There is something about the ceramic medium that I find alluring. Low- or high-fired, glazed or unglazed, European or Chinese, ancient or modern – it is all of interest to me. As a boy of about seven or eight, I was fascinated by a cabinet of Qing porcelain belonging to my aunt May in Hong Kong. She had inherited them from her father who was the Chinese ambassador to Britain in the early 1900s. I bought some pieces during my student days in Sydney from dealer Josef Newman. A.P. Rajah, ceramic collector, SEACS member and the then Singapore High Commissioner in Canberra, was also a customer. When I started working in the 1970s, I spent a large part of my first pay packet at Moongate (then in the Prince’s Hotel building on Orchard Road) on several pieces of Chinese ceramics for the Southeast Asian market.
After joining the museum service in 1992, museum ethics required that I should not collect anything that might result in a conflict of interest, so my attention turned to studio ceramics by Singapore potters and Scottish transfer-decorated wares for the Southeast Asian market. My latest foray in the medium – better late than never! – is Islamic architectural ceramics.
I therefore have many favourite pieces, but the one that brings back the most associations and memories is this very modest Dehua (blanc de Chine) seal-paste box (on the left). It is cracked and chipped and shows every sign of having been used for its purpose over the years. The lid was missing so I had one made out of xuanzhimu in Hong Kong. I bought it from one of the official antique shops in Xiamen, possibly in 1993 when curator Millicent Yeo and I accompanied Pamela Hickley to Dehua. We had gone to collect information and materials for a loan exhibition of the Hickley collection that was later mounted at the National Museum. It was that exhibition that eventually prompted Pamela to give her collection to the Asian Civilisations Museum.
My seal-paste box is almost identical to a piece in the Hickley collection. The Hickley example (above right) has retained its lid, is in much better condition and exquisitely elegant in its simplicity and understatement. Whenever I look at my seal-paste box, however, I am reminded of the Hickley one, and of Pamela.