Wee, holding a green base peony and phoenix motif fluted finger bowl
Left to right: Yellow base enamel peony motif chupu, surrounded by eight buddhist symbols, dark pink enamel peony and phoenix motif kamcheng, with eight buddhist symbols on cover and green base enamel peony and phoenix motif chupu, with eight buddhist symbols on gravel
Antique Nyonya or Peranakan ceramics are enjoying a revival in Southeast Asia, particularly Malaysia and Singapore. In recent years, an increase in the value of objects in this sub-segment of Chinese ceramics has made them much sought-after investments and collector’s items.
Baba Peter Wee, a Singapore-based Peranakan culture expert with over 40 years of experience and president of The Peranakan Association Singapore, says a new generation of the Baba-Nyonya in Malaysia and Singapore,having experienced only “a ghost of its culture”, is seeking to reclaim its identity.
“[This has led to] an awakening of interest in collecting or investing in Peranakan material culture, especially ceramics,” he says. A fourth-generation Peranakan himself, Wee is also a former Christie’s auction house appraiser for Straits Settlement ceramics. Currently, he operates out of Katong Antique House.
Tan Thean Jin, a private Peranakan ceramics collector, says due to the Baba-Nyonya cultural ties, the market is concentrated in Singapore and Malaysia. “Due to a rise in the popularity of and demand for Peranakan ware in the city state in the last 10 years, Singaporeans have been coming to Malaysia to snap them up. As their currency is stronger, these wares are more affordable to them. Also, I believe they are more appreciative of the items.”
John Wong, a private collector and honorary secretary of the Southeast Asian Ceramic Society, West Malaysia Chapter, says that the local ceramics market is mainly confined to Straits Chinese porcelain or late Qing ceramics.
“Due to the scarcity of Straits Chinese porcelain, popularly known as Nyonya ware, prices have gone up,” he says.
Although the demand for Nyonya ware has intensified in Malaysia and Singapore, the market is still small compared with the global porcelain market.
“The market here is very small and can’t be compared with the international market. By international, I mean antique ceramics — particularly, Chinese porcelain — sold by the international auction houses and high-end antique shops,” Wong explains.
He attributes the heightened interest in vintage Peranakan ceramics to two reasons. One, the number of collectors has grown in the past 20 years while supply has remain limited, and two, efforts by tourism boards to promote Peranakan culture have drawn more interest to its ceramics.
“Since the 1980s, a new breed of Singaporean Peranakan ware collectors — who consider collecting a competitive sport — has encouraged an outflow of these ceramics from Malaysia to Singapore. At the same time, the stronger Singapore dollar has pushed up their prices.
“[Furthermore], the Singapore government, via the Singapore Tourism Board, Changi Airport and museums boards, among others, has actively promoted the Baba-Nyonya culture with the most notable development being the opening of the Peranakan Museum in 2008,” says Wong.
He adds that although the serious collectors have got what they wanted, rare items still attract substantial attention. For instance, at a private sale in 2007, a green kamcheng (porcelain pot with lid and finial) with a mouth rim or gallery that was 13 inches in diameter was sold for RM30,000, which was considered exorbitant at the time. “Now, the asking price for a similar item with a mouth rim that is nine inches in diameter is about RM50,000 in Malaysia.”
Wee, meanwhile, says a small item, such as a five-inch kamcheng, could make more than 50% returns at present.
Not surprisingly, Tan, who put several items from his collection up for auction last year, reaped handsome returns. “[Among other items], I sold a five-inch-wide famille rose pink base kamcheng for RM27,000. It was valued at RM15,000 to RM16,000. I also sold a five-inch-wide famille rose lime green kamcheng for RM19,000. It was also valued at RM15,000 to RM16,000. Cumulatively, I pocketed about RM70,000 from the auction.”
Wong points out that as the term Peranakan is wide and refers also to Peranakan Indian or Peranakan Jawi, Peranakan ceramics in the market refers to Nyonya ware or Straits Chinese porcelain as the ceramics were made for the Straits Chinese community during the Straits Settlements era.
“Porcelain items or ceramics were only commissioned or made for the Peranakan Chinese.”
These antique ceramics were custom-made for the Peranakan community almost 200 years ago. “These ceramics were made in China for the Peranakan community. They were considered ‘export quality’ in that era as they were colourful, which was considered gaudy by the Chinese back then,” says Wee.
