Antiques can instantly add character and charm to a home. Each piece of antique has a story to tell, especially of the period it came from. Singapore has its own fair share of antique stores, being in close proximity to the other South-east Asian countries – all brimming with history.
We caught up with Fred Chua, founder of Shang Antique – which has been in Dempsey Hill for over 30 years. He sources and sells antiques from around Asia himself – namely Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and Indonesia. Fred tells us about the history of Indo-Chinese antiques, how he traced back the origins of the pieces and expert tips on how to spot authentic ones from reproductions.
Lifestyle Asia (LSA): What inspired you to open Shang Antique?
Fred Chua (FC): I helped my parents in the furniture business for a couple of years. That’s where I learnt the ropes. There was a unit beside their shop available for rental, so my mother encouraged me to take a leap forward and start my own business.
LSA: Which country is your favourite to source from?
FC: Burma is a country rich in culture and has a wide variety of collectables. They’re famous for their lacquerware, woodcraft and buddha images.
LSA: What sets Asian antiques apart from Western ones?
FC: Asian antiques use tropical wood, which is more durable. We use a lot of teak. The Burmese used golden teak, which is the best quality. Teak wood also has anti-termite properties because of teak oil in the wood which drives the insects away. That helps the piece last for up to hundreds of years.
Burmese religious art can lead back to the 12th century. They are made of teak wood, which has survived up to this date. I collected two pieces in the past but they’re already sold, as they are very popular. A life-sized piece can cost about $300,000 – $400,000.
LSA: Do you think buyers are educated about antiques?
FC: Most collectors just collect for leisure and aesthetics, unless they are really serious. Once someone starts using antiques to beautify their home, they turn into serious collectors and start looking into rarer pieces. It all starts from the first piece.
LSA: How can one discern authentic antiques from reproductions?
FC: There are three things we look out for. The first would be to look for patina, a thin layer that forms on the surface of stone or wood as a result of oxidisation. The older the antique is, the thicker the patina. This is how you are able to tell that the piece is indeed an antique. Bronze have green or blue tinted patina, whereas wood has a nice wearing over a period of time.
Secondly, we look at the finish of the antique. For this, you have to use your hands and touch the corners of the piece. Modern makers usually do not bother to sand down and finish the areas that are not immediately seen. The finish is more superficial. They will do whatever they can to make it look nice on the surface.
Old makers, on the other hand, take no short cuts. Every corner will be finished, including the insides and bottom to ensure they are very well smoothened. They were very proud of their craft. So if a buyer wants to buy an antique, he should turn it around and check for these tell tale signs. You can’t tell with just one look. Older things will also tend to have a lot of repairs done, so it depends on the extent of the repairs. If over 60% of the furniture is new wood, it will not be that collectable and shouldn’t be so expensive.
Lastly, the style of the image has to be consistent with the period.
LSA: How do you trace back the origins of the pieces?
FC: It’s all from decades of experience and a lot of reading. As mentioned previously, the clothing they wear has to be consistent with that particular period. For example, I’ll take a look at the jewellery they wear. It helps me tell the economic state of the country during that period, like how rich the country is. If the country is not doing well, for example during the Shan period, very often the images will not be wearing any jewellery. It is much simpler. The Mandalay period during the 19th century, on the other hand, is very prosperous. It’s very elaborate, and they even have glass beads to represent jewels.
The climate and atmosphere also make a difference, as you can see from the facial expressions of the carving. Some buddha images are not smiling at all – which tells what the people are going through during that period of time.
LSA: Which are your most unique pieces?
FC: Ghandara art is very interesting. It is very Greek, very Roman influenced. Over 2,000 years ago, the Greeks followed Alexander the Great to conquer the Middle East. They decided to settle down in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they married the locals and converted to Buddhism.
As you can see from Ghandara carvings, the faces have very sharp, European features. Even the robes they are wearing are very Greek. This is the result of the fusion of cultures as they embraced the religion. Greeks are very good stone carvers, and art is their forte. They used whatever resources they had, which were the stones available in Afghanistan or Pakistan, and then craved the images in their style.