Curiosity kindles taste for antiques

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 June, 2006, 12:00am

It was curiosity that first set Zafar Lam Shi-fa on the road to running one of the region's most successful antique furniture businesses.

He was intrigued to know how enthusiasts could distinguish between the numerous types of wood. 'I couldn't tell walnut from camphor wood back then,' he says. 'My fascination with wood grew from a seed to a passion.'

After graduating from Hong Kong Polytechnic in business management, he became a sales assistant in the Altfield antique shop in Hollywood Road in 1985. By 1989 he was sales manager, but the slump following the June 4 crackdown in Beijing brought his job to an abrupt end.

Reconsidering his future, he rented a small warehouse in Guangdong and sold furniture to what remained of the Hollywood Road trade. As the Chinese decorative art market picked up so did his fortunes. 'The vision of my future began to clear.'

As overseas dealers started to come to southern China to buy antique furniture by the container-load, he spread his sourcing net all over the country, delivered on time and kept prices competitive. By 1992, he felt confident enough to open his own Hollywood Road emporium, Chine Antiques. As sales increased, he outgrew the original warehouse and in 1995, set up his own workshops with 10 craftsmen in Panyu.

His turnover, stock and network of agents all over the mainland grew. After taking advice from leading London restorer Christopher Cooke, Mr Lam, now 42, reorganised his operation, combining western ideas and methods with traditional skills. At 20,000 square metres, he says his principal company, Hua Bu Furniture, now operates one of the mainland's largest antique furniture workshops and warehouses with 170 trained craftsmen and restorers. Separate areas are dedicated to Chinese hardwood, European and Japanese antique furniture, with 16,000 pieces in stock.

The majority of Mr Lam's business is in 19th century furniture with the remainder from the 18th and early 20th centuries. He sells mainly to the trade, 90 per cent of sales are to dealers with 70 per cent of exports to European customers. A much smaller percentage is shipped to America. It's something to do with the style of furniture he carries which is mid- to high-level, he explains. 'The US market buys very high-grade furniture whereas the living style in Europe is more geared to medium-level pieces.'

Typically, he sells pieces in the $4,000 to $8,000 range. 'The lower the quality of the item, the bigger the mark-up.' For example, if a dealer pays $4,000, he expects to sell the item for $15,000 in Europe. 'But if he buys for $10,000, he may only ask for $20,000.'

Dealers tend to fill their containers with practical pieces such as four-drawer sideboards, desks and armchairs, saving only 20 per cent of the space for unusual items. Most of Mr Lam's customers are furniture boutiques or antique shops with owners personally buying and selling.

As Mr Lam's export business took off five years ago, he followed the containers to see where his furniture was being sold and expand his network of buyers. 'I went to Europe to visit our customers and understand their market.'

One thing led to another. Finding dealers clustered together in major cities, he discovered they also sold European antique furniture. Fascinated by the quality and design, he took the plunge and bought a load from the continent to Asia. 'From importing my first container from Spain, it's now about eight annually, increasing every year.'

But it's a hard sell in Hong Kong. 'People here don't understand this furniture. My market is dealers in Taiwan, Japan and I am doing well in Shanghai.'

Hong Kong's reluctance to embrace European antiques 'might have something to do with local people's tastes - they are not excited by antique furniture here or anything old, generally'. It's a different story further north.

'Shanghai people are much more familiar with old furniture; they can understand much quicker, perhaps their grandparents used old pieces.'

His European imports led him into the fabrics business. 'That happened by coincidence. We could only afford to import the sofas and armchairs that needed reupholstering and restoration.'

Searching for the right classic fabrics in Hong Kong proved a fruitless task. It was either too expensive or not available, so he started buying in Spain and the Netherlands. He has recently persuaded Spanish classic fabric maker Gancedo to let him represent its brand in Italica, his European antique shop in Elgin Street.

Now Hua Bu is refined to the point where Mr Lam's six agents in China scour farmhouses and gather up furniture for his approval. It is brought to the Panyu workshops in its original condition for dealers to specify their restoration and finishing preferences. 'This is one of the reasons we are doing well because we try to understand what style each dealer wants.'

Each country has different tastes with dealers from Paris preferring more polished and transparent finishing than their London counterparts.

Turnover has now reached $24 million a year. 'We started with very low capital and reinvested our profits all the time so most of our profit is in our stock.'

But the style of the business is changing. 'In the past 10 years, we have done no advertising, relying on dealer to dealer recommendations, but now antique trade fairs are catching on in Asia,' he says. 'We look to these shows to build awareness of ourselves in the outside world.'