Although China’s centuries-long demand for silver was one of the catalysts for the birth of globalization, silver products were also an important Chinese export. So-called “Chinese export silver” is the subject of a current exhibition at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum.
The exhibition starts with silver as the driver of commerce: there are examples of 18th- and 19th-century Spanish and Mexican “dollars” (actually reales or pesos) and Chinese silver ingots from the Song dynasty through the end of the 19th century. This is followed by an overview of the trade flows of silver into China and an overview of the history of Chinese silver work, with examples as far back as the Liao dynasty of a millennium ago. Further on in the exhibition are examples of the first, ill-fated Hong Kong silver dollar coins from 1866: the first attempt at a local mint collapsed in debt two years and machinery ended up minting the first Japanese yen.
But the exhibition quickly shifts to silver objets d’art directed at Western markets. The earliest examples, from as far back as the 17th century, were probably directed more at European royal houses than as commercial items. The catalogue includes a photo of Catherine the Great’s Chinese-made silver toiletry set kept at the Hermitage.
Export silver really came into its own in the 19th century and it is for this period that the exhibition really shines, literally as well as metaphorically. Traditional Western items—teapots, platters, trays, bowls, trophies—come embellished with Chinese patterns and designs. Sometimes the design elements are not mere surface decorations, as in a bamboo-shaped tea service from turn-of-the-century Guangzhou and slightly earlier service from Jiujiang which features floral repoussé spirals winding around teapots and milk jugs.
The exhibition usefully traces out the history of both the design and the commerce. The integration of Chinese design elements into Western products is traced back to the 17th- and 18th-century fashion for chinoiserie, as is Hong Kong’s rise as center for silvers production as well as trade: one firm, Wang Hing, was a supplier to Tiffany & Co.
The exhibition is clearly and artfully laid out, proceeding logically from one period or subject to another, with helpful textual background on the walls, and even map outlines on the floor. While the pieces are numerous and rich, the visual context into which the pieces are placed is both evocative and pleasing. The complete silver table service (above), for example, invites the visitor to linger and imagine a time when such pieces were in regular use—by certain people, at any rate.