Collecting China: The Memoirs of a Hong Kong Art Addict

Collecting China: The Memoirs of a Hong Kong Art Addict

by Brian McElney


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9789888422487
Publisher: Earnshaw Books
Publication date: 11/01/2017
Pages: 244
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Brian McElney was born in Hong Kong in the early 1930s, and for more than two decades was one of the territory's top lawyers. But in his spare time, he also put together one of the most comprehensive collections of East Asian antiques in the world, many of them spotted by him amongst the knick-knacks on Hollywood Road and Cat Street. His memoir, Collecting China, starts at the height of the Cultural Revolution in the mid-1960s, when it was just not known whether the Red Guards would storm over the border and start smashing up porcelain on the Mid-Levels, and then tells tales ranging from the Hong Kong of the 1930s through to the establishment by Brian of what is today the only museum specialising in Chinese antiquities in the United Kingdom - the Museum of East Asian Art in Bath.

Read an Excerpt

Collecting China

The Memoirs of a Hong Kong Art Addict

By Brian McElney

Earnshaw Books

Copyright © 2017 Brian McElney
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-988-8422-48-7


Hidden Treasures

It was 1967, and I had been living in Hong Kong for nearly a decade. Although there had been sporadic outbursts of violence since my arrival, Hong Kong normally was one of the safest cities in the world, a haven of peace and prosperity, a sanctuary of stability, law and order. As such it had attracted many Chinese to cross the border from the mainland: Mao Zedong was reaching the height of his powers and the growing tensions and fears for the future were prompting many Chinese to flee.

But now the problems were following them. The Cultural Revolution had begun just a year earlier and the chaos that ensued was tipping over into the colony. Shocking newspaper reports were alerting the residents of Hong Kong to the fact that the Red Guards were now deliberately destroying many priceless objects of China's cultural past, including Sakya Monastery in Tibet, a library which contained many ancient Buddhist sutras and other texts which I was to visit in 1984. Had it not been for Mao's right-hand man Zhou Enlai, who ordered units of the People's Liberation Army to stop the Red Guards from entering some of the country's museums, even more of that cultural heritage would have been lost. But enough was being destroyed to cause me very grave concern, because although under normal circumstances Hong Kong was one of the safest places in the world, these were not normal circumstances. Violence was beginning to spill across the border and although the ex-pat community in the colony was considered to be very safe, the news of the Red Guards' vandalism touched a raw nerve.

Since my arrival in Hong Kong, I had begun to amass a collection of Chinese art, and although it was still in its infancy, numbering at that stage less than fifty pieces and only a few of those Imperial ones, it would one day become a collection that was both valuable and culturally important. And with Hong Kong up in arms, increasing rumours of a Chinese invasion, riots, demonstrations and the furious response from the British authorities, I was increasingly concerned that the beautiful pieces in my possession might be at risk.

I had been interested in everything, and having been made a partner in my firm a couple of years previously, I was now in a situation where I could pursue my passion for collecting: glazed ceramics still shimmering with all the colours of the rainbow despite the fact they had been created so very many centuries ago, mysterious jades, rare brasses, iridescent ivories, pottery figures, wooden tree sculptures, corals, lacquers – and in those early days, as I began to track down pieces just as the hunter in the jungle goes after its prey, I felt as if I was capturing them. For me, collecting has always been about so many things, and one has certainly been the thrill of the chase. My fifty or so pieces were housed in my apartment and for the first time the horrifying thought occurred to me: if, as had been rumoured, the Chinese marched across the border, would they too be destroyed by the Red Guards?

These beautiful pieces had survived many centuries of tumult as China transformed from an Imperial power to the Communist superstate it had now become, but as the violence on the streets of Kowloon in that long, hot summer intensified, I became seriously concerned that this latest bout of mayhem, against another once mighty Imperial power, might really be too much, although in every other sense we expats felt safe. The violence was very localised and the people who were seriously concerned were the Chinese incomers from the mainland, who already knew what the Communists were like. They had been allowed to leave Shanghai to take up residence in Hong Kong but on the proviso that they could only take what they could carry, and at one stage 25,000 refugees were flooding in monthly to what was a tiny land area (something that might be of interest to people who are worried about the current levels of immigration into the UK). And now the very trouble from which they had escaped seemed to be following them: they were becoming very worried that they might again become the targets of agitators in Hong Kong. Another exodus began, this time of the Hong Kong Chinese heading to Canada to escape, in many cases for the second time, the Communists and in some cases from the starvation that followed on from their disastrous five-year plans.

The trouble was spreading out from the mainland but in some instances localised labour disputes were now building up to clashes between the British establishment and Communists agitating for Chinese rule. In May that year, riot police were called to an artificial flower factory in San Po Kong and as arrests and allegations of police brutality flared, the violence spilled out further on to the streets.

