Art and nature united
Corals are probably best known for forming the beautiful Great Barrier Reef in Australia. But in Asia, the marine organisms are admired for a very different reason.
Red, or precious, corals are found in deep waters around the mainland, Taiwan and Japan, as well as the Mediterranean. The species, which comes in a range of reds, from very light pink to blood red, represents peace, luck and fortune in Chinese culture.
To mark the Lunar New Year, more than HK$100 million worth of red coral carvings will be on display at WTC More in Causeway Bay from now until February 28. The exhibition comes from The Lucoral Museum in Taiwan.
John Lu Liang-jiann, the museum's curator, says red coral jewellery was highly prized in ancient China, and only the wealthy could afford to buy it. Red coral was also used to decorate palaces during the Qing dynasty and worn by queens and princesses.
The largest carving at the exhibition, Blessing from the Legacy of Gods and Angels, is inspired by Western mythology. It features around 30 Greek gods and goddesses and is carved from a single, huge piece of coral.
'This exhibit is carved from one big piece of red coral, nothing was glued on,' Lu says.
The Armoured Shellfish is a carving of a crab. Lu says the crab's huge legs signify the preservation of wealth and happiness.
'The colour and size is also very much like a real cooked crab, just like the cold crab you see hanging in Chiu Chow restaurants,' Lu says.
He adds the pieces of coral are carefully chosen to ensure they are suitable for the intended artwork. For example, The God of Longevity and Happiness, a palm-sized sculpture, is carved from a piece of light pink coral which has white areas. The artist used the white part of the coral for the god's beard.
'The beard and the body come from the same piece of coral - nothing was glued on,' says Lu, adding good craftsmanship contributes to the value of the pieces.
And the creations are still highly valued. 'Nowadays in Taiwan and in many other countries, parents buy red coral for their daughters as dowries when they get married,' Lu says.
According to the conservation group WWF, red corals are found at depths of around 1,000 metres. They are not yet considered threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, but as they have been intensively harvested for centuries, they are at risk.
Red corals are important to the underwater ecosystem, as they increase the complexity of the marine environment and provide important habitats to other sea creatures.
Despite its importance, there is currently no international law regulating the trade in and display of precious coral in Hong Kong.
On the other hand, harvesting, possessing and selling of precious coral within the mainland requires a licence.