Hong Kong Collectors: The Bottle Pickers

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When collectors collect, what is the catalyst that inspires them to go off on a tangent, gathering snuff bottles, dinky toys, posters, fans, photographs, ephemera, ginger jars or first edition books? Spend an evening chatting in a Chinese restaurant in Sheung Wan with members of the Hong Kong Collectors Society and there will be a whole mix of stories as to what triggered the collecting bug. 

For Lamma resident Simon Cheung, it was a friend and fellow hiker who told him about how he would traipse through rural villages in the northern New Territories or outlying islands and find old glass bottles. Intrigued, Cheung followed suit. Prior to that, Cheung laughingly admits he was a “collector of everything” including watches “expensive at auction”; rare wooden blocks used for printing; and posters.  But the rub was that it all cost money for this family man whereas to acquire the majority of his bottle collection, he only needed to hike — which he did virtually every weekend once the bug got him — and the costs were minimal: a big bag, transport and tired muscles.

Bottles are a niche form of collecting in Hong Kong, according to Cheung; not many do it. But over the past 40 years, he has done plenty, gathering more than 10,000 bottles. While he has expanded his collection along the way, the vast majority have come through his village forays, including old green Watsons bottles used for aerated water, Chinese medicine tins, milk bottles from the Trappist Dairy on Lantau, and the brass boxes of an opium smoker, stamped officially by the Hong Kong government when opium was legal and a good revenue earner. 

When he finds the bottles, they are often caked in mud or oil; it’s only when he brings them back to his village house in Sok Kwu Wan on Lamma Island and cleans them off that he discovers how they are stamped to reveal their heritage. He has become a specialist on the history behind those bottles and drinks firms, and over the years has not only collected the bottles themselves, but spent hundreds of hours in Hong Kong libraries, painstakingly leafing through old newspapers to look at drinks adverts and stories to research the histories of Hong Kong’s water, dairy and perfume companies. 

He started visiting many of Hong Kong’s old villages in 1984. “Because of the low rainfall and low water supplies, many people left their villages,” he says of the exodus of particularly Hakka villagers from the 1960s onwards to Britain and continental Europe. Abandoned houses yielded old green glass Watsons bottles, made in England, stamped with the Watsons brand name and filled with aerated water that was supposedly good for your health – a luxury for those villagers who could afford it. Watsons was founded as the Hong Kong Dispensary in 1841, an offshoot of the Canton Dispensary that was already operating in Guangzhou. The brand gained its current name from Thomas Boswell Watson, a Scottish doctor who invested in the Hong Kong Dispensary after he moved from Macau to Hong Kong in 1856. 

As Cheung’s interest in bottles grew, he continued to augment his collection by studying newspapers,  “some very old books” and by chatting with village old-timers. “I asked them to talk about the bottles,” he says. “The farmers would plough the land and they would buy a special drink called sarsaparilla and if the ox was sick they would give it sarsaparilla water and then after a few days, the ox had the energy to plough the fields again.” 

Sitting at home, Cheung brings some tea to the table, then he delves into another room, returning with two bottles to add to the collection of bottles and tins already on the table.  These two date back to the mid-19th century. The Hamilton, a green glass bottle that lies on its side, was designed in this way to stop the gas leaking. It is shaped like a torpedo and Briton William Hamilton invented this aerated water bottle design in 1814. Artificially carbonated water was first invented by English chemist and clergyman Joseph Priestly, who also discovered a number of gases and additionally was a big critic of the Anglican Church. But it was a century later in the Victorian era when aerated water not only became popular for assumed medicinal qualities but also as a fashionable beverage.

“This was the first kind of bottle and the shape is very special,” says Cheung of the Hamilton.  “Most of them were made in England, there was no production means available in Hong Kong to make such bottles.” Also, he says, the silica sand in Europe was better for producing glass.  Cheung not only collects these water, perfume and medicine bottles and drinks, he also has studied how glass is made and went on a glass-blowing course in Sheung Wan in the 1980s.  

Standing next to the Hamilton is its successor, the Codd bottle, which took technology forward with a glass marble inserted into the neck to keep the gas trapped in the water. The green, thick-glass Codd bottle stands upright, the marble pressed against the rubber seal. London soft-drinks maker Hiram Codd designed the bottle named after him in 1872, making carbonated drinks firms happy who took his bottles across the world, and also delighted little boys who smashed the bottles to play with the marbles, which makes the surviving Codd bottles a rarer entity.

On the side of the Codd bottles there’s the Watsons stamp. Watsons was a key supplier of aerated water and medicinal supplies first established in Possession Street. “They set up the aerated water factory in Hong Kong but the bottles were bought from England,” says Cheung. “Watsons was in North Point, where Watson Road still marks where the factory was.” 

Watsons wasn’t alone, he adds; there were dozens of drink companies in Hong Kong. Among those early aerated water companies was Lane Crawford and the Royal Naval Canteen. Also the Connaught Aerated Water Company, which historian York Lo cites as the first Chinese-owned aerated water company in Hong Kong, set up in 1907.

But back to those village forages – “It was very hard but very interesting, many kinds of bottles,” says Cheung of his multiple visits to New Territories and outlying island villages, where it isn’t unusual for him to collect 40 bottles in a day. “In the villages you could find a milk bottle from Dairy Farm. There were quite a lot of baby feeders, maybe made in Japan,” he says, as he shows a green curved bottle with a rubber teat that has stood the test of time. 

He also has found Japanese-made beer and perfume bottles, but also plenty of medicine bottles both Chinese and foreign. “Here’s Dr K.S. Lo with a Vitasoy lorry,” says Cheung, pointing to a photograph of the late Hong Kong businessman Lo Kwee-seong, who founded the drinks company in 1940. 

Cheung picks up a little bottle that once contained cod liver oil. “Cod liver oil was very popular. I remember when I was small I would take this,” he says. Alongside the bottles are tins of medicine, including a tin of Watsons Flower Pagoda Cakes. “This was very popular in Hong Kong, I used it many times when I was small,” says Cheung. “An effective treatment for threadworm and roundworm infection.”

Cheung recalls a visit to Tung Ping Chau where he found old opium bottles, as well as brass tins that would have accommodated more expensive opium. In addition to being of historical interest, many of the drinks and perfume adverts are beautiful pieces of art in themselves, such as the posters of the cosmetic firm Kwong Sang Hong’s Two Girls brand. Cheung shows off an advertisement for Green Spot orangeade, which was produced in Aberdeen and still holds a place in many a 1950s teenager’s heart. 

These days Cheung goes on fewer trips to the rural villages – even he admits he’s probably picked up most of the bottles.  But he continues passionately with his research. “If you collect bottles for 20 years, maybe you will lose interest, but it’s the story, the background, that is important to remember,” he says.

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