New Straits Times( Life & Times, Style) - 1 Sept 2010
LOVE of history and heritage was the catalyst for Chris Lee to become a collector of items with historical value. His hobby began way back in the 1970s, when he was just a teenager. His collection of stamps, however, soon became victims of silverfish so he switched to old coins. Then it was jewellery.
Now, 48, Lee has in the past 33 years amassed over 1,000 Baba Nyonya pieces.
“I got hooked on Baba Nyonya jewellery when I first found some heirloom pieces that belonged to my late grandmother. There were some 10 pieces, and I just stashed them in a drawer. It was when I went off to the United States to pursue my studies at 21 that I began poring over books to learn about Chinese heritage and culture and started to develop a keen interest in antique items.”
He returned to his hometown in Penang for a holiday when he was 27 and started sourcing for these jewellery pieces at antique shops.
He recollects the first three pieces he bought, all in silver — a belt, a bracelet and a hair pin.
“These items were reasonably priced and affordable then and easily found in antique shops,” says Lee. He also bought Baba Nyonya porcelain ware as well as the kasut tongkang, those embroidered Nyonya ladies’ shoes.
Upon his return from the US three years later, Lee’s fascination for the jewellery pieces grew stronger. He looked for more items in Penang and Malacca, home to the Baba Nyonyas.
Six years later, the commercial arts graduate decided to move his family to Malacca where he set up a graphics design company. Being in the thick of Baba Nyonya territory, Lee now began sourcing through individual channels, relying on his runners as well as his social network.
In his collection are earrings, hairpins, bangles, brooches, pendants, combs, anklets, amulets and rings. The oldest dates back to the 1890s.
According to Lee, one of the most popular types of Nyonya bangle is the simple arm circlet made of three, five or seven solid cords of silver twisted like a rope.
“What the craftsmen of yesteryear did was to cut a few cords of silver to a specific length and then twist them together to form a bangle. And these bangles were usually made in pairs, each worn on a wrist,” says Lee.
Lee has a few silver bangles dating from the 1890s to the 1930s.
Another item that he fancies in his collection is the tobacco box, the chelpa, dating back to the 1900s.
“Tobacco chewing was in the Baba Nyonya culture and the craftsmen made dainty little silver boxes in mostly pumpkin shapes. These could be held in the palms of the ladies’ hands,” he says.
Although his wife initially didn’t share his passion, says the Teochew Baba, she’s now a total convert, and their decision to buy an old English pre-war house built in 1937 is proof of their love for preserving heritage. That house that they bought two years ago is now not only their home but is also a heritage homestay that houses a mini museum. The museum is open to his Cyclamen Heritage Hotel guests who want to view the collection.
Although reluctant to share how much his antique jewellery collection is worth, Lee says the most expensive item in his collection is the kerongsang, or the brooch.
“I bought one two years ago, costing some RM2,000. The role of the brooch, which comes in a set of three, is to hold together the ladies’ stunning hand-embroidered kebaya or baju panjang. The set of three is a mother brooch (kerongsang ibu) and two baby brooches (kerongsang anak),” he explains. Some of the brooches in his collection are gold-plated. Most date back to the 1920s and early 1900s.