META-MUSEUM: WANG HING – Discovering the True Identity of a Genius 宏興: 發現一個天才的真正身份

Wang Hing: Discovering the True Identity of a Genius

Since the discovery of Wang Hing & Company by Crosby Forbes in the 1960’s, the name has become synonymous with Chinese Export Silver, yet virtually nothing was known about the company.

This is a historic moment: for the first time in the research of this unique silver category, the true name of the family behind the Wang Hing empire is revealed. A wealthy Canton merchant family they might have been, but they were a family of high principles, avoiding anything to do with the opium trade and insisting on designing and overseeing manufacturing of all silver that bore their mark.Grey Spacer Bar

The 1842 Treaty of Nanking became the catalyst for many changes in Canton; not only had a new order had been established in the China Trade itself  but Chinese Export Silver went through a rapid metamorphosis. What had been faithful high-quality copies of the neo-classical Georgian style were transformed into overtly traditional Chinese decorative motifs adorning what were essentially classic Western forms.

The Treaty, although ostensibly an agreement between the Daoguang Emperor and Queen Victoria, favoured the British overall, but other nations were beneficiaries by default, in particular America. Post 1842 we also witness a huge increase in the number of retail silversmiths operating in Canton and all the other treaty ports that ensued as well as Peking. To service the retailers, the number of silver workshops mushroomed.

Apart from the tea trade, the other engine that drove this new age of the China Trade was opium; it was, after all, opium that caused the momentum for the stand off with the Chinese that resulted in the Treaty. While all the component trades that comprised the China Trade flourished in their own right after 1842, opium was always in the background. It was not uncommon for retail silversmiths and their compatriots in other trades to be involved in the trade given a significant number of the new retail silversmiths were entrepreneurial merchants by nature.

One retailer that resisted the trade fiercely was Wang Hing & Company; a name that has become synonymous with Chinese Export Silver. As with almost all retail silversmiths, the trading name was a fictitious name chosen for its auspicious invocations and it is because of this that very few of the actual owners’ true names are known to us today. The fact that the Chinese also had an aversion to recording the reality of business transactions in writing also does not exactly help those of us that seek to carry out research.

Wang Hing was probably the most prolific of all the Chinese retail silversmiths in the 19th century, yet the identity of its owner has always remained a mystery. We know, for example, that Hung Chong & Company, a contemporary of Wang Hing, was opened by Fok Ying Chew who later sold the business in 1902 to Sum Luen Sing. We only know this from personal travellers’ journals of the day and editorial in The Chinese Repository. Wang Hing, though, remained an enigma.

Earlier this year I was overjoyed to receive an email completely out of the blue from Hong Kong from a woman who is married to a direct descendant of the family that owned Wang Hing! Many emails and a lot of research later, I have the great pleasure in presenting the story of that family and of the unique insight it has opened up on 19th century Canton and a subsequent move to Hong Kong that came to an abrupt end when Wang Hing & Company was obliterated from the map.

The Lo Family Siblings

Wang Hing & Company was begun during what must have been a tumultuous time after the signing of the Treaty in 1842 by the Lo family. It was an upper middle class wealthy merchant family who were specialists in trading jade and it was exactly this that Wang Hing first opened its doors as. The Lo family originated from Foshan, then a small town to the west of Canton, but a town already known for its affluent merchant population and by the mid 19th century had become a prosperous merchant family living in Xiguan, an area of the sought after prosperous Liwan district populated with large stylish merchant villas and mansions with the Lizhiwan River close by; the river being the small boundary between Canton and Shameen Island where the Thirteen Factories foreign trading area had relocated to. Sadly we have not yet discovered the name of the original Mr Lo, but the business was taken over by the eldest son, Lo Kit Ping, in the mid-late 1860’s.