We expat British were not concerned in the way the Chinese were: the areas in which we lived were relatively unscathed and for many of us the troubles were more of a nuisance than anything else. Almost all the agitation was happening in Kowloon, not on Hong Kong Island (with a few major exceptions) and the Central business district was functioning quite normally. But the Chinese who had sought shelter in the colony did not feel safe. Sentiments against the British were running high in some quarters sympathetic to the Communist regime: lefties, as they were known, were trying to harness public opinion, with some of the local media referring to the British authorities' "fascist atrocities". Up in Beijing (or Peking, as it was then known), demonstrators protested outside the British Chargé d'Affaires office.

Could it affect me? On a day-to-day level, no. My flat, which I had bought in 1960 when it was still under construction and moved into four years later, was in Rockymount, a block of apartments on Conduit Road, the highest point of the Mid-Levels area of the Island, and the rioters never got that far up to what was a pleasant residential neighbourhood. It was more of a problem at work, although mainly because the disruption made it difficult to work: I was a partner in Johnson Stokes & Master, a lawyers' firm with a very long-standing presence in Hong Kong, which at the time occupied the fourth floor of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank building. Just about ten yards away from the window of my office you could see the balcony of the Bank of China, which had been annexed (briefly) by the demonstrators, who made such a ruckus you could hardly hear yourself think.

Constant chanting and agitation throughout the day just grew in intensity, making it impossible to work. There was not a great deal of concern about our actual personal safety – there were parts of Hong Kong that we knew to avoid and only once was I caught in the middle of severe disruption, when I caught a tram in the Wan Chai district on my way to see an old friend. The tram came to an abrupt halt with no explanation and there was a great deal of commotion as demonstrators chanted their grievances and onlookers milled about, unsure of what was going on. The next day, I discovered that a fake bomb had been planted on another tram, causing chaos across all the tram services on the Island, but there was no sense of personal danger, merely inconvenience. On that particular occasion, I simply got out and walked.

But even if we didn't feel personally under threat, people began to think about arranging their affairs to safeguard their own property and interests, for if China invaded, as many feared they would, there was a real chance that property of all sorts could be confiscated. The Cultural Revolution had called for the destruction of the "Four Olds" – old customs, cultures, habits and ideas – which in practical terms as far as I was concerned meant that Mao Zedong and his thugs were carrying out the wholesale destruction of the type of artefacts that I had spent a decade collecting. My unease over my own modest collection grew.

The violence was intensifying and becoming more sustained as the leftists shouted their pro-communist slogans and formed huge crowds as high as Government House located on the mid-levels on Upper Albert Road. The transport system all but ground to a halt. The British authorities were beside themselves with fury: Government House was the symbol of colonial rule and this direct challenge to their authority served only to stoke an already incendiary situation. They began to play music from the Supreme Court building to drown out the crowd: Beethoven was one great favourite along with other classical composers, the great masterpieces of Western culture played at earsplitting volume to drown out the protests from the East. The Communists responded with their own high volume music from the Bank of China, immediately opposite the Supreme Court building, both of which were within earshot of my office!

A curfew was imposed banning people from being out after 10.30pm and although the leftists defied this, their protests were given pretty short shrift as they were rounded up and put in jail. And there they stayed, under powers granted by an emergency ordinance which had been on the statute books since the Second World War, with the British determined to show that they were in control.

It was as well that they did so because had they shown any sign of weakness at this point, there was a real chance the Chinese might have walked in. Much of the agitation came from within Hong Kong itself, but there was a growing perception that the Communists might seize the opportunity to retake the colony that so many still considered to be their own. Violence began to grow in other quarters: a police post on the border was shelled from the mainland and three policemen were killed, which was widely believed to be an attempt to gauge the British reaction in the run-up to a much bigger attack. In 2003 it emerged that the People's Liberation Commander in charge of the forces on the border wanted to invade and only refrained from doing so after the idea was vetoed by Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of the People's Republic of China and one of the few senior officials to survive the purges of the Cultural Revolution.

The Chinese exodus from Hong Kong was now well underway. We British expats stayed put, however, not least because we knew that if the Chinese did invade (and they would have had to cross twenty-five miles of leased territories before they got to the Island) there was every chance that they would let the expats leave, as they had done in Shanghai.

Summer in Hong Kong is a very hot and steamy affair indeed and as in so many other cultures, a time when violence is prone to intensify. By July, fatalities began. Amid renewed rumours that the People's Republic of China was planning to march across the border, leftists opened fire on the Hong Kong police, killing five, and the British government, headed by the acting Governor Sir Jack Cater, began closing schools, newspapers and organisations that were known to have leftist sympathies. As leftist leaders were detained, their followers retaliated by planting bombs, real and fake, which killed civilians, including two small children. A growing revulsion at their tactics followed, but that did not stop them from murdering Lam Bun, a popular antileft radio commentator, who was burned alive in his car.

