Ceramics collector opens up house for free exhibition

Mr Ng Seng Leong with a Shiwan ceramic duck. His collection includes figurines as well as works of antique household items and other animals.
Mr Ng Seng Leong with a Shiwan ceramic duck. His collection includes figurines as well as works of antique household items and other animals.PHOTO: MARCUS TAN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Retiree Ng Seng Leong has amassed a collection of more than 300 Shiwan ceramic pieces and has opened his home, where some 200 are displayed, to visitors

The ceramic figurine of a well-known character in Chinese history comes to life as collector Ng Seng Leong vividly narrates its story to visitors.

The figurine of Xu Shu's mother - who was used by Cao Cao, the infamous chancellor of the Han dynasty, to manipulate her Chinese scholar and military strategist son into serving him - is one of about 200 Shiwan ceramic figures displayed in Mr Ng's home.

The 70-year-old has been collecting Shiwan ceramic art since 1989, amassing more than 300 pieces.

About 200 are exhibited in his living room, dining room and library, and the retiree has opened his terrace home in Kembangan till the end of the year for visitors to learn more about his prized collection, free of charge.

Shiwan ceramics, which take their name from a small town in Guangdong, China, have been around since the Tang dynasty (618 to 907AD).

What sets such figurine art apart are the unglazed, life-like facial features and body sinews. The anatomy of the subjects is also often tastefully exaggerated to bring out unique character traits and the clothing of the figurines is usually covered in a thick, coloured glaze to give it a glossy finish.

It is not the first time that Mr Ng has held an exhibition. His two previous showcases, held many years ago, were for friends, as well as collectors and members of associations such as the Southeast Asian Ceramic Society.

However, this will be his last one as the ceramic pieces are getting too heavy for him to carry around in his old age.

"I have to hug the figures and go up and down the stairs. After carrying three figures, I'm already all sweaty," says Mr Ng, laughing.

"I'm not getting any younger, so I have to start thinking about what to do with the collection when I'm no longer around.

"I wouldn't want to burden my children with all these figures. But if there are a few they want to keep, I'll definitely give it to them."

Items in his collection range from miniature 6.5cm-tall figurines of Chinese poets such as Li Bai to large 75cm-tall ones of mythological figures such as Zhong Kui, a legendary ghost-catcher.

The collection also includes deities, Chinese political figures, intricate works of animals, such as ducks and oxen, and antique household items, such as teapots, spittoons and vases.

Some works are pricey. His collection of 18 Lohan, the original followers of Buddha, cost him about $10,000.

However, he says that Shiwan ceramic art is generally less expensive than other types of Chinese pottery.

"Since secondary school, I've been interested in oriental history, and ceramics go hand in hand with this area of study," says Mr Ng, who became enthralled with Shiwan ceramics after viewing a South-east Asian ceramics exhibit at the then University of Singapore's museum in 1967 when he was a first-year social science student there.

He is so passionate that he even spent two years after retirement taking a Chinese refresher course so that he could read the texts on Chinese ceramics and history.

The father of three grown sons published a book in 2014, titled Culture In Clay, Symbolism And Iconography In Chinese Ceramics, to document his research on the historical narratives behind each of his Shiwan art pieces.

"The thing about Chinese potters is that everything they create is a symbol of something or tells a story," says Mr Ng, who was abashed to admit that he dropped Chinese language as a subject when he was in secondary school.

The former chief executive officer of an insurance companybegan collecting figurines when he had deeper pockets.

He was shopping with his wife for a housewarming gift for a friend in 1989 when he chanced upon a 48cm-tall Shiwan sculpture of a Laughing Buddha at a shop in North Bridge Road.

"I was so enchanted by it, I decided to get it for my own home instead," says Mr Ng, adding that it is his wife's favourite piece. It is displayed on his staircase landing.

His wife, Madam Jenny Ng, 70, is supportive of his hobby.

"I know that it is his passion. It's good for him and it keeps him occupied after his retirement," says the former clinic assistant.

Since then, he has been collecting Shiwan figurines from all over the world.

"Whenever I travel and come across something exciting and affordable, I'll pick it up. I love visiting second- hand bookshops and antique shops. Some of my figurines are from collectors and shops in not just China, but London, Thailand and Australia too," he says.

His collection has also taken him places, including to the Louisiana city of Baton Rouge in the United States in 2005, when he and several other collectors visited a professor there who had written her doctorate thesis on Shiwan pottery.

They also viewed her family's collection of Shiwan art.

To arrange for a visit to Mr Ng's home to view his Shiwan art exhibition, call 9829-3488 or e-mail ngsengleong02@yahoo.com to make an appointment. The exhibition is free of charge.

Shiwan figurines


ANGIDA - CALICO BAG LOHAN PHOTO: MARCUS TAN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

ANGIDA - CALICO BAG LOHAN

This 45cm-tall Shiwan figurine depicts the monk Angida - a character from Buddhist folklore who is also known as the Laughing Buddha - as an Indian snake catcher who removes venomous fangs from snakes before releasing them back into the wild to prevent them from biting people.

The bag he carries on his shoulder is used to carry the snakes he has caught.

This is one of collector Ng Seng Leong's first Shiwan figurines.

DU FU

This 25cm-tall Shiwan figurine of Tang dynasty poet Du Fu (below, centre), was crafted by master Chinese potter Liu Chuan in the 1950s.

This is one of Mr Ng's favourite figurines because of the intricate facial features and the even white crackled glaze. He bought this piece from a shop in Bangkok for slightly less than $1,000.


DU FU PHOTO: MARCUS TAN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES


XU SHU'S MOTHER SCOLDING CAO CAO PHOTO: MARCUS TAN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

XU SHU'S MOTHER SCOLDING CAO CAO

This 48cm-tall figurine depicts a rather comical caricature of Xu Shu's mother attempting to throw an ink slab at Cao Cao, a scene from a popular Chinese historical tale.

It is covered in green crackled glaze and was made by potter Liao Hong Biao in the 20th century.

Mr Ng bought this from a collector in Singapore for around $1,500.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 17, 2017, with the headline 'Collecting pieces of Chinese history'. Print Edition | Subscribe