The photograph above is the earliest record we have of members of the Lo family, showing Lo Hung Pok in the middle, the third grandson of Lo Kit Ping, Lo Hung Tong on the left who was Hung Pok’s third sibling brother and Lo Hung Fan on the right, the fifth sibling brother. As with many affluent merchant families of the time, there were “at least” fifteen children in the Lo family and they were dressed in the traditional West Gate Canton style.

Shamien Island Canton

This is the map of Shameen Island at the time Wang Hing & Company came into being. The “canal” at the northern side is the Lizhiwan River and the bridge across it enters directly to Liwan; the bridge on the east side enters directly to the West Gate of old Canton City. Shameen [Shamian] was leased to the British under the Treaty of Nanking as the foreign trading area which the British then sub let to different nations for their “factory” or, as the Chinese referred to them, “Barbarian Houses”. The term “factory” was used in the China Trade as a remnant of the former Portugese dominance in the trade; the Latin word “factor” means “doer” – a mercantile fiduciary. The factory, therefore, is their office [trading post].

Shameen Island Canton 1842

This is Shameen Island [above] shortly after the 1842 treaty signing and development has begun. The bridge across the Lizhiwan River can be seen clearly and the merchant villas are already developing in Xiguan. This all quickly developed and by the 1880’s had become a chaotic, bustling and incredibly prosperous hive of trade as we can see below. The Chinese are true masters of what appears as organised chaos!

Lizhiwan River Canton 1880's

The large Lo family lived in a grand merchant house on Duobao Lu street adjacent to the river; merchant houses at that time were a fusion of pseudo-Western style that retained a traditional central courtyard. A very particular Xiguan style developed and the doors, gates and stained glass windows quickly gained a reputation. Even by wealthy Chinese standards, these were considered grand mansions.

Liwan Canton Traditional House Gates

Liwan Mansion and Interior Canton

Liwan Mansion Interior

The Lo family were not a minority wealthy merchant family, the entire Liwan district comprised of mansions and its own high-end shopping streets and the above interior is typical of a Canton merchant’s house, including the equally typical Manchuria stained glass fretwork windows. Having now had the opportunity to dialogue with the Lo family [which includes a 93 year old young lady living in Guangzhou today] what comes over strongly is that the decision to expand into the silver trade was not taken lightly. It was taken with the conscious decision to design the pieces personally and to oversee the manufacturing process and it was this family pride in maintaining a level of quality that allowed the Wang Hing name to be synonymous with a consistency of quality and style.  Wang Hing silver is also almost exclusively in the high Chinese style, which seems to be consistent with the traditional values the family maintained.

Wang Hing Lidded Canister c 1890

Even a small piece such as this reticulated lidded canister with blue glass liner demonstrates an obvious attention to small detail. The fact Wang Hing understood that blue glass would create a far more dramatic effect than the usual clear bubble glass that many Canton silversmiths opted for shows a striving for perfection. Blue glass was not native to China and would either have been produced in Hong Kong or even imported from Bristol in England. This canister displays a comfortable fusion of traditional Chinese decorative motifs and a classic Western form with the subtle addition of the bottom acanthus frieze looking neo-classical at first glance with a hint of the ruyi about it.

The Lo family in Canton were a typical entrepreneurial merchant family, drawing strength from the age-old Chinese tradition of a business or skill being handed down from generation to generation. The social rise from their Foshan roots was a rapid one, not only investing in the Wang Hing ventureEn Ning Lu [Enning Road] in Canton but they also established and owned what was considered to be the largest and most luxurious movie theatre in Canton in 1932, having over 1500 seats; the Jin Sheng Cinema on En Ning Lu, literally around the corner from the Lo residence. En Ning Lu was the fashionable shopping street of the Liwan community [see right] – Jin Sheng operated as a cinema until 2007, albeit not connected with the Lo family since the Revolution. Surviving family members of that era still remember receiving free tickets for their friends.

