Antique enthusiasts head for Hong Kong's Hollywood Road
On a steamy summer's day, Hong Kong is almost painfully beautiful. Brisk breezes thrust its pollution far out to sea and thick bulging clouds hover close to the sturdy upthrusts of the peaks on Hong Kong Island. The choppy sea in the protected harbor contrasts with the abruptly rising peaks, with their dense layering of green.Skip to next paragraph
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Hong Kong is one of the world's great centers for Chinese antiques. The sense that much is happening - and happening quickly and with great energy - is as evident in the antiques business as in the turbulent daily comings and goings of its 5.5 million residents.
Newcomers to Chinese antiques will find an astonishing variety of shops to choose from - Hong Kong's compact geography facilitating shopping excursions as well as creating a maelstrom of humanity. Many of the finest shops are in Hong Kong Central (on Hong Kong Island), close to fine hotels like the Hotel Furama Intercontinental and the Mandarin Hotel and minutes away from the Star Ferry - which will take you across the harbor to Kowloon and a rival selection of elegant establishments.
The adventurous and imaginative have always taken pleasure in Hong Kong Island's Hollywood Road, which has an ample number of family businesses where you may dig through dust and debris - no expectations, please! - in search of a forgotten Ming vase or of wood carvings from a Confucian temple.
The neighborhood is distinctly Chinese - as opposed to the international and more apparently British sector downtown with its shopping centers and esplanades. As a result, you'll pass coffin shops and bean curd carts, bakeries and racks of dogeared books while you make your way toward Tai Sing Company for Chinese Imperial ware or Altfield Gallery for a restored 18th-century Chinese chair or for art books from Altfield's new branch of the London booksellers Han-Shan Tang Ltd.
To explore Hollywood Road, start from its western end by the coffin shop and Art Sheen Curios. Art Sheen Curios has few pretensions. Its historic data are a little fuzzy; its abundance of carvings, bowls, and curios uniformly layered with dust is superintended by staff who dispense Handi-wipes and hot drinks along with their merchandise.
You'll have no trouble discerning the emphasis of other shops as well, for all but the fancier places are wide open to the street, with repairs, noodle lunches, and family life intermingled with the comings and goings of tourists and neighbors.
Just past Man Mo Temple - temple of the patron god of literature and god of military might - is Tai Sing Company. Outwardly there is little to distinguish this shop from other Chinese establishments along the block.
Looks, as they say, are deceiving. Tai Sing Company's unassuming exterior - and interior - are merely variations on a constant theme in Hong Kong: The very best objects are kept aside for those who know.
Tai Sing Company is known for its Imperial Ware - the Ming and Ch'ing porcelains so dominant in the Hong Kong market and of such interest to the Hong Kong (and mostly Cantonese) collectors. If you're merely sightseeing or haven't defined your own desires, it's unlikely that you'll see more than the display of decorative pieces that apparently satisfy the usual tourist's taste.
King Kong Lee, the robust and articulate proprietor of Gammon Art Gallery - one of Hong Kong's higher-priced and more respected dealers - outlines the situation clearly: ''A client must be educated - not only in Chinese art, but in his field,'' Mr. Lee says. ''Say a gentleman has $1 million and wants to buy something. What does he want to buy? I don't know. It makes no difference if he has a lot of cash or not. I want to sell him something he wants to keep - not just something he can afford.''
Just as critical a factor as knowledge is getting your financial priorities in order: No one advises buying Chinese art as an investment.