“I’m not really an antique dealer, because everything I have has a story.”
John Fairman settles his lanky 185 cm frame into an elegant high-backed armchair and begins a three-hour journey into the past. It’s the tale of Honeychurch Antiques, a story about Hong Kong, pre- and post-1997, the fortunes of a retail business that seems much more than just another antique business, and the changing ecology of Hong Kong’s first street, built in 1841 – Hollywood Road.
“Don’t forget to fact check everything I say,” says Fairman several hours later. As if anyone could, or would want to fact check a tale as rich, textured, and convoluted as his.
“It all started in the 1960s, with Mr. and Mrs. Honeychurch-Skelson, who had their shop here on just one floor,” says Fairman. “[It was] mostly a consignment shop for English civil servants retiring back to England many of whom came here fully furnished with European goods and didn’t trust the Chinese look, and were only allowed a certain amount of freight going back.”
It turns out that isn’t really the beginning of the story. Fairman’s account actually begins before World War II, in Shanghai and Manila, and touches down in Southeast Asia during the height of the Vietnam War in the 1960s, before heading north to rural Kyushu where Fairman became a “blue-eyed potter.” It finally veers south again to Hong Kong, where Fairman’s mother and stepfather took over the Honeychurch business, at 29 Hollywood Road, in 1967. Glenn and Lucille Vessa were the “king and queen” of Hollywood Road, at a time when it was a Chinese neighbourhood with Western characteristics, far different from the mix of bars, restaurants and high-end galleries it is today.
Bohos on Hollywood Road
The Vessas of Honeychurch were self-styled bohemians – the 1960s equivalents of hipsters – fascinated by Asia and works of art and crafts that were little known and barely accessible to their counterparts in London and New York. They were adventurers, socialites whose dinner invitations were coveted by the wealthy elite of Hong Kong, and experts in the civilisations and cultures that lay behind the eclectic objects that filled their store and their flat next door at 31 Hollywood Road. Like many Chinese business owners (but few foreigners) they lived above their store and furnished their duplex flat in a flamboyant, pan-Asian style that echoed their excitement, by surrounding themselves with objects of the region’s rapidly disappearing traditional cultures.
Born in Japan in 1953, Fairman spoke fluent Japanese as a child, and retained enough as a teenager to become an apprentice to one of Japan’s leading potters, Takatori Seizan, the 11th master of the 15th century Takatori school. After a year of college, he went on an exchange program to an arts school in Japan, Kansai Gijutsu Daigaku, where he asked to have a home stay with a potter. After several twists and turns, he was accepted by the diminutive Takatori, the first woman to be authorised by the Ensshu School as a master potter in her family line. Two and a half years later, he went back to the United States to study fine arts at the University of Washington, graduating in 1977. It was only when he graduated that realised that, despite his fluent Japanese and skills as a potter, he would never be able to afford a trip back to Asia. So he accepted the Vessas’ invitation to open a branch of Honeychurch in the US. The rest, as they say, is history.
“What I found very quickly is that this is a very personality oriented business,” says Fairman. “What I bought reflected my aesthetic. [The Vessas] were buying a lot of Chinese things because of their location in Hong Kong, but I loved anything – all antiques. I never considered anything different than a career in ceramics and antiques.”
Inside Honeychurch, lodged between a foot massage parlour and a pizza place, are Chinese spirit rocks and Japanese suiseki, miniature mountains used for study by the literati of both cultures. There are also brilliant Japanese obi or sashes, Chinese ceramics, Japanese ship captains’ chests known as funadansu, lacquer screens, tribal sculptures, Thai and Khmer bronze Buddhas, jade toggles and porcelain brush rests, an ivory opium pipe, a whole display shelf filled with elegant lacquered fire containers or hibachis, hundreds if not thousands of objects from across Asia.