In a recent anthropological study carried out by Hong Kong University, it was discovered that almost all of the large theatres in Canton [Guangzhou] had been created by merchant families, many of whom originated from Foshan. As theatres, they were used for staging traditional Chinese opera which was still popular until the 1870’s. With the coming of cinema, many of the theatres were converted and the Jin Sheng was the most luxurious of them all. It throws light upon an interesting equation which demonstrates the merchants had a deep sense of culture which, knowing their trading backgrounds, seems to have presented a means to further profit.

Wang Hing & Company grew from strength to strength and in the early 1920’s it was decided to build a flagship shop in Hong Kong. Zetland House was erected at 10 Queen’s Road, a purpose-built emporium for silverwares, jade, lacquerware and all manner of luxury traditional wares.

Wang Hing Hong Kong Emporium

It was Lo Hung Tong, one of the three siblings we met before, who ran the emporium and was to be the last Chairman of Wang Hing & Company. Wang Hing also opened a sister emporium in Shanghai to cater to the burgeoning international community there.

Queen's Road Hong Kong early 20th Century

Here we have a view down the newly fashionable Queen’s Road around the time of the opening of the Wang Hing store and it was in this atmosphere that Wang Hing flourished and became the destination of choice for the many Western clubs and institutions and the ubiquitous horse racing, tennis and golf clubs that abounded for trophy cups.

Wang Hing Presentation Rose Bowl

This rose bowl carries the Wang Hing mark and is decorated with the traditional dragon chasing the flaming pearl motif. It also carries the following inscription:

Presented by the Imperial Chinese Government to

Capt. A Sharp U.S.N.

in Commemoration of the Visit of the American Fleet to China

Amoy, October 1908

Below we can see the official state luncheon where the bowl was presented. The two gentlemen in the foreground turned towards us are Imperial Manchu Prince Yu Lang and Rear Admiral Seaton Schroeder of the United States Navy. Although this particular occasion was special, the fact that a piece of Chinese Export Silver has the capacity to take one on a journey of social history is not unusual – in point of fact it is extremely common and very much part of the attraction of this silver category.

State Luncheon by Chinese Government for US Navy 1908

Not only do we have record of the actually occasion, but we can see the souvenir menus presented to all the attendees – a rather interesting culinary melange!

Chinese State Luncheon Menu October 30th 1908

Wang Hing Selangor Races Trophy 1893

Here we have Wang Hing & Company at its very best with this superb example of Sino-Victoriana. It is also a superb example of social history of the times and how a retail silversmith in Canton is supplying a major bespoke trophy to the Indian Mercantile Community in Kuala Lumpur.

The inscription reads:

Selangor Races 1893 Mava Cup

Presented by

The Indian Mercantile Community

Won by Romano

Selangor Turf Club

Wang Hing Trophy Inscription

Chinese traditional motifs are highly appropriate adornment for trophies and other commemorative items, since they all have a multitude of representational and auspicious meaning. Chinese dragons, for example, traditionally symbolise potent and auspicious powers, particularly control over water, rainfall, hurricane, and floods. The dragon is also a symbol of power, strength, and good luck. The dragon was symbolic of Imperial power and strength. When combined with traditional Western classical motifs, there is often a recipe for a very powerful combination of symbolism, not to mention a veritable cornucopia of aesthetic delights that Wang Hing seemed to thrive on.

While still overtly Chinese, the decorative motifs do also allude to more localised imagery yet skilfully captured on a Western classical form. The general busy-ness of the decoration is reminiscent of Indian Bhuj silver, highly “colonial” in feeling while still remaining obviously Chinese in origin. This particular trophy recently appeared in auction the America and sold for $38,810. It weighs a hefty 2.4 kilos.

In Hong Kong Wang Hing thrived for almost twenty years, creating and producing a vast amount of Chinese Export Silver. In 1941 disaster suddenly struck with the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong and after several bombing raids over an 18 day period when the Zetland House store was destroyed and the Crown Colony was surrendered to the Japanese forces, the Lo family managed to flee back to mainland China. All the company records and the stock was lost forever along with almost all of the family mementoes.

