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GEORGE TOWN, July 6 — Peace, purity, serenity: these are some of the meanings attached to the colours blue and white but back in the 18th and 19th centuries, these two combined were the traditional substitutes for black, the colour of mourning.
Yet, the Blue & White exhibition of Straits Chinese porcelain from the 18th and 19th centuries at Seven Terraces here hardly evokes images of sombre funerals.
Instead, the tok panjang (long dining table) all decked out in century-old blue and white porcelain brings to mind a modern table setting waiting for its posh guests. Definitely a highlight of the exhibition.
The exhibition is a window to a long gone era and offers a glimpse of the romance of the Straits Chinese culture.
It was a time of bond maids and opium smokers, of Chinese migrants arriving with few possessions except for blue and white bowls and of the Baba Nyonyas who made their fortunes and had their own blue and white dinnerware custom made.
We often assume chinaware such as plates, bowls, teacups and spoons were meant to serve food and drinks.
But there were also porcelain pillows and ink boxes too.
Forget soft fluffy pillows. Cold, hard porcelain pillows adorned with intricate blue motifs were the pillows of choice for bond maids and opium smokers.
These little rectangular box-like pillows, meant to keep the maids' tight hair buns neat, also served as small safety boxes; the maids would hide their money and valuables in the hollow centres.
Then there are the smaller matchbox-like boxes with covers, adorned with more geometrical motifs, that were used as ink boxes.
The educated class often used personal seals dipped in ink as their official signatures during that time.
These century-old porcelain pieces are displayed behind glass cabinets along with exquisite dinner ware, tea cups, kamchengs (covered jars), vases, jars, bowls, chuan hup (sweet meat trays) and tingkats (multi-tiered food containers).
The Blue & White exhibition is being held in conjunction with the annual George Town Heritage Day celebrations.
The exhibits are all part of George Town Heritage Hotels (GTHH) founder Chris Ong's extensive personal antique collection.
Ong started his collection back in the 1970s and today has amassed a wide collection of antiques that are not confined to chinaware but also includes furniture.
This is the third year Ong is showcasing some of his antiques at Seven Terraces.
It is Ong's plan to host a total of seven such exhibitions for seven years and each will be of a different theme.
The first exhibition in 2017 was themed sweet meat trays while last year was tingkat and tiffin carriers.
This year, even though themed blue and white, features porcelain best categorised as "Kitchen Qing" — chinaware that were made for export.
Unlike the revered and highly regarded Ming-period porcelain, these blue and white chinaware were designed for migrants from the farming and merchant class.
This means the chinaware was supposed to be long-lasting, practical and economical.
The porcelain, tinted from cobalt ore, were made to withstand frequent washing, heating and can even survive being buried in the earth for a long time.
These were used for almost any purpose; from the kitchen to making offerings to deceased ancestors thanks to those mourning colours.
There were elite Straits Chinese who ordered custom dinner sets with their names printed on the back of each piece.
In one of the cabinets, pretty blue and white plates and tea cups with scalloped edges and delicate fluting called the 19th century Kangxi style were distinctively different from the more utilitarian porcelain ware.
These have detailed motifs for a more aesthetic appeal which reflected the owner's affluence and social standing.
Ong said this series of chinaware was "seriously misunderstood, undervalued and under-appreciated" but it formed an important part of the Straits Chinese history.
"I enjoyed myself tremendously curating these pieces for the exhibition... I had the opportunity to reflect on and share my cultural heritage," Ong said.
He added that blue and white porcelain ware are the most affordable entry level items for new collectors to start their own antique collection.
He compared the price of a 20-piece set of blue and white porcelain ware at RM2,000 to a high-end Noritake set that costs about RM1,500.
"The unmatched appeal is, of course, these blue and white pieces came from a bygone era and if it's part of your heritage as well... why would you choose a brand new dinner service like Noritake?" he said.
The Blue & White exhibition, from July 5 to 8, is open to the public at Seven Terraces (enter from the antique shop along Stewart Lane).
It is open between 12pm and 8pm and admission is free.