Older the better

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 October, 2009, 12:00am

In space-constrained Hong Kong, cabinets not only provide storage solutions but satisfy our appreciation of bygone years.

While many are content with what appeals to them during a visit to a budget furnisher, others prefer antique or custom-made items.

Chinese furniture is one way to go, as a glance in the direction of the shops dotted along Queen's Road East in Wan Chai proves. There, mostly reproduction pieces for sale include items for every room in the home, even the bathroom, can be found. Items on offer include coffee tables, side tables, television stands, dining tables and chairs, beds and bedside tables, desks for scholars (or otherwise), and mirrors, and, of course, cabinets.

Custom-made cabinets maximise available space and look pretty in the process. But don't be baffled by how some traditional cabinet makers will try to convince you that the item enhances the smooth flow of Qi around one's living space too. It's mere salesmanship with a fung shui twist.

Cabinets bring a semblance of order to our chaotic lives and hide a multitude of sins behind their doors. 'Techniques of construction are what makes the Chinese cabinet so special. They are strong without using nails or glue,' says the eponymous proprietor of Andy Hei Fine Chinese Antique Furniture in Hollywood Road, Sheung Wan. 'People in major cities around the world have been buying them since the 1920s and '30s to learn more about Chinese culture.'

Styles of reproduction cabinets run the timeline of the later imperial dynasties: Ming, Qing and early 20th century. Popular materials in the 'production' (pen and paper to sketch out ideas, measurements taken, wood and fastenings selected and order placed in person or by phone) include Chinese elm, camphor, beech or rosewood which has been used in the past 20 or so years due to the shortage of other woods. Shops along Queen's Road East can deliver across the city and ship overseas.

Chinese custom-made cabinets and other furniture items have a huge following among locals and expats wishing to introduce a little of the Orient into their homes and many order furniture from Shenzhen or Zhuhai.

Retired accountant Graham Jack says he finds Chinese furniture 'ingenious'. 'Timber contracts a lot depending on the weather. Chinese furniture is designed with expansion gaps so that the furniture moves.'

Long-time Hong Kong resident and former teacher Debbie Chiu and her husband are also fans. 'Cabinets should always be roomy inside and be practical. The designs at [budget outlets] are good but they are mass produced and use cheap materials,' she says. 'I want to be able to use the furniture for many years.' Their Mid-Levels apartment is a honey-coloured synthesis of furniture from the Ming style Chinese elm cabinets to the camphor sideboards and the beech floorboards under foot.

Chiu is awaiting the delivery of a beech cabinet to store various items rehoused from her mother's former home. 'The cabinet was chosen to match other pieces in the flat,' she says. Chiu has also placed an order to close up the gaps in a lattice style Huangfali cabinet at an antique shop in Hollywood Road, Central. The cabinet was originally designed to store crockery but Chiu intends to use it for linen.

Oiling Antiques proprietor Mei Ling says: 'We've done similar things before with rice paper or bamboo panels. For this piece the panel will be made from Chinese elm wood to match the same colour as the Huangfali. Even in the olden days, Huangfali was very expensive. It was the wood used by the Imperial family of China. It's mostly only collectors who know about and buy this type of wood.'

Hei agrees: 'Huangfali is a very rare expensive type of wood. It's very much in short supply with many of the trees having been cut down. Hainan Island is a rare source of the wood. However, variations occur depending on the altitude, among other things, of where the wood originates from.'