There is nothing diminutive about Angelina Kwan. In her light-filled Pok Fu Lam apartment, the cathedral ceiling seems barely to contain her 180cm frame, let alone her oversized personality. During the working day, as head of regulatory compliance for Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing, Kwan can be a fearsome adversary for any Hong Kong-listed companies that break the rules.
To clear her mind from her stressful day job, Kwan pulls a miniature jade toggle on a string from her pocket, and runs her fingers along its textured surface. Toggles were originally used to secure objects suspended from the belts of Chinese scholar-officials, and they range from richly veined cylindrical beads to animals, plaques, seals, and mythical beasts. The colours are russet, celadon, black and creamy white. They are carved with swirling dragons and mythical beasts, or sculpted in the form of crouching tigers, some of which are more pussycat than predator. “Wearing a piece helps you think,” says Kwan. “They are there to remind you of different things.”
The jade that Kwan wears is not your average fashion piece, which would be made with a different type of jade altogether – gemstone-quality jadeite, called fei2 ceoi3 (翡翠) for its colour, kingfisher green. Kwan’s jade is nephrite, which has been prized in China for millennia and which China has in abundance, unlike jadeite, 70 percent of which is found in Myanmar. While fei2 ceoi3 is glossy and uniform in colour, the mottled veining of nephrite evokes autumn leaves, bones and ocean depths – landscapes of the mind. Jadeite jewelry is a status symbol. Nephrite jade evokes a different language. Kwan collects the latter out of learning, love, and remembrance.
First came learning. Kwan was born in Los Angeles. “I grew up with no culture,” says Kwan. She knew something about jadeite from her Hong Kong-born mother, who had a jewelry store called Jade Finger, but nothing about nephrite jade. “When my mother came across white jade [nephrite] pieces, she would give them away as napkin rings,” says Kwan. “Now they’re priceless.”
Kwan moved to Hong Kong in 1994 for a job with HG Asia – formerly historic British brokerage house Hoare Govett. While rising in her field, Kwan began to explore her new home. One of her finds was a pop-up antique vendor in Admiralty Centre, who Kwan came to know as Joe. He showed up every Thursday with his wares, including jade. “Most of his customers were little old ladies,” says Kwan. “I thought it was cool. I saw people from every walk of life.”
Joe was a wholesaler to other dealers, who would save the best pieces for special clients. He took an interest in the tall, gangling, Cantonese-challenged American even though Joe spoke no English. “Because of him, my Cantonese got better,” says Kwan. “From him, I learned how to look at jade.” He also taught her how to wear and handle her pieces. “The more you wear it, the better it looks,” he said. “I would wear them on my belt tucked into my pocket, or wear a bracelet,” says Kwan. “If I was really bored, I would take it out and play with it.”
Kwan bought other things from her friendly dealer. She began to collect Buddhist prayer beads used for meditation, called mala, at the same time she started to develop an interest in white jade. Her taste for white jade set her apart from other collectors at the time. “I was really strange,” Kwan says. “I liked the white jade. Everything Joe had, I bought. Others used to scoff at me. Joe would say, ‘Buy the colored jade!’ Then later white jade went through the roof. I would keep it in my safe, but I just randomly bought stuff.”
Love came next, in the form of a colleague, Simon Ng, who became Kwan’s most valuable teacher and best friend. In 1995, she started Hong Kong’s first industry association for securities compliance officers. One day in a meeting, Ng, a compliance officer with Goldman Sachs, saw her wearing one of her antique jades and asked about it. They became close friends, until by the end they were like “an old married couple,” says Kwan. “He was really a jade freak,” Kwan recalls. “At lunchtime, he’d go out and look at jade. At 5pm, he would call and say, ‘Angelina, I’ve got something.’” He was the only non-staffer who was allowed into the Securities and Futures Commission, where Kwan worked between 1989 and 2006, because, as Kwan puts it, “He was my honey.”
They toured museums and jade markets together. “[He] knew all the jade dealers everywhere,” Kwan says. “He could identify a good piece in two seconds. And he could get the most amazing jade for nothing, from dealers or collectors. I wouldn’t buy anything without showing him first.” Ng, who came from a poor background and paid cash for his purchases, taught Kwan how to train her eye. She brought him into the auction world. Once Ng spotted a white jade reverse jade plaque at Sotheby’s with an estimated value of HK$100,000. As the bidding began, on the other side was the Li Ka Shing Foundation, representing the fortune of Asia’s richest man. The foundation won, with a bid of HK$700,000. “I was so scared,” says Kwan, relieved not to walk away with a prize. “It would have wiped out my savings.”
