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The fine art of collecting
FROM matchboxes, collector Edmond Chin has moved on to bigger things. Literally. Now, he's donating his Buddhist art and Southern Chinese artefacts to the Asian Civilisations Museum.
The Hong Kong-based bespoke jewellery designer grew up in a family that appreciated art, he relates, giving him a head start in all things historical and beautiful.
"In Chinese culture, one of the ways to be cultivated was to examine the past, and it wasn't expensive to collect artefacts during my parent's generation," he shares.
"One of my uncles collected traditional items, while another uncle collected contemporary art. My father also collected some things in a smaller way - all for the enjoyment of collecting. So from early on, I found that collecting was a good way to learn about culture. There is a connection between object and the culture that created it - that's the important thing."
Mr Chin himself started small - with matchboxes that he asked his parents to bring back for him from their travels. Eventually, his mother found his rather large collection under his bed and declared them a fire hazard, so he had to throw them away. "I had lost interest by then," he quips.
Then in his teens, while scouting for a present for his schoolmate, he wandered into the antique shops at Cuppage Centre and bought an antique hair pin for S$15. "I thought it would be a nice present… certainly an unusual one, and I do believe my friend still has it today!"
That started him on Straits Chinese jewellery, as he found that they made bargain presents. "I was buying more than I was giving away, and before I knew it, I ended up with this collection." He recalls how the 1980s were probably the last decade where people still went around in their traditional ethnic costumes in South-east Asia. But as this went out of vogue, so did the jewellery which wound up in antique stores.
From there, he started buying Indonesian jewellery as a way to find out more about the culture - a country then of 150 million people. "They were just next to us, and Singapore had only 2.5 million at that time. And I barely knew a thing about the Indonesians."
A geography degree from Oxford later, Mr Chin, who is in his 50s, started work at the Monetary Authority of Singapore. His collecting continued, and in 1991, he went on to curate an exhibition of his Peranakan jewellery collection for the National Museum - the first exhibition of its kind then. "There was even the thought that perhaps it would be insensitive to have an exhibition dedicated to Peranakan culture," he recalls.
He then quit MAS to work at the National Museum as a curator for a few years, before he was asked to join Christie's in Hong Kong as head of the Jewellery Department in 1994. He subsequently donated his gold jewellery collection - encompassing pieces from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia - to the National Museum.
"I gave it away because it was by then quite a complete collection. Collections do have a life span - which has to do with what's available. You get to the point where you have typical examples of all the forms, and then it's a question of supply and you find that you can't expand it anymore," he explains, adding that the collection had some 400 pieces when he donated it.
Drawing from his childhood experience of having his matchbox collection thrown away, "I learnt that you can't possess anything forever," he quips. "The important part of the process is the learning."
He found the satisfaction of sharing his collection with the museum after the Peranakan jewellery exhibition. "I remember when the permanent secretary opened the Peranakan Museum, she recalled having seen the jewellery exhibition 10 years back. So it's not a dead thing. It's a seed from where things have grown."
His latest donation comprises four marble sculptures dating back to the early 500s and an intricate large Teochew door frame from the 19th century.
He gave them to the ACM because it is making an effort to showcase the art of major religions in Singapore. The gift of Teochew doors are also to boost ACM's collection of artefacts from southern China. He bought three pieces in Hong Kong, and two more from famous collections, including one from the JT Tai collection, a leading Chinese art dealer in New York.
The art of stone Buddhist sculptures shows the characteristics of northern China. The elaborate Teochew lacquered door frame, is in contrast to the refined furniture favoured by scholars during the Ming period.
They were commissioned mainly by wealthy merchants in the Teochew region, or exported to Teochew buyers in South-east Asia. Similar door frames can be found in the ancient houses and ancestral halls in Teochew regions, such as Fuoshan city and Shantou city today.
"The Southern Chinese have their own distinct culture from the north, and ACM is trying to focus on this, given that the majority of the Chinese in Singapore and the region have come from the south," Mr Chin explains.
Like libraries, museums are repositories of knowledge of stories, he says, about why he thinks they're important. "An object is like a book because they tell you something in 3D form."
Singapore's museums are unique because they reflect the cultures adopted in this country, which is important for building a national narrative, he believes.
As for his jewellery design atelier, Etcetera Ltd, after leaving Christie's, Mr Chin attributes everything he learnt about design from his collecting and museums. "I learnt about manufacturing and techniques. It's an informal and interesting way of learning," he says.
Mr Chin is known through auction records and often has a waiting list of customers for his bespoke pieces. "It takes a few years to build up a good collection of stones for the pieces. To make something beautiful takes time."
As for his generous gifts to the museum, Mr Chin noted that one should give where one can add the most value. "This is an area where I have the most to add, and especially since I'm so passionate about museums," he concludes.