Determining the value
The worth of Straits Chinese porcelain is determined by, among other things, their terminology and history. In the antique trade, says Wong, it is important to note the terminology used to identify ceramics. “When we talk about the porcelain or ceramic market, we are generally talking about those [basically, collectors and dealers] who buy and sell vintage or antique ceramics, including porcelain.
“In the antique trade, vintage means anything between 50 and 99 years of age while antique means at least 100 years old. But in the local context, anything over 30 years old is described as vintage.”
To Wee, the provenance or story of the item is key as it adds to the value of the item. “Not many know that the value of a ceramic item is equal to the story or provenance behind it. You must know its origin and history. If you don’t know the story of the culture, how do you even tell if it is Peranakan ceramic ware?”
As the window to Peranakan culture was open for only 150 to 200 years, Wong says only its ware that was made between 1856 and 1945 is identified as such. “These wares are generally identified on the basis of their period and origin of production, distinct motifs, colour combination and areas of distribution in Southeast Asia.
“The earliest Nyonya ware was generally thought to have been made in the era of Emperor Tongzhi (April 27, 1856, to Jan 12, 1875) in China. And production is thought to have ceased after World War II (1939 to 1945) due to the declining demand in Southeast Asia, particularly in the former Straits Settlements of Penang, Melaka and Singapore, where the main Baba Nyonya communities were established.”
According to Wee, historical migration influenced by trade and politics resulted in Southeast Asia becoming home to Chinese migrants who assimilated much of the local culture, who subsequently formed their own culture and called themselves the Peranakan.
He adds that the Peranakan Chinese went through several name changes. “We only started using the term ‘Peranakan’ after 1966. Before that, we used the term ‘Straits Chinese’ because of the British and the Straits Settlement. Before the British, we used the term ‘Baba-Nyonya’ (in the 1500s to the 1600s). These three terminologies essentially mean the same thing.”
Tan highlights the fact that between the late 1800s and mid-1900s, the Peranakan community would commission ceramic ware via the Chinese traders who dealt in commodities such as tin and rubber. These traders acted as middlemen, placing the orders at the kilns in Jingdezhen. Once ready, they would export the ware to the Peranakan communities in the Malay Peninsula.
“These Chinese traders were usually Shanghainese, coming from the port of Shanghai. This is why sometimes Peranakan ware is also known as Shanghai ware. China’s royal kilns were housed in Jingdezhen and almost went bankrupt in the final years of the Ching dynasty. The country was in chaos and saw a number of wars from the mid-1800s to 1911 — two opium wars, the Boxer Rebellion, the Revolution and Taiping Rebellion.
“These kilns were running out of business and making porcelain for the export market — the Peranakan — was how they survived. This is also the reason why you can’t find Peranakan ware, such as milk jars or wine warmers, in China. These were all designed and made for the export market.”
Besides terminology and history, collectors say the condition, size and artistry also affect the value of ceramic or porcelain ware.
Firstly, says Tan, the item has to be in good condition. Otherwise, it would be difficult to sell it. “Nobody is going to buy a cracked or broken piece. And when it comes to the artwork, its colours and quality also affect the value.”
Wong concurs, saying “any damage or blemish can lessen the price by between 30% and 50%, depending on its severity”.
As Peranakan ware is colourful, Tan says that colours imply a cultural form of self-expression and how the Peranakan perceived life — vivid.
“Like everything else, colours adds a sense of richness to life and you want your life to be colourful. The eye is an important sensory organ and seeing colours elevates your emotions,” says Tan.
To Wong, the value of Peranakan ware is highly dependent on the rarity of its colours as well as its size. “Rare colours, such as pink, yellow and light blue, are pricier as opposed to the more common green. Nowadays, anything with a background colour [other than white] is much sought after. Size is another important consideration. The bigger the better if the colour is rare.” Also, if the decorative motifs on the ware, such as the phoenix, eight Buddhist symbols and the cartouche, are fine and complex, its value is enhanced, he says.
However, Wee has a word of caution — although a piece that is in pristine condition is preferable, one must be wary of artwork that is perfect because the old artwork was not. “Due to the lack of technology back then, it was impossible to have perfect artwork — it was a little smudged, a little blotchy. Hence, if you come across Peranakan ware with perfect artwork, you must be very careful. As time goes by, the colours will fade. Don’t expect Peranakan ware to be 100% perfect with all the handling through the years.”
