Sharing the good snuff

SINGAPORE - Close to 400 intricately crafted Chinese snuff bottles will be on display in the serenity of a Chinese tea house for the next two weeks.

The miniature containers are on show at the Tian Fu Tea Room in Beach Road, which is part of the Si Chuan Dou Hua chain of restaurants.

Ms Wee Wei Ling, executive director of the Si Chuan Dou Hua chain of restaurants, says: "We've been thinking for a while now about how to use the tea house to promote Chinese art and culture."

The idea for the current show began two years ago as she was talking to her friends, the owners of the Dragon Seeds Art Gallery, about their private collection: "I said, 'Hey, you must share it with us instead of keeping it to yourself, good stuff must be shared.'"

Hence the exhibition, which opened on Sunday, is organised in collaboration with the Hong Kong-based Dragon Seeds Art Gallery.

Mr Mun Yeuk Pei, director of the gallery, is glad for the chance to display the bottles for the public.

He says: "The main thing is to share with everybody the wonderful history and craftsmanship of these snuff bottles. In China, during the Qing dynasty, they were often owned by nobility."

Ms Wee, who founded the tea house in 2004, explains: "Snuff bottles originated in the Qing dynasty and were so well loved by Emperor Kangxi that he designated a space on the palace grounds for craftsmen to manufacture them.

"The workmanship is very dainty, very complex, and the process of handcrafting is very delicate, which is why they have become treasured collectors' items."

The bottles, which are about 6cm-tall high on average, were created to hold snuff, or a mixture of powdered tobacco and spices. They were popular during the Qing dynasty period, but fell out of use in the early 20th century.

The snuff bottles which are on display here are housed in the cosy, wood-panelled 50-seater tea house, which stocks more than 30 types of tea.

For the exhibition, wall shelves, standing structures and lighting were installed to turn the room into a mini-museum.

Ms Wee says: "The tea room is a lot more than just another F&B outlet. It's very tranquil, so I think it's a very natural environment for an art exhibition."

Snuff bottles are made of a huge variety of materials, such as glass, copper, ivory, jade, earthernware and stone. There are also various craftsmanship methods employed in making them, such as carving, painting, reverse painting and drawing.

This particular exhibition will focus mainly on enamel painted glass bottles.

Mr Mun says that one of the highlights of the exhibition is a red-and-white enamel bottle, which has a grasshopper painted on it. "The painting is very life-like and delicate. The grasshopper looks almost as if it's moving."

Another highlight of the exhibition is a white enamel bottle with peaches painted on it.

Mr Mun says: "The material used to make this is translucent and so it's very beautiful."

Ms Wee hopes that the snuff bottle exhibition will be the first of many more shows to be held at the tea house.

"We would like to create a platform for Singaporeans who have private collections to share them with their friends or the public," she says.

"It's not necessary that the items be antiques. You might have a collection of teapots or even pu'er tea that you would like to show others," she adds.

The tea house has already lined up several exhibitions, including displays of jade carvings and paintings. Each exhibition will last about two weeks.

"It's basically yi cha hui you - drink tea, make new friends, and share the joy."

Where: Tian Fu Tea Room, Parkroyal on Beach Road, 7500 Beach Road
When: Till April 27, 11am to 10.30pm daily
Admission: Free

This article was published on April 15 in The Straits Times.

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