Old and the beautiful
Written by Tamara Dame
Hollywood Road is fast becoming a centre of attraction thanks to discerning collectors fuelling demand for rare Chinese pieces
With the mainland emerging as an economic powerhouse and the Beijing Olympics in the international spotlight, items with a Chinese touch have suddenly become objects of desire, especially antiques.
Antique traders in Hong Kong have been enjoying growing business as the central government has relaxed regulations allowing authentic Chinese antiques that are less than 50 years old to be shipped outside of Hong Kong, tax-free.
Aficionados of Chinese antiques will be amazed at the many antique and furniture shops, art galleries and curio stores lining both sides of Hollywood Road. Competition may seem fierce in this niche retail business, but every operator serves clients who are after something unique.
'We're not competing with anybody because we sell to discerning collectors,' said Oi Ling, owner of Oi Ling Antiques, which has been open for 15 years and specialises in high-end antiques, including furniture and pottery.
'On Hollywood Road there are two types of antique shops - one is a decorator antique shop that sells pieces that aren't really special; they cater to tourists because the price range is very different. And the other [type of antique shop, like us, sells authentic antiques],' said Ms Ling, who sources her antiques directly from international collectors.
Because of continued economic prosperity in the mainland, antique collectors there have more money to spend on collecting rare pieces and wait to sell them for a profit.
Victor Choi, owner of Dragon Culture, famous for its wide collection of jade horses, said his business had suffered a drop in the supply of Chinese antiques. Mr Choi has been trading Chinese antiques and curios at his shop on Hollywood Road for almost 25 years.
Ms Ling said that those interested in working in the antique business must be very knowledgeable about the products they sold and bought, and be driven by a passion to learn about Chinese history, which she said was 'difficult to grasp'.
'I started my business with specific focus on furniture in the Ming period and then branched out to stones, pottery and bronzes,' she said.
A discerning eye is important in this high-risk business as fake pieces can mean great monetary losses, which can easily affect the business. Initially, Ms Ling hired a master to train her to evaluate pieces and sharpen her eye for fakes. 'It took me about two to five years to develop the techniques and expertise to identify fakes which are typically a mixture of styles from different periods,' she said.
Because of the great amount of time and money needed to invest in acquiring insider knowledge and expertise, Mr Choi said that people who wanted to run a business in this field, or work in the business, should have dedication and integrity. 'For me, it takes at least a year to train an employee, and cultivating trust and reliability is always a hurdle with strangers,' he said, adding that antique retail remained largely a family business which ran on a high level of trust and integrity.
Good business ethics are equally important in the antique retail industry where business deals often involve millions of dollars. 'Honesty is the secret to success for those who want to stay in business in the long run,' Ms Ling said. 'We have seen other operators lie about what they sell and they have done so well, and you can be tempted to do the same. [But now] we're very good at what we do, and we have established a good reputation in the circle and secured reliable contacts.
'Sometimes you may make an unprofessional judgment, but as soon as you have realised your mistake, you should tell the client and give them back their money. That's how it should be if you're thinking long-term.'
With the nature of the antique retail business built on expertise, trust and honesty, Ms Ling's shop employs only 10 staff that include three family members and part-timers, who are PhD students studying Chinese history, to help put together product catalogues.
A large overseas network is a definite plus in facilitating product sourcing, and frequent overseas travel is required for people in the antique trade. 'We have a partner in France and California in the United States, where we recently bought a pair of cabinets through our partner there,' said Ms Ling, who also works on a commission basis with many European dealers. 'It is a reciprocal business. Dealers in different places help each other out and look for items for clients. If they find pieces, they send us a photo and we can decide if it's worth travelling to their countries to verify the items ourselves.'
In the antique business, there is no form of advertising that can equal a company's reputation. Ms Ling said in the beginning, marketing and promotions were essential for the business, but once it was on track, their reputation preceded them. 'We have a permanent space in two magazines distributed to museums worldwide for marketing purpose, but people know about us through doing business with us,' she said.
Mr Choi agreed: 'Advertising is not an essential part of the business. The key here is to have good pieces.'
Assistant art director
Thermo luminescence test a test used to date objects that have been heated such as pottery and ceramics
Tang San Cai a tri-colour glazing technique used in the High Tang dynasty in China
Lokapalas guardian kings in Hindu and Buddhist mythology who guard the four corners of the world and are popular figures in sculptural art
Imperial pieces products used by royal families; extremely difficult to find
Longma a dragon horse which measures 1.85 metres in length according to the rites of the Zhou dynasty in ancient China