East west relations
Clear the clutter with a Chinese cabinet – ideal for keeping anything from clothes
and cutlery to audio-visual equipment out of sight
1. Statement piece
Armoire-type Chinese cabinets were originally used to house books and precious objects – clothes were folded and stored in rather more humble camphor-wood sideboards and chests. They are now converted to serve any number of purposes, and take pride of place in modern Hong Kong homes.
3. From old to new
Lean lined and statuesque, Chinese cabinets are comfortable in even the most contemporary design schemes. Pieces in black, red or naturalelm lacquer are the classic choice but for a fresh and funky feel, it’s possible to find refinished prototypes in white lacquer or even gold or silver leaf.
4. Wood works
Chinese cabinets are prized since the grain is clearly visible and the all-wood joints are strong. Large-scale pieces made of expensive hardwood, like huangali or zitan, would once have been reserved for ranking officials and the Chinese elite.
5. Wedding gift
Any red (and gold) cabinet would have originally been given away as part of a girl’s dowry – hence the term wedding cabinet. These pieces tend to be made out of soft wood, which is widely and inexpensively available throughout China.
6. Cheap and cheerful
The Chinese cabinets you see for around HK$300 in Macau or Zhuhai look great to the untrained eye, but of course they aren’t the real thing. More often than not they are amalgams of old pieces, put together by craftsmen of varying abilities. New wood sections will have been “aged” and beaten-up bits freshly lacquered.
7. Brass tacks
The decorative hardware on Chinese cabinets is generally new since most of the original brass locks were removed and recycled during the Cultural Revolution. Instead of a locking mechanism, pins now keep the doors in place, set on inserts of different styles and shapes. Traditionally, wedding cabinets have rounded hardware, while butterfly shapes are typical of Fujian, and decorative circles of Shanxi.
8. Collectable item
How much you pay is of course up to you, but you are unlikely to find a true Ming Dynasty cabinet outside of the top museum and private collections. Local collectors can find armoire-style cabinets, for between HK$6,000 and HK$12,000 along Hollywood Road or Cat Street in Central.
9. Architectural principles
Most Chinese cabinets are wider at the bottom than at the top. Tapering with splayed legs, they follow the principles of classical Chinese architecture in which the structure is supported by a trapezoid frame made up of a series of splayed columns.
10. Fine finish
Artificial lacquer was not invented until the 1920s so any cabinet built before that date was finished naturally – with sap from the lacquer tree. This is a plus since natural lacquer, used for everything from cabinets to chopsticks, can be expected to last 8,000 years.
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