Up to the tusk

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 June, 2012, 12:00am


Ivory enjoys enduring popularity among Chinese consumers. Durable, attractive and (perhaps most importantly) status-enhancing, ivory has been coveted among the affluent for centuries. Uses range from jewellery and other decorative objects to ear-picks and chopsticks. Much like shark fin, bird's nest, sea cucumber, sandalwood and other exotic imports from Southeast Asia, India, the Pacific and beyond, ivory's principal attraction was, and still is, its rarity.

For centuries, ivory destined for the Chinese market came from Southeast Asia. Elephants ranged across maritime Asia in significant numbers until the late 19th century, and while the Asiatic elephant's tusks were not as large as those on mature African elephants, they were big enough for decorative carving. Ivory carving became a noted feature in Canton from the 18th century, largely because it was the only Chinese city open to foreign trade, and subsequently an abundance of ivory (along with many other items) was landed there.

While some items - such as chopsticks - were produced relatively quickly, many master craftsmen would work on a single large piece for years. It was not unknown for skilled ivory carvers to spend more than a decade creating a superb object. Among the most complicated designs were carvings with several layers of revolving spheres all contained within a single globe.

One of the best private collections of antique Chinese ivory carvings in the world belonged to the late Sephardic Jewish business magnate Sir Horace Kadoorie. An acknowledged amateur authority on Chinese ivory, Kadoorie privately published a number of detailed monographs on the subject. Every so often, local cultural groups are invited to view his stunning array of objects, collected over several decades.

Closer economic connections between China and countries with African elephant populations, such as Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania, have led to significant declines in elephant populations. Smuggling from various African countries through the diplomatic bag into the mainland has been widely reported in recent years. Interestingly enough, such reports have never been denied by mainland authorities.

Unsurprisingly, then, ivory is still widely offered for sale in the mainland. Shops in Guangzhou, especially around the enormous Changshalou jade market, openly sell it. That this ivory's original provenance may be - let's be diplomatic - somewhat difficult to prove is reflected by labels clearly marked 'Not for export sale'.

Hong Kong developed its own ivory-carving industry in the 1950s. Skilled craftsmen decamped from Canton in large numbers following the Communist assumption of power, and recommenced operations here. They were aided in this by a number of factors. The 50s and 60s saw a significant tourist boom in the colony, and high-quality Chinese decorative items were much in demand.

After the outbreak of the Korean war, in 1950, and the subsequent American-led United Nations embargo on trade with China, it became impossible for American tourists to return home with China-made souvenirs. To avoid confiscation on reaching the United States, comprehensive, detailed certificates of origin were required for any purchases that might have been tainted by Communist fingers at some point in the manufacturing process. Hong Kong-carved ivory (unlike ivory offered for sale in mainland-owned department stores) was exempt, and found many buyers.

Hong Kong was a disgracefully late signatory to many international conventions on endangered species, and while contraband ivory is periodically seized here, a semi-clandestine trade goes on. Long-established shops, mostly found in the back streets of Sheung Wan and Yau Ma Tei, still offer ivory for sale. In theory, these retailers are 'using up old stocks', but as most have been in operation for decades, and the items (somehow) continue to be replaced, Hong Kong's remaining ivory artisans must be steadily working their way through godowns full of the stuff.

Asian elephant populations were already in decline by the late 19th century, as tracts of jungle in Indochina, Malaya and the Dutch East Indies were cleared.