My latest video, which I uploaded earlier today:
The latest videos that I’ve uploaded since the start of February, showing off some of my antiques. Feel free to ask questions or leave comments and ratings in the videos!
“So uh, where are you from?”
Looking Chinese, I get this question a lot. Almost every time I meet a new person, it pops up. Depending on the situation, a sarcastic or honest reply usually follows. But it’s a difficult question to answer. I’ve never been fully comfortable with saying that I’m Chinese. I’ve been to China but once in my life – I don’t speak Chinese, I wasn’t born in China, and neither were my parents.
Despite this, we have undeniably Chinese roots. Both my grandfathers were born in China in the early 20th century. But here again there’s a separation – my grandmother (on my father’s side, at least) – was not. She was born in Singapore – at the time, a jewel in the crown of the British Empire. She grew up speaking English, along with a slew of other languages,
You can start to see why there’s hassles involved in researching my family history.
My Own Historical Journey
I only really started getting interested in genealogy after my grandmother died in 2011. She had led what I felt, was an incredible and arduous life, as well as growing up during an incredible time in history, and as part of a unique element of Chinese culture.
I knew very little about my grandparents’ lives while they were alive. My grandfather died before either my brother or I were old enough to know him, and I never felt comfortable asking grandma about him. At any rate, grandma’s worsening Alzheimer’s disease as she entered her 90s meant that by the time I was old enough to ask intelligent questions, it was becoming increasingly difficult for her to answer them. As a result, I learned most of my family history by asking my father, uncles, aunts, and older cousins.
It was only after my grandmother passed away that I gained access to a whole wad of her personal papers. Statutory declarations, passports, immigration papers, household documents, employment slips, hospital records, and even my grandfather’s death-certificate, that I was able to really delve into the history of our family – who was who, when and where they were born, and how everyone was related to everyone else. This was very exciting, but also incredibly confusing and difficult – not least because half the documents were written in a mixture of Cantonese, and Malay – two languages which I know almost nothing about!
The Difficulties of Asian Genealogy
In the Western world, tracing one’s family history is relatively easy. There are workhouse records, war-department records, immigration records, census-documents, birth and death registers, marriage records and school and university records to look through, to find out all kinds of things like when grandpa migrated to America from Italy, where and when he met grandma, what his parents and grandparents did for a living, where your Uncle Tony was born…all kinds of stuff.
Sadly such ease of access to ancestral information is next to impossible to attain for Chinese families. Centuries of war, revolution, invasion, occupation, more revolutions, more wars, more occupations and changing governments throughout China, Japan, the Malay Peninsula, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, Hong Kong and other Asian countries has meant that the likelihood of finding a complete and unbroken chain of records and dates going back more than a few generations is pretty unlikely.
Confucian Filial Piety
Another huge barrier to recording Asian genalogy is filial piety, a notion established by Chinese philosopher Confucius, centuries ago, and something which a lot of Chinese people still adhere to, to this day. Confucius stated that in everything, there was an order, a ranking and a hierarchy which had to be maintained. Every person in this hierarchy, from the emperor downwards, had a ranking and a title. This even extended to the family-unit, where every member was addressed not by name, but by rank and title. And in many Chinese families, this has continued into the 21st century.
“Alright”, I hear you say. “So what?”
Well, imagine trying to trace your family tree through even just a couple of generations, when you don’t know ANYBODY’S names. Not your grandparents’ names, not your uncles or aunts’ names, not the names of your great-grandparents, your grandparents’ siblings, their spouses…nobody, all because they would’ve been known by rank and title, and not by name.
Beginning to see the problem here?
The fact of the matter is that it is very, very difficult, unless you have access to loads of documents, and someone who is willing to sit down with you and go through them all, and explain things – especially if, unlike your parents or relations, you don’t speak your ‘mother tongue’, let alone read or write it!
For my own part, I was lucky enough that my father’s side of the family was largely brought up Christian, and as such, almost everyone had Christian names as well as Chinese ones. This made recording names, dates and relations much, much easier! I didn’t have to think in terms of first uncle, second uncle, third uncle, second aunt, second-aunt’s husband, fourth uncle’s wife’s brother, third uncle’s cousin’s brother…
You get the idea. It can be maddeningly confusing!