Hong Kong 1941 Air Raid Precautions

Despite the unfortunate end result, Hong Kong was well-prepared for air raids. A network of underground tunnels was made available to the general public.

1941 Capture of Hong Kong by Japanese Army

The sad moment when the Japanese army staged a victory parade down Queen’s Road in December 1941 after the official surrender by the British. Note the absence of Hong Kong people. The road was renamed Meiji-dori in the new regulation to ban all English and Chinese signage. The renowned Peninsula Hotel became the Matsumoto.

For the Lo family, they were back in mainland China. Both Shanghai and Canton had fallen to the Japanese. According to the Japanese, they did not declare war on China and always referred to the war as “The China incident” – a peculiar phrase given that prior to the invasion the Chinese economy had been at the peak of prosperity and the Japanese immediately strove to reverse that.

A British Shameen Island resident eye-witness wrote after the invasion of Canton: “I rode slowly back to Shameen along familiar streets making a wide detour to see what was happening. It was a sad sight. All shops were closed and shuttered. Everywhere people were madly rushing. There were no vehicles, just people hurrying on foot with what baggage they could carry. There was an atmosphere of fear an anxiety all around me. People were saying that the Japanese had entered the city and that their tanks had driven along the East Bund and up the central Taiping Road. As I rode along streets near this area they were completely deserted and deathly silent – so different from the noisy, crowded streets of two days before.”

Canton 1941 - Japanese Bombing

Here we see Canton burning, viewed from the bridge at the Shameen British concession area. For the Lo family, it was to be hard times for four years, as it was for the majority of Chinese under occupation. It took the bombing of Hiroshima to force the surrender of Japan. Wang Hing still existed but in name only. We see Admiral Chan Chak accepting the Japanese instrument of surrender in Canton on 3rd September 1945.

Japanese Surrender 1945

The years of unrest in Canton between the departure of the Japanese and the formation of the eventual Peoples’ Republic of China caused the Lo family to disperse. Some returned to Hong Kong, some went to Hangzhou and some stayed in Canton. With the declaration of the Peoples’ Republic, all private companies were nationalised and all the records of private enterprises were seized. This is the day Wang Hing & Company passed into the realms of history, as did many of the retail and manufacturing silversmiths whose names we are now familiar with. Luckily, so much of their production over the 155 years manufacturing period found its way out of China. Luckily, too, we are just beginning to appreciate how special this silver category is.

Wang Hing Casket 1890

Wang Hing Casket

Wang Hing Galleried Tray

Wang Hing Card Case 1885

Wang Hing Card Case

Wang Hing Cream Jug 1900

Lastly, proving that small is beautiful, this circa 1900 cream jug with its matching sugar basin are stunning examples of Wang Hing’s creativity and imagination. The insects are actually stylised wasps [féng] – the allegorical combination of wasps with bamboo has the meaning “May you live in abundance”. Rather than an epitaph, it is a fitting end to a long lost master.

Wang Hing Sugar Basin

Samuel Johnson Quotation

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Adrien von Ferscht at University of Glasgow

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Chinese Export Silver Makers' Marks Catalogue

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Danny Cheng in Hong Kong for his translation skills

Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions, UK; AC Silver, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK; Skinner Inc, Boston, USA; S&J Stodel, London; Sotheby’s, Paris; Christie’s, South Kensington, London; United States Navy Archive;; Honk Kong Library Archive

Unless otherwise stated, all images are from the archive

One Response to “META-MUSEUM: WANG HING – Discovering the True Identity of a Genius 宏興: 發現一個天才的真正身份”
  1. Lauren says:

    Thanks for the article that made me aware my family history. I’m one of the fifth generation from XiGuan GuangZhou now living in Australia. Mr. Lo Hung Fan from photo above is my great grandfather’s father—my great great grandfather. Those photos of XiGuan mansions are so precious as now those houses no long exist post republic China era. My very own father always said that he was born and grew up in that house which I never seen in all my life.

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