Modern Before Its Time: A Hong Kong Gallery Embraces Ming Dynasty Furniture

On a sweltering July afternoon, the junk shops of Cat Street disgorge their treasure into the lanes leading up to Po Hing Fong. The chintzy bric-à-brac comprises porcelain Mao busts, rotary phones and Chinoiserie – all of uncertain value and even more suspect provenance. But these purported antiquities certainly lend colour to this eclectic neighbourhood, where temples bump up against frou-frou cafés. 

A final ascent up Tung Street brings you to a smart glass storefront from which a snow-white Maltese gazes. Serene quiet enfolds as you step in. This is Hon Ming Gallery, which since the 1980s has specialised in dealing, restoring and advising on Chinese furniture from the late Ming era. Greeting a new visitor, the Maltese excitedly trots over. Bonnie Lau, the gallery’s young director, scoops the dog up. Her calm presence and unadorned elegance are at one with her surroundings. She offers a seat at a handsome Ming table. 

The table’s complement of spindly looking chairs reveals substantial heft when one is pulled out to sit. Lau flashes a smile. “How does it feel, sitting on one of those?” These 400-year-old furnishings are at once conspicuous and consistent within the gallery’s modern context. Relaxing into that venerable chair, a sweeping curve of wood embraces the human form with precise proportions that coax the sitter into an attitude of dignified ease. Comfortable without overstuffed cushioning, the chair features firm but forgiving rattan that flexes just enough but no more. Everything is just so in its restrained perfection.

Preceded by the Mongol Yuan dynasty and followed by the Manchu Qing dynasty, the Ming Dynasty was an interval of native Chinese rule that lasted from 1368 to 1644. It exerted immense influence in East Asia. Characterised by a conservative and inward-looking attitude, furniture design and craft are some of the dynasty’s noted cultural achievements.

For Hon Ming Gallery, it is the furniture of the late Ming and early Qing periods that is most interesting. “The late Ming period was prosperous and the literati were very influential,” says Lau. “In that period there was a clear line distinguishing vulgar and elegant. The literati liked to showcase their taste with avant-garde furniture. Ming furniture is a result of the collaboration between the literati and craftsmen.” 

Subtle beauty aside, philosophy gives Ming furniture its character. “They came up with this understated design that carries signature cultural elements and aspects of Taoism, which espouses harmony between nature and man, and Confucianism which teaches modesty. This informs the balance and proportion of Ming Furniture,” says Lau.

A humble, understated ethos has guided Hon Ming Gallery from the start. Formerly known as Hon Ming Antique Furniture, the gallery works closely with museums, institutions and private collectors. All of this grew from a little booth where Lau’s grandfather, a master woodworker from Guangzhou, repaired furniture in the 1940s. The sifu’s son, Lau Kai-sum, joined the family business gaining a strong foundation in woodworking before seeing an opportunity in antiques. In the early 1980s—the golden age of Hong Kong’s Chinese antiquities trade—he opened a shop at 90 Hollywood Road, naming it for the style of furniture he favoured most: Hon6 Ming4 (瀚明) means “lots of Ming furniture,” says Lau. 

She is the third generation specialising in this trade. As gallery director, she has moved the business away from the forbidding image of an antiquities dealer and into a welcoming centre of knowledge and appreciation for Ming furniture. And yet, despite growing up with her family’s old furniture, she wasn’t keen on the trade at first. “It’s just second-hand furniture,” she remembers thinking. “We wanted modern furniture like our friends’ families,” she says. 

She changed her mind about her family’s business after attending an art fair. Her friends pointed out that furniture was a kind of art, too. One Father’s Day, she floated the idea of taking a course in Chinese antiquities to her dad. He didn’t reply until the next day. “If you are really interested, I will support you,” he said. With that blessing, Lau—who had been working in finance—undertook a course at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London.

Lau is aware there is still much to learn from her father to preserve his knowledge and nudge Hon Ming towards the future. The elder Lau is normally reticent around his daughter, but today he is pleasantly chatty. She records his voice for posterity. She is especially concerned about practical details of furniture restoration and woodworking, services which Hon Ming doesn’t advertise widely but offers as a value added feature to clients – though Lau is quick to stress that they only do repairs and never make furniture. 

“Our sifu have been restoring [furniture] for several decades,” says Lau Kai-sum. “They’re in their 60s and ready to retire.” He explains that their apprenticeships took four years and they learned every aspect of Chinese furniture making, including cutting and planing without electric tools, and most crucially, joinery. Those joinery techniques were passed down through the Tang and Song dynasties and culminated in the Ming dynasty when they reached their apogee. “That was a cultural golden age when people appreciated clean lines and elegance,” says Lau. 

