Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Jasmine Hour

ONE of the treasures of Hong Kong is Honeychurch Antiques, on Hollywood Road, the "Antiques Row" of this city.  Opened by former New Yorkers Glen and Lucille Vessa more than 45 years ago, Honeychurch sets the standard for taste and quality of all things Asian, especially Japanese decorative arts, and Chinese Export silver (which I have come to love).  I've just come back from a wonderful part of an afternoon spent there, talking to the Vessas about our trip to Tokyo, and also looking at the items in their gallery with their manager, Philip, who is also a wonderful raconteur and extremely knowledgeable about art and antiques.  The Vessas lived in Japan for years, and Glen is one of the best-known appraisers in the field of Asian antiques.  I love the way that you immediately get wrapped up in conversation with Lucille, who has a vivid and crackling  New York manner about her (even after decades away from the US), which makes me feel right at home.  Glen usually stays up in his office in the adjoining building, which is part showroom for larger pieces and rugs, and part workshop where furniture is restored and repaired for sale.  When I'm lucky, I'm taken in to say hello to Glen, who never remembers me, but I love talking to him anyway, whether it be about the way he met the actor Dennis Hopper, or Japanese wakasa lacquer, an amazing technique that requires 8 coats of lacquer and is often sprinkled with bits of mother-of-pearl.  Above is an example of  wakasa that looks very much like one of the low tables in the gallery right now.

The object that fascinated me today was a Chinese incense clock, a large rectangular steel box.  Certainly I am aware of sundials and waterclocks - waterclocks (or clepsydrae) were independently invented by the ancient Egyptians around 1500 B.C., and many examples survive in museums all over the world.  But an incense clock?  How would this work?  Philip, font of all fascinating infomation, explained to us that the openwork metal stencil inside the box was laid down over a bed of ash.  Then, laying incense powder above the ash, the incense would burn in intricate maze-like lines.  Divided into two main halves (for 6 or 12 hours each), the hours would have been subdivided by the use of various scents of incense.  Imagine the experience of this as time goes along!  The jasmine hour, followed by a sandalwood hour, followed perhaps by a tuberose hour as the afternoon wears on.  I love the idea of time progressing not with numbers of chimes, or buzzing alarms, but with a subtly changing scent that does not announce itself, but has to be noticed in order to take account of the time.  There is something fundamentally Buddhist about this level of awareness.  And I couldn't help but think that the maze of the incense trail is almost a precursor to the maze-like ways in which information makes its way through a computer circuit.  Ancient technology, to be sure, but somehow fresh.  

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