Researching My Own Family
Researching family history can be a lot of fun. I found out the names of my great-grandparents, I found out when and where my grandfather was born, I found out that my grandmother had a little brother who died in the 1950s – and that he worked as an apothecary! I found out that our family has had more adoptions in, adoptions out, and adoptions around the family, than a revolving door orphanage, but it helped to explain how we got where we are, and how the current family all fits together.
I found all these details out from photographs, records, and from interviewing family members. Unfortunately for me, finding out about my family history isn’t as easy as doing a Google Search, and that means that every single unearthed speck of genealogical gold-dust that I find is precious and fascinating. If you’ve ever struggled to piece together your family history, you’ll know what I mean!
For some people, knowing who they are and where they came from is a point of pride and fascination. For others, they couldn’t give a damn!…My uncle is one such person – he didn’t even keep his wedding photographs! He told me so! I have copies of them, though, and keep them as a record of everything that’s happened in our family which I’ve been able to find out.
Researching Your Own Family History
Genealogy can be a fascinating hobby, albeit a frustrating one. if you ever intend to start, then the best advice I can give is to find every elderly member of your family that’s left, with decent memories, and absolutely pump them for every single drop of information you can squeeze from them.
Living memories are better than dry words on paper, and questioning people when they’re alive means that you get more details out of them, rather than trying to figure out everything from records, after they’re dead! This is one thing I wish I’d done with my grandmother before she’d died, but unfortunately I just didn’t have the interest back then.
Next, get a-hold of all the papers you can find. Birth records, death records, passports, immigration records, in any way that you can. If you need to, get them translated! And above all, make sure that you cross-reference things. Records are not always as definitive as you’d like them to be!
Once you’ve confirmed what you know, write it down! On the backs of photographs, in a family bible, in a document that you’re keeping – anything! Once lost, information like this is never won back, so guard it jealously! And make things easier for future generations (should you intend to have any), by keeping, saving and recording everything that you can, if not for your own children, then for your nieces and nephews further on down the line. You never know who might be interested in who came before them!
Just because it’s what they do, doesn’t mean that they know it all! And if you’re patient, you can get your hands on a really nice, and interesting, piece of silver! That’s what happened to me yesterday!
Nobody at my local auction-house knew what this curious little…dish…plate…bowl…thingy…was. As a result, it sold for next to nothing, and I was able to nab it at a great price. I was extremely skeptical of the description of it in the catalogue, which simply said: “Sterling Silver Ash Tray“.
One look at this item told me that it was quite obviously not an ash tray. The shape was all wrong. And there were no grooves to rest cigarettes. I mean you could use it as an ash tray…and you could use a Gucci handbag to tip horse-manure onto the garden…but that doesn’t mean you should! This weird little piece of silver made me wonder exactly what it was and who made it and why.
Unusually, it was a modern piece of silver. It’s from 1997, according to the hallmarks, and it was assayed in Sheffield. Researching the company that made it eventually told me that it was something called an ‘Armada Plate’.
Yeah I’d never heard of it either, and despite a lot of research, all I could find out was that there were loads of these things for sale online in various sizes, some larger than mine, some smaller. But none of them told me what the hell an ‘Armada Plate’ was. So, I went to Wikipedia to find out…
The Amazing Armada Service
In the 1580s and 90s, a thirty-one piece sterling silver dinner service was amassed by Sir Christopher Harris, and his wife Mary. Among other things, Sir Christopher was an MP, and Vice-Admiral for the county of Devon, and was charged with the protection of Devon by attacks from the sea.
The service became known as the ‘Armada Service’ because it was made to commemorate the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. The date-letters on the silver plates and platters range from the 1580s up to around 1601.
Either way, the famous, 31-piece service was a point of pride for the Harris family – Sir Christopher after all, was familiar with both Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh, so he definitely moved in some pretty impressive circles!
What is known is that the service was passed down through the Harris family until 1645. At the time of the English Civil War, the service was buried to hide it from the Cromwellian puritans, who needed silver for their war-effort. It remained hidden for nearly two centuries, until it was rediscovered in 1827 by farm-laborers who, of all things, were digging a hole to store potatoes!
