Lamp collector lights up Hainan memories

Wang Fuhe shows just a small sample of his collection that spans the centuries.
PHOTO: China Daily/ Asia News Network

Most of us have various reasons for travel. It could be to enjoy beautiful scenery, relax, sample delicious food or even have an adventure. But Wang Fuhe is unique. The native of Hainan Island has made numerous trips searching for antique lamps.

As a son of a first-generation electricity worker, an occupation he followed, Wang's life has been full of stories about light and lamps in Hainan, the country's only tropical island province.

"When I was a boy, I enjoyed sitting by my father's legs, turning my head and listening to him telling stories about light and lamps," said Wang. The stories created the seeds of love for lamps.

"Father collected the first lamp for the family when I was about 10 years old. Now I am in my 60s and I have more than 1,000 lamps and lights in my house," said Wang.

In his 20 square-meter living room, Wang has placed more than 200 ancient lamps in glass showcases, on wooden shelves, on the walls and even on the ceiling, making his house more like an antique museum.

The smallest lamp in Wang Fuhe's collection Photo: China Daily/ Asia News Network

"All these lamps in front of your eyes, including the collections of the Warring States period (475-221 BC), kerosene lamps of various shapes and lamps lined up in the style of early last century, are the fruits of my efforts over the past 50 years," Wang said, naming the lamps as if they were part of his family, which of course, they are.

"Look, this lamp is the most special and the only one left in China", said Wang, carefully taking out a lamp with an ancient ceramic texture from a showcase.

"It was a lamp that was usually hung on top of a boat by fishermen in the South China Sea. The lamp had to shine in wind and rain. It was very practically designed.

"Old objects from the South China Sea like this are rare. I saw it by chance one day in Haikou, capital of Hainan province. Experts at the Haikou Collection Association traced the lamp back to the Song Dynasty (420-479 AD)," said Wang, a retired worker from the transformer substation of the Haikou Power Supply Bureau.

"This is Hainan's first electric light," said Wang with great pride.

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In 1915, Haikou imported a diesel generator from the United Kingdom and installed an electric light at the generating house, the first electric light in Hainan. The light was abandoned as the firm moved.

"What the light might look like and how can I find it?" These were questions that Wang dealt with for years. One day he got the much desired object from an elderly collector.

He points out other fascinating examples. "This was passed on by my grandmother," said Wang, with deep affection, pointing to a tiny lamp which could be the smallest in the world, only about five centimeters in height and 2 centimeters in width, depicting a Hainan fisherman.

"My grandma took the small lamp with her whenever she went to the sea for fishing because she believes it was convenient to use and it was a mascot.

"Most people didn't store lamps in the past. So I could easily get a favourite lamp from a friend after a meal or just gave them a bag of rice," Wang said as he recalled how he has got some of his collection.

However, he has needed help to fund his ambition. "The collections are not that easy and Wang has spent much of the family savings. It is a good thing to do so I support him," said Chen Jixin, Wang's wife, a retired librarian.

Deer-shaped lamps in Wang's collection. Photo: China Daily/ Asia News Network

To Wang, collecting the lamps is actually passing on Hainan's tradition.

In 2016, he wrote a book entitled The Culture of Lamps and Electricity, in which he tells the stories about his treasures-the Qiongya begonia lamps, the oil lamps and the lamp culture with the Silk Road.

The Qiongya begonia lamps have a special historical and cultural value for Hainan, because from the popular and artistic frog-shaped lamp holders we can see how Hainan people in ancient times studied the frogs. It also shows their technical know-how as they used the oil of dried fruits for lighting.

"Both the flowers and oil of begonia trees give out a light fragrance when lit. This helps fight growing moss on the walls and prevent insects."

The large number of such lamps show how popular it used to be and how fragrant the island was with begonia flowers blossoming in many areas on the island, said Wang.

Wang said energy-saving lamps were made during the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD), an invention that coincided with the "green concept" of the moment. "I get great pleasure learning about history and people's lives from a collection."

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Who will Wang pass the great treasure of antique lamps to?

"My house is only a temporary stay for the lamps, not their final destination, " he said, without hesitation. Though it will be hard to find someone so dedicated as Wang.

"My biggest concern for the time being is to find a safe place for them and let more people know about them and learn more about the culture of light in Hainan."

Many people collect things in a hope that their collections will one day fetch a good price. "I will never sell the ancient lamps for whatever reason. I don't care that people will say I am foolish. I am only worried that the culture of Hainan light will be forgotten one day.

"I would like to donate all my collections, especially the South China Sea fishing lamp, the one that I cherish most, to the newly completed South China Sea Museum, which will open soon to the public," said Wang.

If not, he hopes all his ancient lamps can find relevant bodies or people who will care for them. "It is of great satisfaction to me to see that many people can appreciate my collection," said Wang, murmuring that the lamps are the fruits of wisdom of old generations and must not be lost.

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