Antique Chinese Ivory Chopsticks – A Quest Concluded

My grandfather, born in Nanhai, Canton, Imperial China, in 1907, migrated from what would’ve been in his youth, the Republic of China, to the British Straits Settlements, in the early decades of the 20th century, carrying all his worldly possessions with him in a punched steel steamer-trunk. China in the 20s and 30s was a volatile place and incentive to migrate was strong. Very strong. So strong in fact that places like Malacca, Penang, Johore, Singapore, Java and Sumatra were inundated with thousands of Chinese migrants every year, who had sold all they could afford, to purchase steamer-tickets to get out of China and find a new life somewhere else.

These migrants were called ‘sinkeh‘ (“Sin-Kay”), a corruption of the Chinese ‘Xin Ke‘ (‘new guest’). Despite this title, they were rarely treated like guests.

Chinese sinkeh to colonies and communities of the South Pacific in the early 20th century often ended up working hard, backbreaking, low-paying jobs – what was called ‘Ku Li’ (“bitter labour”), from which we get the English loanword ‘Coolie’. They worked as rickshaw pullers, rubber-tappers, nightsoil haulers, clog-makers, fast-food hawkers, casual hard-labourers or (especially for women) domestic servants in the homes of wealthy, well-entrenched Straits Chinese families who had lived there for centuries.

My grandfather was one of such thousands of these sinkeh, but differed in the respect that he, unlike many, was an educated man. He was a scholar, and a calligrapher, and while others might’ve brought clothing or rice-bowls or other such things from China – he brought an encyclopedia-set!

The Sinkeh Experience

Imagine this for a minute. It is 1920. You have been born into a poor, dirt-farming family, somewhere in southern China. The old imperial government is long gone and China is tearing itself apart with internal struggles and in-fighting as it tries to form a modern, Western-style democracy. While externally, China looks like a modern, democratic country, internally, warlords and political corruption lie just under the surface. Away from the big cities of Peking, Shanghai, Nanking and Tientsin, unease fills the countryside.

To escape from drought, famine, political instability and corruption, thousands and thousands of Chinese migrants flee China before, during and after the Xinhai Revolution (1911), to find safety, stability and money, in other lands. Key ports of call were Singapore, the Straits Settlements, and the Dutch East Indies.

With so many people arriving from China every week, some variety of support-network became necessary. New arrivals to Singapore or Malacca, Penang or Batavia needed to know where they could live, where they could find work, what kind of work was available, and how to survive in these new countries. This led to the creation of the ‘clan association’.

And yes, that’s ‘clan’ just like how the Scots use it. The Scottish have clans, and so did the Chinese! Your ‘clan’ was the group of people who all shared the same surname, or who came from the same province or region of China. Migrants saw it as their duty to set up these clubs and associations so that people who arrived in these new countries knew that they could immediately head to their nearest clan association building, where friendly people who had already established themselves, could help them find homes, jobs and ways of settling into their new lives.

My grandfather, educated and intelligent, with excellent Chinese writing-skills, worked in just such an association for many years. He held the posts of both the association treasurer, and later, the association secretary, keeping and looking up records and information of everybody who passed in and out of the building’s doors. New arrivals, marriages, births, deaths, departures…the whole lot of it!

For his long years of service, the association saw fit to present him with a token of their good esteem – to wit – a pair of solid ivory chopsticks, with his name (‘Cheong Kai Chor‘) engraved on them in Chinese characters.

My own pair of ivory chopsticks, above my chained silver ones, which you might recall from a previous posting.

Sadly these chopsticks are now long-gone. Whatever happened to them, nobody in the family seems to know. But ever since I was told about them, it became a dream of mine to own a pair of ivory chopsticks, and recently, that dream was realised when I picked up a beautifully-decorated pair at a local antiques shop. I shall call them an early birthday present! 😛

So…Ivory Chopsticks?

Yeah, you read it right, ivory chopsticks. Chopsticks have been made of all kinds of things for centuries, and ivory – smooth, white, clean and able to be cut wafer thin if necessary, has always been one of the most prized materials from which chopsticks were made.

Don’t worry, I didn’t go out and shoot anything to get the ivory. I bought them cheap at my local antiques shop. They’re slim and square cross-sectioned, as well as being very long and tapered – 10.5 inches long in total, tapering from squared ends to squared off tips at the base. The only slight defect is age-warping – this happens a lot with natural materials like ivory, tortoise-shell, bone, etc. Even wood! As the material gets older, it dries out. If this happens unevenly, or if it gets moistened and dries out repeatedly, in cycles, then the item can warp and bend.

Fortunately the way in which these chopsticks are warped means that they’re still usable, since the warp is the same for both sticks. The curve was so gentle, I hardly noticed it.

How Do you Tell if they’re Ivory??

This is the one question that always gets asked, the moment you mention that you own anything that’s made of ivory! How do you KNOW that it’s ivory?

Well, a decade of collecting antiques will teach you a few things! But the simple explanation is that ivory is a natural material, like wood. And, like wood, ivory can be carved, sliced, polished, and, again like wood – ivory has a grain. If you can find that grain, it’s the surest way to know if an item is ivory, bone, or just plastic!

Any natural material – ivory, bone, wood, even human skin – is not flawless. There are variations in colour, texture and tonality all over it. This cannot be reproduced by mechanical means. Any attempt to do so will result in repetitions of any patterns found in the material that it’s trying to replicate. If it looks too perfect, then it’s probably not natural, and therefore, in the case of ivory, it’s probably plastic.

Ivory grain wavers and ripples, depending on how it’s cut and sliced, you’ll be able to see the dark and light streaks and lines or changes in tone, from creamy white to a sort of darker beige and back again.

Apart from that, there’s also the texture of ivory. Real ivory has a slightly rough, gritty feel. Plastic which is trying to imitate the look of ivory will be perfectly smooth because…well…it’s plastic. Ivory – real ivory – will never feel like that.

What’ll Happen to Them?

Chances are I won’t ever use them. Once I can, I’ll find a nice little display box for them or something, and bring them out occasionally for show and tell, but until then I’ll find them a safe place on my bookcase where they’ll be out of the way of trampling feet. I’ve given them a gentle cleaning with polishing liquid to remove some of the grime, but my efforts to restore them will end there – the last thing I want to do is snap a pair of 80-year-old chopsticks in half! I do think they’re very cool, and the intricacy of their decorations is mindblowing. I wouldn’t want to damage those!


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