History, served up on two plates

One is remarkable for where it has been, the other for where I found it.

Mary J. Breen
Gift Plate

I have a beautiful old Chinese plate hanging on my kitchen wall. I love its intense indigo dyes, and how its bridges and pagodas appear to be fading into the China of long ago. I’ve owned it for 46 years, and today I discovered it is not an old Chinese plate. It was made in Glasgow, Scotland.

This plate was a going-away gift from my students at a secondary school in Binatang, Sarawak. (Sarawak is the state of Malaysia that runs along the north coast of the island of Borneo, in Southeast Asia.) I had just completed two years there teaching English and science with CUSO (now Cuso International), a nonprofit Canadian organization similar to America’s Peace Corps, and I was set to leave the next morning. Everyone had gathered in the school’s open-air dining room to say goodbye.

Dinner was over, the kitchen was closed, and the tin spoons and plates – their painted-on flowers scratched and chipped – had all been put away. Clouds of cicadas and mosquitoes were swarming around the bright lights. The students were waiting at the rows of tables, and we teachers and the head boy and head girl were on the stage.

The headmaster and the head boy each made kind speeches thanking me, and I tried to match theirs, using simple English and hoping to convince them how grateful I was for their kindness. We shed a few tears, and then they gave me a parcel wrapped in pages from a Chinese newspaper. Inside was this beautiful plate.

After we left the stage, I asked the head boy where it had come from. He told me it might have come from a native Iban longhouse, but – and here he dropped his voice – he suspected someone had raided a Chinese grave for it.

So you see why I’ve always believed it was a Chinese plate.

I have no idea how it got from Glasgow to a remote jungle school in Sarawak. I’ll never know who ate from it, washed it, stored it, traveled with it, treasured it, and later probably lay dead beside it in their grave.

If I’d ever thought to look on the back, I’d have seen it was made by the Glasgow pottery company R. Cochran & Co., which was formed in 1856. It was probably part of a dinnerware set either sent to the Far East for sale or as part of the household goods of a British colonist, military officer, magistrate, or missionary. It would have made its long voyage from Glasgow around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, or, if it traveled later than 1869, through the then-newly opened Suez Canal. 

When it eventually reached Singapore, it could have gone to what was then Malaya or Sarawak or on to China. There it could have ended up in the possession of a Chinese family, who later fled to Sarawak during the Boxer Rebellion in the early 1900s. It probably traveled little after it arrived in the jungle until, in 1968, it came into my hands. Then it flew to Toronto via Tehran, Iran; Zurich, Switzerland; Antwerp, Belgium; and London. Now it hangs here in my house in southern Ontario.

It hangs beside another old plate, this one bought from a former curator and expert in Chinese and Russian antiques. This man ran an antique store in the backwoods near where I live. Not knowing his background, I went expecting an old barn with bits of china, old chests of drawers, and decrepit farm equipment. Instead I found a log house with massive beams. Right inside the door was an enormous Chinese rosewood medicine cupboard entirely made up of little drawers and compartments, a piece that I found myself trying to justify buying despite its extravagant price. 

The owner took me around, showing me one wonderful thing after another: Fabergé eggs from a czar’s palace, Russian triptychs painted with gold leaf, and luminescent pale jade bowls. I thought one of the bowls was worth every penny of the $35 price tag. Then I looked again: It was $35,000. I steadied my hand and put it back on its shelf. The only thing I could afford was an authentic Chinese Five Roosters plate, which now also hangs on my wall.

I asked the owner how he managed a business so far off the beaten path, and he told me with great modesty that some of the rich and famous – names everyone would recognize – call him when they need a special gift. 

And so, one of my plates comes from a place where, perhaps, the Rockefellers might have gone had they needed a gift, and beside it hangs a plate that comes from an astonishing place where, back then, if you needed a gift, you might have had to dig up a grave. 

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