buy their un-restored product up north. Stories of buying trips and other exotic adventures may be just a mere myth. In many ways, these seller are no more closer to the source then a trip yourself to Zhongshan. And yet Zhongshan is not much of a source anymore either – many of the southern suppliers I spoke with here, head to our area for their antique items. This also explains the myriad of surface level observation Chinese antique furniture books written by hong kong tai tais (or houswife). While great reference guides for anyone wanting to know a bit of basic information about Chinese furniture (Kudos to them – I personally own many of them), most seem to follow the coffee table book template of glossy photos but slim on good information that has already been written elsewhere many times over.
High Priced/Low priced
While Hong Kong real-estate is constantly sold or rented at a premium (I can’t image the exorbitant rent one must pay to maintain a shop on Hollywood road) and I do sympathize with shop owners on this regard, its sometimes hard not to walk away with the impression that what’s on offer is prestige, bragging rights and a dash of snootiness for good measure. All in all it seemed most were not in it for a passion for the product. Reputation, advertising and exorbitantly high rents seem to be the primary factors in setting the prices. Nothing wrong with this – but definately not my cup of tea. But again – not to say all are like this, and some people are spoke with were both pleasant and genuine.
A Frog in the supply chain
A few years back, a US customer happened upon some small ceramic frogs at a market and thought it would be a good item to have a large quantity of them made up in a rich pine green glaze presumably to be sold as garden ornaments. Since this size was previously was non-existent it had to hand made in a village in Henan. Imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon the extras guarding the gates of a shop on Hollywood road. Asking price? A cool 6000 Hong Kong Dollars.
The last word
Despite my complaints and despite my “insiders perspective,” Hollywood road is still well worth a visit. From the art galleries to the design oriented Chinese style decor stores to the few reputable (abeit pricey) galleries, its a really neat place to see a lot of things at once and to take in some history.
If one does decide to buy on Hollywood road, know what you are paying for before you pay for it. Especially in the case where there is a chance the item may be a reproduction and were a lot of money is involved. And trust your instincts. Friendly does not necessarily mean knowledgeable. Also be wary of anyone who tells you to “go with your feeling” without explaining just how to “develop that feeling.” (Actually, if you live in Hong Kong, then you will already know to skip Hollywood road and head over to Horizon plaza at Ap Lei Chau.)
If you look like you have lots of money, locate the boss and have a good chat. Chances are they will most likely spend as much time as possible chatting with you in hopes you will part with some of that cash and they may even share some real knowledge along the way. If you don’t look like a rich man, then skip the boss and talk with the employees which you may find to be much more interesting.
On my next visit, I plan to break out the Armani suit and go back for a chat with the same folks - we will see what happens..