By Wilfred Pilo
It is hard to take one’s eyes off the Chinese porcelain pieces displayed at Alex Jong’s shop at the Main Bazaar, Kuching.
Gazing at them now, it is hard to believe that these porcelains which were affordable objects in the old days, have become treasure that some have to dig deep into pockets just to own one.
Antiques are valuable not only for their aesthetic, it is also for their stories. That is why, a person dealing with antiques must have understanding of the makeup of the antiques and the history behind them.
The accidental antique dealer
For Jong, it took him a while to learn about the Chinese porcelains in his shops before he convinced himself to be an antique seller.
Hails from Miri, Jong got into antique business not out of choice, but necessity.
“My background was in Information Technology (IT) and before I married my wife, I knew nothing about antiques, not to mention about selling one.”
“My father-in-law who now resides in Jakarta, Indonesia got involved in antique business some 40 years ago. For me, I learned the trade some 16 years ago,” Jong told DayakDaily recently.
“I could not find any jobs related to IT here. So when I married the daughter of an antique dealer, I put my mind into the business and since, then, I have never looked back.”
Once business was good
Jong said at one time, antique porcelains were very much sorted after by foreign antique collectors and dealers, especially those from China, Europe and the United States.
“The Chinese nationals at one time were really keen to have their own collections as they knew that these antiques are their national treasure and part of their culture and history.”
Comparatively, local Sarawakians are much less enthusiastic about antiques and would even part with their treasure for good money.
And these days, when business is slow, antique dealers in Sarawak help each other to weather the storm.
“If I knew an antique dealer who possesses a piece that a buyer is looking for, I will recommend him or her to look for the dealer or I will buy from the dealer and sell it to the interested buyer. In this way, we can sustain our businesses.”
Jong’s antique collection mainly originated from his father-in-law in Jakarta even though he also tries to source some from China and Japan.
“I like to go direct to the source and not relying on online information as there are many fakes in the market. So my advice to all is that, when antiques are concerned, don’t buy online or rely on information online.”
“The best way to buy antiques is to go direct to an auction house overseas if you are really looking for something.”
The Chinese porcelains
The antique pieces in the shop came from different eras of China including Tang Dynasty which dated more than 1,000 years back.
“We have antique porcelains dated to Tang Dynasty which is more than a 1,000 years. My father-in-law bought them in Singapore and Indonesia. They were quite easy to get in those days. For good money, people were willing to sell.”
Apart from the porcelains from Tang Dynasty, there are also those from Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties in Jong’s shop.
“The most popular porcelains are the celadon, greenish porcelains as well as the blue and white pieces. The collection that I have, were those salvaged from wreck and sunken vessels in South East Asia waters. My father-in-law bought them in Indonesia and Singapore long time ago.”
Jong main problem in running his business, however, is not about slow business. Rather it is about getting his “precious” insured.
“They are intricate objects and only experts know of their values. Furthermore, beauty is in the eyes of the beholders. How much an antique porcelain piece costs, depends on how bad a collector wants it. So sometimes, the price of an antique is hard to determine.”
Like most antique shops, there are spooky stories to be told. In Jong’s antique shop, there is a “Bad Jar”.
“We’d like to called it ‘Bad Jar’. It was sold but the owner somehow refused to bring it back. That is why it is still on display in the shop.
The problem with this Bad Jar is , when it is placed with other jars, all those around it break, somehow. This is a very rare experience for me but until today it does still make me feel the creep.
“I was told of the history of the jar. It was actually a burial jar. That is the reason why we will never buy any old jar that have a hole at the bottom as it could be a burial jar.”
After being 16 years in the business, Jong has picked up the knowledge and skills of how to identify an antique from the fake ones or the newly made one.
By observing a porcelain piece, he could tell what kind of clay was used, the temperature of the furnace and the time it was made.
Personally, Jong preferred porcelain of the Ming Dynasty which is known for its blue and white porcelain.
“There is no regrets that I entered into this business. With the assistance of my wife, I learnt a great deal about antiques.”
“My 11-year-old daughter eldest daughter also likes to collect antiques but of course, she has many other options of what she wants to do in the future.”
“My hope is that antique industry will sustain in Malaysia. I am always optimistic that there are always some collectors somewhere looking for something beautiful, something that they want to add on to their collections. And I will always be here for whoever needs a piece in my collection or collection of others whom I know.”
Jong’s shop also sells local handicraft and souvenirs for visitors.— DayakDaily