Jade Can Humanise: An Afternoon with Frank Chan

Jade Can Humanise: An Afternoon with Frank Chan

The Master of Xianquxuan welcomes us in his home and shares discusses the unlimited pleasures of ancient jade.
The Master of Xianquxuan welcomes us in his home and shares discusses the unlimited pleasures of ancient jade.

“J ade has life,” declares Dr Frank Chan matter-of-factly. We are seated in one of several living room spaces inside his home in Hong Kong. It is an overcast autumn afternoon and Chan is giving me a short, albeit deep, introduction into his principles of jade collecting. It may only scratch the surface of Chan’s knowledge but it left me with plenty to mull over.

Dr Frank Chan, Master of Xianquxuan

Inside his home nestled in the mountain peaks of Hong Kong island, Ming dynasty huanghuali furniture lives in harmony with mid-20th century furniture of European design. This ability to blend, he tells me, is what makes Ming dynasty furniture so distinct. A cabinet of folding Chinese fans – among his first collected pieces – stands beside beautiful monochrome ceramics. A guqin (古琴) sits quietly on a benchtop, waiting patiently to be played. As we walk past a 8th century Buddha sculpture carved from stone, Chan stops to tell us about its origins. He points to paintings on opposing sides of a room and explains why he hung them facing each other. “Guess who created these,” he turns to me, pointing at graceful calligraphies on an adjacent wall. “Mrs. Chan!” 

Born in Jinjiang, Fujian, to a family that immigrated to the Philippines, with businesses now spread across Southeast Asia, Chan admits that there is no question he is a businessman – but at heart, he is a literati man, interested in history, culture and philosophy. He is also a family man. Family portraits on several walls indicate the importance of familial ties to Chan. As we tour his home, he speaks fondly of his wife (whose artistic talents go far beyond calligraphy) and children, and as we cross a play area scattered with toys surrounded by huanghuali furniture – Chan tells me with a warm smile of being blessed with ten grandchildren.

Three celadon 'grass mat' jade discs, bi, Han dynasty | Estimate: 900,000-1,200,000 HKD

Chan’s passion for Chinese art is matched only by his impressive connoisseurial depth. The scope of Chan’s collection – titled Xianquxuan (閑趣軒) – is as wide-ranging in subject as the span of dynasties it encompasses. He is no scholar, Chan insists, but his interest in unearthing the story of each object, and the ease with which he tells them, might have you thinking otherwise. He is a connoisseur driven by passion and curiosity. During his tenure as Chairman of the prestigious Min Chiu Society in Hong Kong, Chan organised “The Radiant Ming, 1368-1644 : Through the Min Chiu Society Collection” (2015-16) which remains, to this day, the most comprehensive exhibition mounted in Hong Kong of Ming dynasty cultural relics.

Chan has been collecting for more than 40 years. Now in his mid-70s, he feels the time is ripe to pass the baton of custodianship of his ancient Chinese jades (古玉) to a new generation of successors, he says. Chan became interested in ancient jades in Hong Kong in the 1970s, a time, he tells me, before the market for ceramics really kicked off here. He acquired the first piece of jade for his collection in 1992 (he stopped collecting jades in 2002). Chan's vast collection spans pieces from the Neolithic period, through to the Shang, Zhou, Qin, Han, and Ming dynasties, all purchased from renowned antique dealers in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan – the latter notably being one of his favourite destinations for treasure hunting, as he calls it. Though Chan is saddened to part with these jades, which remain close to his heart, he hopes the love and energy he has given to these pieces will be felt and appreciated. “We do not own culture,” he explains. As a keeper of cultural treasures, we spend money and effort to care for it – and most importantly, passion and love.

“There is an old saying in Chinese,” Chan says with a gentle smile. “Through jade we make friends.” With joy, he recounts the many gatherings spent with fellow collectors and connoisseurs. One does not sit around a table and bring out a vase from your pocket, he jokes, but one can bring out a piece of jade. This is one of the myriad of purposes jade serves. As a hard mineral material, it can be crafted for utilitarian use, it can be an object for display, it can be an ornament, or it can be a plaything, fit for the palm of your hand.

Jade (玉) is the object most spiritually representative of Chinese culture, says Chan. A stone that connects heaven and earth (天地), jade has a long enduring cultural and spiritual significance that sets it apart from other Chinese visual art forms and is seen referenced in Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. He explains that jade encapsulates the four driving principles of Chinese society: elegance, beauty, harmony, and tranquillity (雅、美、和、静).

As Chan tells me about the boundless enjoyment he feels when holding a piece of jade in his hand, the tranquil energy he describes suffuses the room we sit in. He likens these feelings of warmth and restfulness to the maternal caress of a mother upon her child, or the embrace of a woman’s bosom.

Jade has life because it is a stone that draws energy and warmth as much as it imparts it. When we rub a cold piece of jade in our hands, or when we wear a jade ornament against our skin, it absorbs the warmth of our touch. With time, Chan explains, jade evolves and carries with it the spiritual essence of all the human contact it encountered. “Jade can humanise,” muses Chan. It is a living material.

As we move to another room and I’m left to ponder our conversation, a flock of eagles majestically swoops onto Chan’s outdoor balcony. Looking out of the floor-to-ceiling windows to the incredible view of Hong Kong’s lush mountains, Chan tells me that they are a native endangered species – and that they love to frolic in his fountain. And there it is, the essence of nature and life co-existing in harmony.

Chinese Works of Art

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