tricks of the trade

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 October, 2007, 12:00am

Since the 19th century, Hong Kong has provided a market for Chinese antiquities and curios. Many visitors to the city take away some oriental curio as a memento of their stay, and the trade remains a mainstay of the local tourist industry.

While the majority of objects on offer are recently made, many shops, especially along and around Hollywood Road, specialise in genuine antiques.

Between the 1920s and 50s, the shopping arcades of tourist hotels, such as The Peninsula and Gloucester, had in-house dealers - as did stores in the surrounding back streets. Some transpacific passenger liners also had on-board curio shops selling Chinese and Japanese items.

For decades, Upper and Lower Lascar Row, just below the Man Mo Temple in Sheung Wan, were preferred hunting grounds for collectables. Popularly known as Cat Street (below right), the area enjoyed a modest reputation as a thieves' market, and householders who had been burgled used to check out the stalls in subsequent weeks to see whether their property was being sold here.

Many credulous visitors still dream of finding some hidden treasure among the bric-a-brac. Most items are jumbled together and thickly caked in dust - for some bargain-hunters this fusty atmosphere is a large part of the appeal.

Porcelain items, jade and intricate netsuke sculptures remain perennially popular, along with Swatow (modern Shantou) embroideries, Mandarin coats and delicate scroll paintings. Despite the decimation of African elephant populations in recent years, ivory remains a favoured purchase for customers - especially those from the mainland. Hong Kong's numerous ivory shops have insisted for at least two decades that their carvings are made from 'old stocks'.

Hollywood Road shops do a roaring trade in genuine Chinese antiquities. Officially, it is illegal to take uncertificated objets d'art that are more than a century old out of the mainland. These days, of course, anything is possible when the right palms have been greased. How else, one wonders, is it possible for the casual ambler to see some of the items literally coming off the back of a truck in broad daylight along Hong Kong Island's world-famous 'antique streets'?

As in other parts of the globe, Hong Kong's high-quality art and antique worlds provide money-laundering opportunities. What better way to safely park 'hot' money than in Ming-dynasty vases or Tang-dynasty horses bought for cash on Hollywood Road with no questions asked?