The collection overwhelms but invites, with prices from US$100 to US$100,000, a mix for all kinds of customers, from casual buyers to serious collectors. In one corner, a photo of Lucille Vessa in her prime in the 1970s shows an elegant, vibrant woman with a big smile and mischievous look. Next to it, her husband Glenn Vessa, who died in 2013, has a more buttoned-down look. His meticulous descriptions, typed on an old-fashioned manual typewriter, are attached to nearly every object, more what one might expect from a museum exhibition than a retail display, although each includes a price. At the peak in the 1980s, there were at least 100 antique stores, many run by Westerners, along Hollywood Road from Aberdeen Street to Wyndham Street. Now there are just a handful that remain – and Honeychurch has been in its final chapter for nearly a decade.
The rise and fall of Hollywood Road antiques
Like most retail, the antiques business is migrating online, and millennials have little interest in the large-scale furniture and eclectic style of pan-Asian chic. In 2011, as age and infirmity took their toll on the Vessas, Fairman and his wife Laurie began to commute from the Seattle branch of the business to help out. They have been running it since then, but this week — on Saturday, June 24 — it will shut its doors for good, bringing an end a 50-year history. It marks the final end of an era when Hollywood Road was one of the epicentres of the global trade in Chinese and Asian antiquities.
The tilting of the Asian antiques trade to Hollywood Road in the mid-1970s came at a time when the major auction houses, Sotheby’s and Christies, were just setting up shop in Hong Kong. London was fading, New York was rising, and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was entering its last catastrophic phase in mainland China. As China entered its economic reforms starting in 1978, newly business-minded cadres were willing to use antiquities in barter trade for the tools of industrialisation, with Hong Kong as a major point of sales. The warehouses that had been filled with confiscated goods during the Cultural Revolution found their way to Hong Kong first, and its dealers became the spotters for the most successful dealers in New York and London and then major dealers in their own rights.
Entwined with the demise of Honeychurch is an East versus West story – not a clash between Asia and Europe, but one between the eastern and western ends of Hollywood Road. Like many things in Hong Kong, the polarisation followed no set plan. Key to the ecology of the eastern end of Hollywood Road is that most of the retail and restaurant owners there rented their premises, rather than owning them. The east end reached its peak in the late 1980s and early 1990s, subsiding after the Mid-Levels escalator, the world’s largest covered outdoor escalator system, was completed in 1993. The escalator sparked the chemistry of the street today: bars, restaurants and high-end art galleries. The antique stores quietly ebbed away.
The western end of Hollywood Road, where dealers own their buildings and are less vulnerable to pressures of the property market, has none of the problems of the eastern end. Anchored by Man Mo Temple, it is predominantly Chinese, and has been coupled with the coffin business for generations. Fairman picks up his story with the arrival of the British in 1841. “They had been going broke in China in the [18th] century, until they discovered opium in Calcutta, and they said, ‘Let’s give that a shot,'” he says.
“They had these big go-downs in Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Beijing, and during uprisings the first thing the Chinese would do is burn down the opium warehouses. The English finally got fed up with the opium uprisings, and were threatening to burn down the Forbidden City, when the emperor asked what they wanted and the answer was, Hong Kong. The western end of Hollywood Road was where the opium warehouses and jetties were built out into the bay, and a huge shantytown was built up. When the plague came ashore, the English quarantined the village and wouldn’t let the bodies off the island. Chinese to this day are very superstitious about death rituals. You need to be buried with your ancestors. This accounts for the two businesses there, antiques and coffins. It all started out as consignment stores for people who were dying, with funerary homes, coffin shops, and temples.”
The coffin and antique businesses still cluster at the western end of Hollywood Road and Tai Ping Shan, where the plague of 1894 was centred, still feels haunted. Hollywood Road was the new city’s first road, built in 1841 by the first colonial administrator, Captain Charles Elliott, to connect Possession Point (now Possession Road) in the west with the Victoria and Wellington Barracks near Garden Road. But was the road named for holly trees along the road or the family home of the second governor of Hong Kong, Sir John Davis, Hollywood Tower at Westbury-on-Trym near Bristol, England? Andrew Yanne and Gillis Heller, authors of the 2009 book Signs of a Colonial Era, vote for the latter.