One can deduce that the Peranakan were very wealthy because only the richest families could afford such colourful ware as only the finest clay and minerals were used to make it, says Tan. “To me, Peranakan ware represents the peak of the artistic talent and technology of the Chinese porcelain artisans. If you observe, during the late 1800s to the 1900s, Chinese ceramics were quite dull as the artisans were more into form than design, given the circumstances. But this is not so for the Peranakan.
“A rich Peranakan family will have three sets. The ones for daily use would have a white background while the ones in blue and white would be used during funerals and the mourning period. In China though, it was common to use blue and white porcelain for everyday use.
“The most expensive was the festive ware with its colourful backgrounds and motifs. To colour the porcelain was one thing but to acquire the ingredients for the colour was another. For example, cobalt blue was not available in China, thus the mineral had to come from Persia or Afghanistan. Turquoise was sourced from Tibet as well as coral, which gave a red glaze or hue.
“And if you notice, this ware does not have the dragon motif as the people who had left China were no longer loyal to the Ching empire. The dragon motif represented the Ching emperors, who were of Manchu ethnicity. I have yet to see any Peranakan ware with the dragon motif.”
Wong believes Peranakan porcelain that commands the best value are extra-large kamchengs (bowl with a lid), chupus (a type of covered jar) and vases with busy motifs and colour combinations.
“Peranakan ware came under the export category and was produced for the foreign markets. Its value lies more in its cultural significance than its technical excellence or aesthetic. In fact, based on the ideals of the Chinese elite or literati collectors, Peranakan ceramics are considered gaudy and rough. But the busy motifs and colour combinations are precisely what the passionate collectors appreciate.”
In terms of popular pieces, Tan observes that at auctions, the kamcheng is the most sought-after piece, apart from exceptionally rare pieces, such as a milk jug adapted from the British tea set. Traditional Chinese communities did not drink milk and thus had no use for a milk jug.
“I would say the kamcheng commands the best value. But if you have a Peranakan ceramic set that you would like to let go, it is very hard to estimate its worth because it depends on the ‘willing seller-willing buyer’ terms and how pristine the set is.
“For example, if you have the best collection in Malaysia and you’ve put it up for auction, you won’t be able to sell your collection if there are no buyers. However, if you were to auction just one piece, like a spoon, then a buyer could drive the price through the roof, if it is the last missing piece in his Peranakan porcelain set.”
On sales in Singapore, Wee remarks that the kamcheng is also the most requested piece. “This is because it is representative of the culture. The Chinese may call it a ginger jug but we call it a kamcheng. It is used for fermenting all sorts of things. We use it as a punch bowl during Chinese New Year and for many other purposes. It is ubiquitous in Peranakan culture.”
To invest or not to invest?
Both Wong and Tan advise that when it comes to buying or investing in Peranakan ware, the investor must consider the rarity of the item as this affects its appreciation. However, says Wong, there is no fixed annual appreciation rate. For example, the 20 pieces of Peranakan items that he had bought five years ago for RM30,000 had now tripled in value. “There is no fixed rate but the value of the more common Peranakan porcelain items could appreciate at least 10% a year to 100% or more, depending on how much you paid for them originally.”
Tan says, on average, investing in Peranakan porcelain could “double your money in seven years, which would make the annual appreciation rate around 10% a year”.
Wong says if investors recognise the rare qualities of an item in terms of size, motifs and colour composition, they could buy and sell it straightaway, and make anything from 30% to 100% or more.
“[For example] if you buy common stuff like the white base and pink border Peranakan plates and bowls at an inflated price at an auction, it will be years before you can resell them at the same price. But if you buy prized items at a ‘reasonable’ price now, they will certainly increase in value.
“[You could sell them to] either those in the know or to collectors who have the money but don’t have the channels to buy. These are not things you can buy off the rack. It usually depends on being in the right place at the right time and who you know.”
Nevertheless, Tan says although investing in Peranakan ware could fetch returns, it should not be taken as an investment vehicle or considered a part of an investment portfolio. “This is because Peranakan ceramic items are not readily available and you need to be patient to collect them. I have been collecting for 20 years, one piece at a time.
“One day, if you need to sell your items or collection for whatever reason, you will definitely make some money or profit but it shouldn’t be put in the same category as buying gold, which is readily available and liquid, and whose value is public knowledge.”
He asserts that if an investor has bought the right piece, he will not lose money. More importantly, as these ceramics are a work of art, one must take their time to enjoy their purchase. “Don’t get stressed about the returns; just buy what you like, enjoy it and when you tire of it, you may put it up for auction.”
