Practical magic in the carpets of Mongolia

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 April, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 April, 1999, 12:00am

ANWER Islam is tall, slim and dapper, with long tapered fingers, slicked-back hair, a bow tie and a gracious manner. He blends perfectly with the hushed, glossy interior of his antique gallery, until he whips out photographs from a trip to Inner Mongolia.

The rough life there of riding on horseback, eating in yurts (Mongolian tents) and wandering across bug-infested grasslands is far removed from Hollywood Road and is the ultimate thrill, he said. 'This is why I'm in the business, it's so much fun.' His enjoyment of the raw side of life will spill into his elegant shop, Chine Gallery, which he runs with his Guangdong-based brother, Zafar, when they open an exhibition of Mongolian carpets this week.

The polished wood antiques and richly embroidered fabrics will be moved aside to make way for a specially made yurt, which will be hung with carpets and decorated with the basic requirements of a nomad's life: an altar, bench, stove, bed.

The focus will be on the carpets, though, which traditionally were used to keep out the heat during the day and the cold wind at night, and cushion the ground.

Mr Islam has collected more than 200 Mongolian carpets over the past two years from families and contacts in Inner Mongolia, and he hopes to boost a market he feels has been neglected by many Western carpet collectors.

'Western society is strongly interested in Persian and Caucasian carpets which started much earlier [than Mongolian and Chinese carpet-making],' he said.

'The Persian carpets have intricate, refined, formal designs. The Chinese and Mongolian carpets look a bit more casual. Some of them are very primitive-looking and traditional, they are very soft and mellow and cheerful.' Mr Islam's background suggests he can appreciate all types. His father was a Saudi Arabian trader and his mother Chinese, but carpets and antiques were not part of his upbringing, aside from a few prayer rugs at home.

'We were a regular family growing up in Hong Kong,' he said. 'We didn't have that much influence [in collecting antiques] although I loved collecting as a kid. I have seven albums of stamps and still have toys from when I was young.' His brother started in the antiques business 15 years ago as a sales assistant, with little knowledge. He offered Mr Islam, then a student, a part-time job and over the years they built up their knowledge and contacts, opening Chine Gallery in 1989.

Mr Islam's specialty is carpets and he gives frequent talks on the subject to business and community groups. He owns five carpets himself, one each from Tibet, Ningxia and Beijing, and two from Mongolia, which he values for their thick cushioned feel, colours and designs.

The expert in him is keen to explain the distinguishing features of Mongolian carpets, although a little defensive about their relative lack of pedigree.

Mongolians were not traditionally known as carpet-makers, even though there is evidence that as far back as the 10th century they were a 'mat' culture that sat on the floor, he said. Instead, they had others make rugs for them, starting with the people they conquered when they swept west in the 13th and the 14th centuries.

'That was a very old saying, but in the past century they developed local weavers,' Mr Islam said.

Still, the influences of their former carpet-makers persisted. Mongolian carpets are knotted very similarly to those from Xinjiang province and some of the symbols of that region, such as pomegranates, can be seen in the carpets in Mr Islam's show.

Centuries of close contact with Han Chinese also influenced the designs and Mongolian carpets often feature symbolic flowers, such as the peony for prosperity, the lotus for purity and the plum blossom for peace, as well as dragons, tigers, fu dogs and other images.

'What is most fascinating about Chinese and Mongolian carpets is they have so many symbols and they all have a meaning,' Mr Islam said. When Mongolian carpet-making came into its own in the past century, it was distinguished by the combination of knotting, pictorial images, colours and pile, he said.

A typical Mongolian carpet features a floral geometric pattern in shades of blue, made with five- or six-ply wool as opposed to the two- or three-ply wool used in Persian rugs. The carpets are also distinguished by price. Those in Mr Islam's show are mostly turn-of-the-century and cost between $5,000 and $35,000, with most around $10,000. He reckons they are about one-third the price of a similar Persian rug and under-valued.

'Turn-of-the-century carpets are now still available at a reasonable price,' he said.

'Nineteenth-century ones are not very easily available and I would presume five years from now it will be very difficult to find turn-of-the-century pieces.' But he intends to keep looking. He and his brother have an army of runners ready to be despatched around China in pursuit of new finds, whether carpets or other antiques. And they go on buying trips themselves, like the trip to Inner Mongolia.

To Mr Islam, who has an MBA, it is a much better life than he could have had in his previous job as a financial analyst.

'I was quite lucky I found something I really like and enjoy,' said Mr Islam, sitting in the warm, red glow of his shop as tea was served in delicate jade-green cups. Just don't spill it on the carpet.

Mongolian Carpet Exhibition, Chine Gallery, 42A Hollywood Road, Central, April 22 to May 6. Catalogue available at