Eventually, Ng decided Kwan was ready to make her own decisions. They were visiting the jade market in Taipei together. “This time, he said, ‘You’re on your own. Bye.’ It was my exam. I bought two pieces of white jade, a little dog and a belt hook, not expensive. And he said, ‘You’ve passed.’”
Ng reinforced Kwan’s lesson from the dealer to wear her jade, particularly bracelets. Ng told her, “From now on you’re going to wear a bracelet. You need something to calm you down so that you won’t slam the table all the time.” Bracelets were worn by men, and were de rigueur for male scholar-officials under China’s last two dynasties, the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912). They are decorated with motifs of power – tou1 tit3 (饕餮) or “gluttonous ogre,” a monster face that dates to the Shang dynasty (1766-1046 BC); dragons and tigers; and raised inscriptions in “oracle bone” script in the style of the earliest Chinese writing, from the reign of Shang King Wu Ding (1250-1192 BC). From the time of Confucius, wearing jade was associated with a slow, decorous gait – quick motion might lead to a broken treasure. That wasn’t the case with Kwan. “I’m an American,” she says. “I wave my hands around a lot and I’m quite expressive. I do not mind telling people they are idiots.” Her bracelets may not change her character, but she says she has become less cou1 (粗) – less rough.
As suddenly as love came, it was replaced by remembrance. In 2011, Ng died of a heart attack in his sleep at the age of 42, while on a trip to Taiwan. Kwan was stunned. Since his death, without his company, her journey in jade has been a lonesome one. “I lost my eye for a year,” she says. It has taken time to come back, but now she is inspired by the idea of sharing her passion with others. “I want to go in a direction to teach people the joy of collecting,” she says.
As a collector, one of the most unusual things about Kwan is her gender. They would call her a gwai2 mui6 (鬼妹), literally “younger sister ghost,” an epithet for foreign woman in Cantonese. “They knew I had good stuff but they knew I wasn’t local. I didn’t fit in with the women and I didn’t fit in with the men,” she says. Jade has long been a male preserve in Chinese culture. Confucius (551-479 BC) set a lasting imprint on cultural attitudes towards jade when he said, according to the Li Ji (禮記) or Book of Rites, that “superior men found the likeness of all excellent qualities in jade.” So to be a superior man — a gwan1 zi2 (君子) — implied a taste for jade.
Even so, China’s first collector of jade was undeniably a woman – and a spiritual sister to Kwan in her passion for jade. Fu Hao (婦好) was the consort of the 23rd king of the Shang Dynasty, Wu Ding. Fu Hao led Shang armies in battle, served as a shaman, gave birth, and eventually died and was given a grand burial, based on the earliest inscriptions in Chinese writing.
There is some controversy about whether there were one or many Fu Haos, but none about the collection of 755 jades that was found in the tomb of at least one Fu Hao in Anyang, discovered in 1976. Most of her jades are currently on view at an exhibition that runs through March 26 at the Rocco Yim-designed Guangdong Museum in Guangzhou, and they give an unmistakable impression of the collector, who sourced not only from the greatest artisans of her time but from earlier periods including Hongshan and Longshan. Like Kwan, she loved animals and ornaments made of jade, with many that she must have fondled or worn, like her 21st century counterpart.
Whether it is a man’s thing or not, Kwan’s taste in jade is neither academic or expensive, and she has learned to trust her eye when it comes to authenticity. The objects that she collects are outside the scope of high-end collectors, who are more likely to focus on jade from the Qing dynastic workshops, where prices can be stratospheric. Last September, a jade seal used by the Qianlong emperor sold for HK$91.5 million, and was the top lot at Sotheby’s autumn 2016 auction in Hong Kong. Kwan likes cute animals with big eyes, plaques with strange faces and toggles that have been played with many times before. “I like it to be tactile and fun,” she says. “It could have been a brush rest or a scholar’s piece. It could be something that somebody just liked and played with a lot.”
After listening to Kwan, I look through my own jade collection to see if I have anything she would want. We collect for different reasons, but I do find one Ming toggle – or I should say Ming-ish toggle, because it may in fact be from the Qing Dynasty. It may even be new. It crouches like a tiger, but is round and fat like a house cat. It is celadon green, but marked with black where someone, or maybe many people, have held and rubbed it. I see it with Kwan’s eyes, as a pet and an intimate. I think I will keep it in my pocket, too.