Wee, however, places more importance on the historical and cultural value and emotional satisfaction rather than the monetary returns. “To me, these porcelain items should be bought because they mean something to you, not solely for returns. If someone were to come up to me and tell me that a certain item in my shop belonged to his grandfather, I would sell it to him because it would be more meaningful to him rather than a buyer with no emotional connection to the piece, even if he offered me twice the price.”
According to industry experts, there are three credible channels of buying and selling Peranakan ware.
“The main channel is through dealers. While there have been local auctions of such items, such sales don’t attract veteran or astute collectors due to the questionable quality of the items offered,” says Wong.
Tan says that as a collector, he mainly purchases these ceramics from auction houses. “The most recent auctions were by Masterpiece Auction House in 2015 and Henry Butcher in 2016. You can also find Peranakan ware in antique shops.”
Wee either purchases them in private sales through his shop or at public or private auctions.
Appraising your Peranakan ceramics
Before determining the value of a Peranakan ceramic item, one must be able to tell a reproduction from an original. John Wong, a private collector and honorary secretary of the Southeast Asian Ceramic Society, West Malaysia Chapter says that the main issue plaguing the Peranakan ceramics market is the problem of reproduction Nyonya ware being passed off as original. “In the past 15 to 20 years, ceramic production imitating the motifs and colours of Peranakan ware has increased, especially in Jingdezhen, China’s porcelain capital. And such ceramics are described as Nyonya ware on eBay and other online selling platforms. They are also available at crockery shops in Kuala Lumpur. But these are certainly not vintage or antique or collectible [and investible] items for serious collectors.”
Baba Peter Wee, a Singapore-based Peranakan culture expert with over 40 years of experience and president of The Peranakan Association Singapore, says he has realised something very important: original Peranakan ware weighs much less than the reproductions.
“Fifteen years ago, a Singaporean television show, called The Little Nyonya, was broadcast in China and this awakened China’s appetite for its lost culture. I was a consultant for the show but when the series was finalised and shown, I realised that it had plenty of cultural inaccuracies [as artistic liberties were exercised].”
The television show was the catalyst for the commercialisation of Peranakan-inspired ware. “Reproductions of Peranakan ware flooded the market. It was easier to identify them a decade ago but it is much more difficult now because the reproductions are much more sophisticated.
“But the one thing that cannot be reproduced is the weight. A piece that is 100 years old is much lighter than the ones made today, due to dehydration. Until the manufacturers manage to find a way to dehydrate the porcelain to mimic the condition of century-old items, this is the best way to verify authenticity. It took me 40 years to figure this out,” says Wee.
If one is sold Peranakan porcelain, he advises the buyer to ask the seller point-blank if the item is between 120 and 150 years old. “If he cannot assure you of that, it means he is selling you a reproduction. Then, it is up to you to buy or not.”
“The original items, which were produced in Jingdezhen, were shipped out as Chinese porcelain. Only when they reached the Malay Peninsula or Straits Settlements did their identity change to Nyonya or Peranakan ware. Now, it is this very terminology that is pushing up the prices.”
To determine genuine Nyonya ware from fakes or reproductions, industry veterans say it is best to refer to expert dealers or appraisers. However, the chances of finding such people in Malaysia and Singapore are slim.
Wong says that currently, there is no professional body or person in Malaysia who could appraise Peranakan ware.
“There is no professional body but some collectors use old Christie’s auction catalogues of Straits Chinese ceramics from the mid-1990s as a guide. The Southeast Asian Ceramic Society, West Malaysia Chapter, that is based in Kuala Lumpur does guide members on what to avoid when collecting such items,” he says.
In Singapore, Wee is the go-to person to consult on such ware because he was the appraiser for Christie’s auction of Straits Chinese ceramics back in the 1990s.
“There is no specific appraisal body in Southeast Asia. However, as I have dealt with these ceramics for about four decades, people usually come to me to appraise their items. And oftentimes, salesmen selling ‘Peranakan’ ware will quote my name [to gain credibility].”
This is why he only does face-to-face appraisal or evaluation and never through the telephone or email, he says. “I can’t value without seeing or handling the item.
“Many people seek my endorsement because of my experience but I will only endorse certain bodies, such as museums and credible organisations like Yayasan Budi Penyayang Malaysia, founded by Datin Paduka Seri Endon Mahmood, the late wife of former Malaysian prime minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.”