A raconteur’s farewell
Whatever the next phase of Hollywood Road may be, it will have one less resident storyteller. Dressed in a black polo shirt over a black t-shirt with black chinos and black leather moccasins, the bearded, 63-year-old Fairman looks more artisan than salesman, and readily admits that the kind of antique business represented by Honeychurch is a thing of the past. “I love this business,” he says. “It’s why I’m struggling with the new business model. I would rather have people come in and see their eyes light up when I tell them the story [behind the piece]. I would like to do to others what an antique dealer did to me when I was seven years old.”
The last straw was a 200 percent increase in rent over the last five years, compared to years of much more moderate increases. Equally damaging has been the shift to online retail. In the antiques business, this means a different sort of sales strategy, focusing on niches like snuff bottles or Japanese prints that photograph well and attract specialist collectors. “Now we’re the last man standing,” says Fairman. “What’s happening is that the old bricks-and-mortar street shop with a presence on Hollywood Road is no longer sustainable. But it isn’t just Hong Kong. It’s happening around the world. I had to close my shop in Seattle two years ago for the same reasons.” They have moved their inventory to a “destination store” 50 minutes north of Seattle, next to their daughter’s organic farm, and plan to participate in antique fairs and hold pop-up antique sales.
If collective memory exists, there will always be a Honeychurch, and there will always be an imprint, however faint, of the Vessas and the Fairmans. The family saga began in Shanghai in the 1930s, where Fairman’s grandfather, Fred Filo Fairman, ran a successful trading business in Shanghai until the Japanese occupation of the city. He then moved the business to Manila, and eventually died in 1945 in the Japanese internment camp at Santo Tomas. Fairman’s father, Fred Jr., came with General Douglas MacArthur’s staff to liberate Santo Tomas and discovered only his mother, Katherine, had survived. He then pursued his own career in Asia after graduating from Harvard Business School, working for Singer Sewing Machine in Tokyo and raising three children with his first wife, Lucille. Lucille got her start in the antiques business by buying used Japanese furniture for her home, to save money, at a time when imported Western furniture was too expensive for her budget.
Fairman’s parents later separated and Lucille dived into the booming import-export business during the height of the Vietnam War, selling products to United States military commissaries and meeting Glenn Vessa, who had the Rolex franchise for Asia as well a deep knowledge of Asian history and culture. When they moved from Bangkok to Hong Kong in the mid-1960s, they began trading antiques at a time when international travel was limited and war and disruption across the region meant a ready supply of family heirlooms. “It was the end of an era,” says Fairman. “The colonial era ended with World War II. But the colonial echo lasted another 20 years.” He grew up in Tokyo and Bangkok, staying on in Bangkok after his parents divorced.
It was in Bangkok that Fairman found his calling. “My mother was an inveterate antique hunter,” he says. Lucille Vessa would give her son US$1 and take him with her to Bangkok’s Chinatown, into tiny stores lit by a single light bulb and piled high with antique bronze tribal drums from the highlands. She told Fairman that he could buy anything he wanted to. One day, he found a small box in the form of a turtle, with a green glazed cover and unglazed body. He asked the dealer how much it was and the reply was exactly one dollar. The dealer then explained it was over 500 years old and showed him four fingerprints on the base. “He put my fingers in the fingerprints and said, ‘This was made by a kid your age.’ I couldn’t have been more stunned. I can accurately point to that moment in time that changed my whole life. What I want is to have people’s eyes light up that way.”
Now, as Honeychurch is about to close its doors for the evening, Fairman says, “People come in and they are almost crying because these are the last remaining days of Honeychurch. We nearly closed a year ago, but the landlord came to us and tacked off 10 percent in rent, and made me think, ‘Let’s give it a shot for another year.’ This time, I’ve sent a private email to all my clients. If you come in, I’ll try to make you happy.”