Monday, 16 November 2020

Former SEACS President Patricia Bjaaland Welch had the pleasure of speaking with one of its founder members, Cheong Pak Chow, recently from his home in Canada, where he emigrated with his family in 1975 to work for the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organisation. Below are some highlights from their conversation:

It all began with an email from Mr. Cheong’s son, Peter, who introduced himself as Cheong Pak Chow’s son and informed me that his father was now resident in Canada and would be happy to share some of his memories of SEACS’ early days with the society. His father had received a copy of the society’s 50th anniversary history as a gift, and was happy to be back in touch with the society.

Although he had been born in Kuala Lumpur, he was resident in Singapore when he first became interested in ceramics. He remembered purchasing his first piece, which cost S$9 (“a huge sum for me at the time”), a Chinese vase, from a local shop that had sourced many of its artefacts in China during the Cultural Revolution. The shop owner had been instructed to “take all these things out of the country quick” and had done just that. Mr. Cheong bought many pieces from that shop back then, many of them of imperial quality. One artefact he purchased at that time later sold for for more than 10x what he had paid for it (and helped purchased his home). “If you had money at that time, there were real treasures to be had,” he told me.

Mr. Cheong described his “idea of collecting” as trying to complete a piece or two from every Chinese dynasty, starting from the Han (206 BCE-220 CE). He still has a bóshānlu (censer) in his collection, although he has passed on many other pieces from his original collection, and said he still had regrets over some pieces he had to pass up on at the time that were “very attractive but I couldn’t afford.” I assured him that all members of SEACS have been in that situation at some point themselves.

He remembers the society’s founder, William Willetts, very well, and described him as “very easy-going, wearing shorts and flip-flops around the campus everywhere but very knowledgeable.” They would often meet up in the various antique and ceramic shops in Singapore as well as SEACS meetings. He considered ‘Willie’ a friend, “an expert on ceramics and someone who had similar interests.” It was inevitable they would meet in the local antique shops, which Mr. Cheong said were many at the time (in the 1960s and 70s). “There were so many shops. I especially remember Moongate [which was located at 278 Orchard Road]. It was the best-known and the owner [K. T. Goh] was very knowledgeable. I found the best pieces there and we always talked. K.T. was a very nice person and always happy to talk and chat about his pieces, even if you didn’t buy anything.” This was a sentiment your interviewer has heard from many former members of the society who remembered Mr. Goh and the famous Moongate.

When asked whether he had kept a record book of his acquisitions (a practise we encourage all our members to do), he regretted that he had not. “I had so many pieces,” he answered as an apology.

During his years with the society, Mr. Cheong served on the Council and was a contributor to the society’s White Wares Exhibition (held in 1973). He also promoted the idea that the society should translate into English some of the more useful articles published in Chinese that were inaccessible to many members. I also learned that it was through Mr. Cheong’s wife (her father was a collector with a very good collection) that Malcolm MacDonald was introduced to SEACS.

As for the infamous traders from Sumatra who came up to Singapore to sell their excavated wares on weekends, “Those were the days when we were just waiting for them to come!” He confirmed that they frequented several hotels in the Bencoolen Street area, and our members who were lucky enough to be amongst their customers, “really were able to acquire some wonderful pieces.” Readers who are interested in learning more about this early illicit trade in Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese ceramics can read all about it in our 50th anniversary volume.

Mr. Cheong Pak Chow has kindly agreed to be interviewed by the National Archives of Singapore so we can look forward to more of his memories of his years growing up in Malaysia and Singapore in the future.