Many other prominent anti-leftist figures were threatened and by the time the violence calmed down in the autumn, a total of 51 people had been killed, including 11 police, and a further 832 people sustained injuries. The police behaved admirably in the face of all this provocation: the British were as aware as anyone of the rumour of a Chinese invasion and they did not want to do anything incendiary. They instructed the police to treat the demonstrators with as light a touch as possible and somehow the situation, while very precarious, did not spin completely out of control. This was crucial because had they not done so, the Chinese would have had an excuse to invade on the grounds that they were protecting their own people, but matters never actually came to that.

Soon many of the wealthier Hong Kong Chinese started to find further reasons that made it expedient to take some time away from the colony: although this was never officially made public, rumours soon started to circulate to the effect that the Communists were putting pressure on the tycoons to make "donations" to help them fund the cause.

This was almost certainly true and Hong Kong tycoons were known to be doing as much as they could to protect their own interests. Wild stories abounded as to what people were doing to make sure their personal fortunes were safe. With all the unwanted attention of the Communists, the tycoons didn't want to broadcast their presence and there was a very credible story about one businessman who had been abroad when the troubles began. He was said to have flown into Kai Tak Airport, which was then Hong Kong's international airport (and by common consensus one of the most dangerous airports in the world), and been driven by ambulance to Matilda Hospital on the Peak where he stayed for a few days incognito while he settled his affairs. He then took an ambulance back to Kai Tak and flew off again, leaving the Communists none the wiser, until it was deemed safe to come back.

It was all a far cry from my childhood in Rannerdale in the Lake District and although I wasn't too worried about my own safety, my collection of Chinese art was clearly at risk. Interested in art all my life since an enlightened schoolmaster taught me about aesthetics, I had been adding to the collection for some time now, regularly popping into antique shops and spending the weekends scouring the markets of Hong Kong for treasures to add to my Aladdin's cave. Some of it was out on display but much was packed away in boxes and it also represented part of my own material wealth, along with my partnership, my apartment and a share in the cottage at Rannerdale. The partnership and the apartment could not, for obvious reasons, be moved out of Hong Kong but my collection could. That, and the fact that people were beginning to sell up and move out, gave me some initial ideas about what to do.

Very fortuitously, I had some close connections on the other side of the world, in Canada, and it was total coincidence that Canada was also the location of choice for so many of the others who were exiting Hong Kong. I had no desire to leave the colony but I did want to make sure that my collection was going to be safe and fate had already led me to the place of refuge. I never knew my mother: she died just over a year after I was born, and my father, John Harold McElney, did not remarry for many years. That, however, changed when he became close to an old university friend Margaret ("Madge") Molson and married her in 1958, in the process leaving Hong Kong where he too had been living, and relocating to Victoria, the capital of British Colombia, in Canada. By the time of the 1967 riots, I had visited several times and had started to see them regularly during the six-week summer break that the firm was now allowing us to take from Hong Kong.

In the course of my trips, I had visited the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, where Madge was a patron, and had made the acquaintance of its director, Colin Graham. One of my father's Hong Kong partners, Dr James William Anderson, had also visited the museum in the past and a few Changsha pieces from his own collection of Chinese art were on display. I wasn't terribly impressed with the selection as I had some better examples – "I could send you better things than that," I told Colin. And so the germ of an idea, one that was to grow into a long-standing relationship, was born. It began to occur to me that this museum might be just the place to send the collection: it would be safe and the museum itself would be able to show the pieces I sent them. I broached the subject with him when I was there that summer: "Would you like me to send to you an assortment of pieces on loan and you could see what you think?" I asked.

Colin clearly was initially a little bemused. He hadn't seen any of my collection and I had no photographs or descriptions for him. But he agreed.

Once back in Hong Kong I began to make arrangements to have the items shipped out. It had been my custom every time I bought a piece to have a padded box made especially to keep it safe, and so the first step in packing it all up had already been taken. I next had a large aluminium trunk made and once it was complete, I packed some of the collection away to send it to its new home – at that stage much of it was the blue and white china that so many collectors of Chinese art begin with – and with a slightly heavy heart had it taken down to the docks. Shipping, at least, was not disrupted by the violence and fairly soon my collection was on its way from one British colony to another British colony, albeit by now independent, on the other side of the world. I was not unduly alarmed at sending it away: I knew the pieces would be well looked-after and there was certainly no rioting to threaten the status quo in Canada. A few grizzly bears getting aggressive, perhaps, but nothing to rival what was going on in Hong Kong.


Excerpted from Collecting China by Brian McElney. Copyright © 2017 Brian McElney. Excerpted by permission of Earnshaw Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Foreword ix

1 Hidden Treasures 1

2 My Family And Assorted Animals 14

3 Mists And Mellow Fruitfulness 35

4 Picnics And Pictures 53

5 Bedsit Land 68

6 In At The Deep End 80

7 Cat Street And Hollywood Road 98

8 Kwai Lo 111

9 Spin The Wheel 127

10 Snapshots Of Hong Kong 140

11 All Change 160

12 Behind The Scenes At The Museum 183

13 A Collector's Treasures 196

Old China Hand 207

My Life In Twenty-Five Objects 215

Acknowledgements 223

Appendices 225

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