The service was returned to the Harris family, who took custody of it for over fifty years, until it was sold at auction in 1885…by which time it had dropped from 31 pieces to 26 pieces…exactly what happened to the other five is unknown.
Either way, the pieces were sold at auction in 1885, and again some decades later, in 1910. In 1992, the 26-piece service was acquired by (and remains with) the British Museum.
But what happened to the other pieces?
Funnily enough – some of them have been discovered!
Through means unknown, some of them had ended up in the States! This was only discovered in 2009! This means that there is now a 28-piece Armada service in the world. However, the last three pieces, to make it the complete 31 once more, are still missing…
The Little Silver Plate
Alright, that was really interesting…but what’s that got to do with a little silver plate?
Well actually, the Armada Service is so famous, not just for its size, age and the fact that part of it is still missing, but because it represented a high-point of late-Elizabethan silversmithing. Its simple style and beauty, and the fact that it’s survived this long largely intact, have made it an object of fascination, and therefore, highly desirable.
Modern copies of individual pieces from the Armada Service are actively manufactured today by British silversmiths, and you can buy them online relatively easily, in sizes anywhere from a couple of inches, all the way up to seven inches in diameter! My own little plate is 3.75 inches across. It may not be a piece of 400-year-old Elizabethan silver, but it’s fun to own something that pays homage to one of the most famous silver-collections in the world!
In going back over the hundreds of posts I’ve made in this blog since I started it in 2009, which is coming onto eight years ago (yikes!), I suddenly realised that I’d never done one about one of my most-prized antiques. My teeny little vinaigrette box. So that’s what we’re covering today! Here it is:
This thing is really small. I mean really, really, really small! You could pack four or five of these into a standard matchbox without much trouble at all. That’s how tiny it is! The entire thing is solid sterling silver, and it is indeed, very old. It is the oldest piece of antique silver which I currently own, and almost certainly the smallest. So, what is it?
Vinaigrette-boxes, or simply just vinaigrettes were very popular during the 17-and-1800s, from the early Georgian era up through the end of the Victorian era. They were almost always little silver boxes, with gilt interiors, with pierced grilles and little sponges inside.
The sponges held a mixture of perfume or essential oils mixed with a drop or two of vinegar. This mixture created a sweet-smelling but also pungent aroma, designed to mask the stench of unwashed bodies, horse-manure, coal-smoke and other nasal assaults common during the 18th and 19th centuries. Since vinegar is acidic, vinaigrettes were always gilt (gold-lined or gold-plated) to prevent the acid from burning through the silver with which the boxes were made.
Vinaigrettes came in various sizes, from minuscule ones like this, to much larger ones about the size of a matchbox. They also came in a wide array of shapes, styles and designs. Those with strange, interesting, rare or novel designs are especially collectible.
This particular vinaigrette has the hallmarks of Thomas Spicer, for Birmingham, in 1823, and the duty mark of George IV, who reigned from 1820-1830. It also has its original sponge inside it! It’s a bit dry and crusty, but I didn’t want to throw it out.
Hallmarks on silverware change over time. Not just in style, size and shape, but also in the number of hallmarks. Knowing when different hallmarks were introduced and when they were discontinued is one way of dating a piece. This can be important when the item is particularly old, and the original set of hallmarks might have been polished out or unreadable. The duty mark for British silver was introduced in the 1700s and discontinued in 1890.
And here’s the vinaigrette fully-opened, with the sponge removed. You can see the full set of hallmarks here. Five in total: Maker’s mark of TS (Thomas Spicer), assay mark of an anchor (Birmingham), fineness mark of a Lion Passant (Sterling Silver), the date-letter (Z) for 1823, and finally – a duty mark of a monarch’s head (George IV). The TS maker’s mark has been repeated on both sides of the box.
The Fall of the Vinaigrette
Vinaigrettes died out in the Victorian era. When the soap-tax was repealed in the…1850s, I believe it was…it suddenly became much easier to wash onself, and one’s clothing. This moderate improvement in personal hygiene and laundry meant that for once, people didn’t stink so much. And if they did, cologne, scent of perfume was used to mask the smell. By the end of the century, the vinaigrette had pretty much become a museum piece.