An incredible display of centuries-old, intricately crafted gold ornaments selected from a vast Mengdiexuan Collection owned by two of Hong Kong’s most prolific collectors gives us a glimpse into the splendours and mystique of Ancient China.
Betty Lo and Kenneth Chu began what would become a decades-long love affair with Chinese art and antiquities with a fortuitous visit to an antique shop at Hollywood Road, a few blocks from Lo’s former office. There they were drawn to a rather unassuming blue and white porcelain piece that turned out to be a 19th century Daoguang bowl from the Qing Dynasty. It was, reflects Lo with a grin, “a curious and irrational choice. I didn’t give much thought, if any, to its origins or value then; I was just attracted to its shape and colour.”
Growing up, Lo was surrounded by precious antique Chinese jade and jadeite artefacts owned by her father and grandfather, both prolific collectors, and the expectation was that she’d hold similar predilections. “The passion for collecting is in my blood,” she says, “but – call it fate, I suppose – my entry into this world of Chinese antiquities would be a white and blue bowl with a motif of eight immortals. It was beautifully crafted and painted, but far from the precious jade and jadeite pieces my family collected. At the time, Kenneth and I bought objects mainly because we were attracted to the aesthetic, which is quite typical among first-time collectors.”
As the couple got deeper into Chinese arts and antiquities, their method for collecting became more sophisticated, rationalised, and disciplined. “We educated ourselves, and the more we discovered the more we wanted to learn about the objects and their history and origins, and this more disciplined approach also made us more focussed,” says Chu. “It’s important to note, though, that even with all the knowledge we’ve acquired through the years, the basic criteria of aesthetic and beauty remains – it’s still what propels us to purchase an object for our collection.”
In the 1980s, they acquired a six-inch bronze mirror from the Han Dynasty that featured geometric and animal designs, and finely cast ornamentations. From then on, their fascination and passion for ancient Chinese bronze and metalwork grew, which again was a significant departure from what Lo’s family collected, because there were no metalworks in their collections. But this is where the couple’s curiosity and passion led them, making them realise that this was was the kind of collection they wanted to build.
Over the span of 30 years, Lo and Chu’s collection of ancient Chinese metalwork expanded. From ritual vessels they extended their acquisitions to personal ornaments, and from bronzes to other metalwork, such as gold and silver. Today, the couple’s collection of antique Chinese metalwork is among the largest in the world, encompassing relics from Central and Northwest China, the Eurasian Steppes, the Himalayan and Mongolian regions, as well as Central Asia.
Pieces from their vast collection have been loaned to prestigious museums, universities and academic and cultural institutions for exhibitions, as well for further studies and research. Most of their pieces were acquired from
dealers. “We learned through the years that you need only to rely on a few reputable dealers to work with,” says Chu. “The last thing you want is to find yourself being bombarded with things you’re not exactly interested in, by numerous dealers. Establish a good relationship with a few trusted ones so that they’ll know your taste and requirements and they’ll look out for items they know you’ll be interested in.”
Among Chu and Lo’s vast collections, the most celebrated is their Mengdiexuan Collection, which comprises hundreds of gold necklaces, earrings, hairpins, bracelets, brooches and belt plaques from the nomadic Qidan people, who ruled China as the Liao Dynasty, occupying an area of the northern steppes of China that included Manchuria, a portion of Mongolia, and parts of the present-day provinces of Hebei and Shanxi. The collection of Qidan art would represent the Mengdiexuan’s later foray into the Himalayas and more of Mongolia, featuring bronze, gold and silver metalwork with repoussé, casting, granulation, filigree, inlay and stone setting techniques.
Hailed as one of the most outstanding and impressive in Hong Kong, Lo and Chu’s private art collection would come to represent 3,000 years of Chinese goldsmithing craftsmanship. It’s been featured in several solo exhibitions, including one at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2013 in which 300 objects from the Mengdiexuan collection were on display for six months. In 1994, a part of the collection was featured in a travelling exhibition that made stops at American museums before heading for London. In the same year, it found its way back to Hong Kong, this time at the University of Hong Kong, where 250 pieces where exhibited, and again in 2004 in an exhibition called Noble Riders from Pines and Deserts: The Artistic Legacy of the Qidan.
This time, some 50 of the most impressive pieces of the collection will be presented by L’École Asia Pacific in an exhibition called The Art of Gold: 3,000 years of Chinese Art at its K11 Musea space. Élise Gonnet-Pon, managing director of L’École Asia Pacific School of Jewelry Arts, says that “an alignment of stars” enabled this exhibition to happen. “When I first relocated to Hong Kong to look after L’École,” says Gonnet-Pon, “I had the opportunity to see the Jewels of Transcendence exhibition at the Chinese University, which showcased amazing ornamental sculptures and jewels from the Himalayas to Mongolia.
Betty [Lo] was the most gracious host and guide – that was the first time we met – and I got to know about their collection. When L’École opened in Hong Kong, Betty and Kenneth attended and that was when they discovered our space, so the wheels started turning. From there we had ongoing discussions about holding an exhibition and here we are now.” Two years in the making, it’s an exhibition that both the school and the owners of the collection are immensely proud of.
“Beauty aside, these pieces are also testimonies of the past. It gives us an idea of the way the Chinese lived centuries ago – how they interacted, the exchanges between their cultures and groups, and how traditions are shared and transmitted.”Élise Gonnet-Pon, managing director of L’École Asia Pacific School of Jewelry Arts
Growing up in Paris and having worked for a French high-jewellery house Van Cleef & Arpels for many years, Gonnet-Pon is deeply knowledgeable in the history of 20th-century French and European jewellery, but was blown away by what she’d seen at that Hong Kong exhibition. “I was so impressed by the level of intricacy and craftsmanship in the Chinese ornamental pieces, but was sure very few people knew about this incredible heritage and legacy, so I was very keen to present their collection at L’École. Also, collectors like Betty and Kenneth promote the same values as that of L’École, which is the quest for and transmission of knowledge – these values are at the very heart of L’École. Our hope is that visitors who see these extraordinary pieces will want to learn more about them.”
The objects are as breathtaking as they’re fascinating. Among the most spectacular objects is an intricately made gold hair ornament used to cover a topknot, which, as the dragons featured in it suggest, was likely worn by a member of the imperial family. The filigree details of the piece, which are curiously concentrated at the back of the ornament, again suggest it was owned by a nobleman, as the decorations are meant to be seen and appreciated by the people who would typically walk behind him.
“Of course, the incredible craftsmanship found in these pieces couldn’t be overstated, and the fact that they were all made by hand makes it even more incredible,” Gonnet-Pon says. “Beauty aside, these pieces are also testimonies of the past. It gives us an idea of the way the Chinese lived centuries ago – how they interacted, the exchanges between their cultures and groups, and how traditions are shared and transmitted. And
we believe that for the local audience, seeing it will make them incredibly proud of their extremely rich culture and heritage.”
For more details on the exhibition and to book a tour, visit L’École Asia Pacific