Collector: Alvin Tan, Ceramist
Some fork out a five-figure sum for a whisky with an age-specific label; Alvin Tan shells out the same amount on a cake of aged Pu-erh with no label whatsoever attached.
“It was from a merchant who had inherited that particular batch of tea from his father. The papers used to wrap the tea had long disintegrated, so we both had no idea how old the tea really is,” says Tan, who estimates the tea is about 60 years old. “The first tea I bought that started my collection was a 1987 oolong Shuixian. I bought it in 1989 from a friend’s sister who was running a tea company then,” he recalls. Today, his collection spans 60 types of tea, stored in old medicinal bottles and canisters converted from ceramic pen holders.
“To me, tea is part of living. From the tea’s provenance to how you boil the water and wait for it to cool to the right temperature for various teas – it teaches patience,” says Tan, who enjoys inviting friends over to his place occasionally to share the art of tea with them. It was from one of those like-minded friends that Tan received his most treasured gift: a 100-year-old Tieguanyin stored in an oddly shaped tin, hand-carried back from Bangkok three months back.
The tea has aged well in the canister, and it contains a wealth of sentiment for Tan, who shares that it tastes “especially good”. He says with a smile: “(My friend) was walking along a small street in Bangkok when he spotted this peculiar-looking canister filled with tea, and thought of buying it for me.”
Collector: Violet Yeo, Managing Director of Georg Jensen
It was sipping on comforting cups of tea during business trips to Japan and Sweden in the winter that started Violet Yeo on her collection of porcelain teacups in 1996. “I was entertained with afternoon tea served in all these lovely hand-painted cups, and (my business associates) and I admired and compared each cup, as if they were paintings,” says Yeo.
Since then, the managing director of Georg Jensen has been collecting pieces from brands like Royal Copenhagen, Bing & Grondahl, and Meissen and Spode, with her most extravagant splurge hitting close to the thousand-dollar mark for one cup and a matching saucer. Her most prized possession is the Flora Danica teacup set from Royal Copenhagen that she carried back from Denmark. Coming from a collection that was created in the 1700s, it features motifs designed by acclaimed painter Johann Christoph Bayer. “There are only very few painters who can create this piece, as each painter needs at least five years of training to paint a cup free hand,” shares Yeo. It takes up to 30 tries before one perfect cup – with the right mix of colours, gold edges and intricate flower detail – is made.
To showcase the fine craftsmanship, she displays her teacup collection in an antique cabinet in her living room for all to see. “It’s just like admiring paintings by an artist,” she enthuses. But, unlike a painting where one has to stand back and appreciate the art, Yeo takes these teacups out of the cabinet to be used in cosy tea sessions on special occasions, when she entertains business associates, friends and family.
And though she agrees that English tea on its own is a fragrant brew, “a nice cup of tea can only be achieved with a beautiful porcelain cup”.
Worth The Wait
Collector: Eric Chua, Chef-owner of Chin Lee Restaurant
Eric Chua is thankful he has his own restaurant. Not just because it gives him free reign of the kitchen, but also because it gives him more room to display his collection of Zisha teapots, crafted from clay from Yixing city in Jianghu Province.
Among Chua’s collection of over a thousand teapots, which he amassed over 16 years, is a heavyweight: a hefty 2kg teapot which he got from a local collector for a five-digit sum. This takes pride of place at Chin Lee restaurant, where he claims it is “just for display”. Says Chua: “It was made and carved by two famous Chinese artists – Xu Daming and Xu Sihai – which makes it all the more valuable.”
But he does take down the smaller teapots he collects for business meetings. “I would usually brew a nice pot of aged Pu-erh, and serve it to my business associates or even customers,” he says. The chef clearly believes in taking things slow, taking time to brew tea and dole out cups of the brew, while talking business. “It just helps to create a stronger bond of friendship,” he says. “Using a good teapot to make tea also shows our customers that we really appreciate them.”
It’s hard to shake Chua off the trail when he’s in pursuit of a teapot he really wants. Take a white glazed Zisha teapot, for instance. “The clay came from the Qian Long period, a time when ceramists invented the glaze because the emperor liked things elegant and gleaming,” says Chua. The teapot, which remains in good condition hundreds of years later, came into his ownership after three years.
“The teapot was actually given to me by a friend, but he changed his mind later and took it back because he was very attached to it,” says Chua. “After he died, I realised his son had put the teapot up for auction, so I placed the winning bid for it,” he adds.
The wait is worth it, though. To Chua, it’s about preserving a culture that has been passed down for years. “I see the teapot as the father of tea, and water as the mother of tea. Tea, teapots and teacups come together to create an age-long tradition.”
Not Just A Pretty Glaze
Collector: Ngiam Thong Kim, Vice-Chairman of Jian Yang Jian Ware Association
What started out as a collection of antique ceramics led Ngiam Thong Kin to a new discovery – tenmoku cups. Its name originated from Mount Tianmu in China, during the Song dynasty, when Japanese monks brought home iron-glazed ceramic cups and spread the style to Japan.
Ngiam, who has been collecting antiques for over 20 years, stumbled upon a Facebook post of gold-glazed tenmoku cups by Taiwanese ceramist Zhang Gui Wei. “When I first saw the picture, I realised that Zhang was the only artist (back in 2013) who could achieve the gold glaze – intentionally rather than accidentally,” shares Ngiam. His curiosity piqued, Ngiam flew to Macau to meet Zhang at a tea exhibition, and promptly bought four pieces from the ceramist. He now has over 100 tenmoku pieces, and estimates their value to exceed a million dollars.
These are not your standard teacups. “It’s very hard for an artist to get a gold tenmoku glaze,” says Ngiam. For uncommon patterns like gold oil-spots, there’s just a 5 per cent chance of success with every batch made.
And the cups have demonstrated transformative properties that make tea taste better. “These tenmoku cups are better for strong teas like aged Pu-erh, as they give the tea fuller and rounder flavours, compared to a regular cup,” shares Ngiam. “It removes the astringency of the tea.” He explains that the difference in taste could be due to the magnetic properties of the tenmoku glaze. Among some of his invited guests to try out the tenmoku cups is former cabinet minister George Yeo.
The newest piece in his collection is a small tenmoku wine goblet that was a gift from Zhang, after both shared many intense conversations about tenmoku. “The cups have the same effect on young wines as well, which shows the similarities between wine and tea,” says Ngiam.