Soon it will be difficult to find craftsmen who are familiar with the ingenious joinery used to create fine but robust furniture without the clumsy encumbrances of nails and screws. The joinery must be outstanding to achieve this. With these demands and the need for long and low-paid—or even unpaid—apprenticeships, the industry is draining young blood. “There’s no way kids could take four years out for an apprenticeship,” says the elder Lau. “They need to get to work making an actual living. When this cohort of old masters retires, the tradition of craftsmanship may end.”

The generational theme continues as we take a closer look at decorative carvings on a daybed. “Here, two dragons face each other,” says Bonnie. “They symbolise a father and son. The father is teaching the son to become a useful person.” The dragons are nothing more than abstract swirls, their usually complex forms reduced to essence. This spare aesthetic sets Ming furniture apart from the stereotypical image of Chinese furniture, which is often seen to be ornate and rigid; something one might find at the home of an elderly relative. 

The elder Lau says it was the ostentation of later eras that gave traditional Chinese furniture its reputation for being fussy and overcomplicated. 

Mainstream interest wasn’t piqued until 1985, when scholar and collector Wang Shixiang published his seminal book Appreciating Ming Furniture (Míng shì jiājùzhēn shǎng 明式家具珍賞), followed by Ming Style Furniture Research (Míng shì jiājù yánjiū 明式家具研究) in 1989. “When Westerners learned of Ming furniture, so pure in design, they loved it,” says Lau.

“After the Ming, there was little appreciation within China for these pieces and so they were used like normal,” adds Bonnie. Her fingers trace a cup stain left on a table as though by a hapless houseguest in need of a coaster. “We once saw a table with strange swirling stains all over it – we think someone had been butchering meat on it.” Far from considering them as flaws, it’s elements like these she appreciates: the furniture carries stories. “After the fall of the Qing and even in the wake of the Communist Revolution, Ming furniture was inexpensive,” adds her father. “Provided one could find it.” 

Like a latter day Indiana Jones, the senior Lau was amongst the earliest Hong Kong dealers to head north in search of Ming artefacts. “What types of places had them? Places where there used to be Ming period palaces or prosperous commercial centres of the time,” he says. Dealers scoured the countryside to unearth caches of furniture, often deploying detective skills to track the treasure. “If you could find a Ming official’s hometown, there might be furniture that he brought home after retiring.” 

Lau relied on fixers, paying them with liang piao (糧票)—commodity ration coupons—in the earliest days, and renminbi when the economy found its feet. Dismantling the furniture, Lau would ship it back to Hong Kong where he would reassemble it like an intricate puzzle. “You really needed to know where to look and how to deal with it – the huanghuali furniture couldn’t be found just anywhere. Huanghuali is a particularly valuable type of rosewood sourced mainly from northern Vietnam that was used in most Ming furniture. Prized for its translucent, shimmering surface, it mellows into a distinctive yellow-brown colour.

There is little Ming furniture left in China. Most of it is in the West. These days, much of Hon Ming’s business involves sourcing furniture from Europe and America. Prices have also changed. “In the 80s, a smaller dealer might have sold a pair of hyun1 ji2 (圈椅 – horseshoe armchairs) to a distributor for as little as 100 RMB,” says Lau. His daughter’s mouth drops. He shrugs in response. “At that time nobody cared about furniture.” The Laus would have paid a few thousand RMB for the same two chairs, selling one of them for between HK$10,000 and $20,000. “Now? A single chair in good condition would cost HK$800,000 to $1 million – at a conservative estimate. A pair costs much more.” Glancing at a recent Sotheby’s sale, two chairs had indeed been valued at HK$1 and $2 million. They ended up selling for HK$6.895 million.

The cultural debt owed to the Ming cannot be calculated in kuai and mao. Prefiguring Modernism by at least four centuries, at a time roughly spanning the late Middle Ages and Renaissance in Europe, Ming furniture has influenced some notable designers. “I visited the Designmuseum Denmark,” Lau recalls. “There I saw a Ming horseshoe chair. The Danes had dismantled and studied it. From this, they created their own furniture. Now Danish furniture is world famous.” He is referring to Hans Wegner’s renowned Chinese Chair, designed in 1944. Employing the same mortise and tenon joints, it is a direct descendent of Ming furniture, which Wegner first saw in a portrait of Danish businessmen in China. “They did not copy it 100 percent, but they have adapted it into something new,” says Lau. “It’s fundamentally very close.”

Given this cultural exchange, it seems somehow fitting that the Laus should now adopt a Scandinavian minimalist aesthetic to showcase their Ming furniture. The white Maltese, who up till now has been curled up asleep in a horseshoe chair, draws in visitors of all ages. They are welcome to stay and learn about the gallery’s treasures. Hon Ming constantly organises music performances, yoga classes and tours within its serene space, making Ming furniture approachable so that it might be better appreciated and understood for many more centuries to come.

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