Art Stars in Hong Kong Hollywood

Question: Why travel all the way to Hong Kong to shop on a road named Hollywood? Answer: antiques and curios.

Hong Kong's Hollywood Road has been one of the world's premiere showcases for Asian art, ranging from haute antique to flea market funky, since the 1950s.

Its rise to importance followed the 1949 revolution when Chinese who fled to Hong Kong flocked to Hollywood Road pawn shops to convert family belongings into cash. Some of the items were valuable, some merely interesting, but business boomed and Hollywood Road pawn brokers became Asian antique and art dealers.

Hollywood Road remains a center for goods coming out of China, and in the past dozen years or so, antiques from Japan, Korea, Thailand and other Asian countries have found their way into the shops.

Although much of Hollywood Road has been renovated, the two-mile-long street is still crowded and narrow. It twists through a hilly neighborhood on Hong Kong Island, and is a perpetual tangle of pedestrians and one-way, bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Hollywood Road has two distinct sections that are divided by the ornate Man Mo Temple, one of Hong Kong's oldest, built around 1842. When you face the temple's bright blue, red, yellow and gold facade, Hollywood Road's higher-priced shops--those with the lowest street numbers--are on your left. Those shops contain beautiful objects presented in spacious, gracious surroundings.

The lacquer chests are exquisite at Eastern Dreams (No. 47A), one of the pricier shops. Of particular beauty, a 90-year-old treasure with seven drawers is priced at about $700. Among other unusual items are 100-year-old, log-shaped leather headrests (hollow, to hold valuables while the owner sleeps) for about $100.

Two more fine shops, Altfield Gallery (No. 38) and Altfield Fine Arts Centre (No. 42A), both under the same management, have fabulous collections of decorative and fine arts. Both shops are museum-like, with special exhibitions of the finest Chinese art and furniture, all documented and in excellent condition. Prices may seem astronomical, but they are still at least 10% less than similar objects would be in the United States.

Some of the shops specialize.

For example, C.P. Ching Fine Oriental Art (No. 21) offers exquisite Asian textiles. Yau San Cheong (No. 39) sells brushes and fine paper for calligraphy. Kim's Gallery (No. 54A) contains antique and reproduction chests, many made of elm wood with brass fittings. Chests dating from the 1890s range in price from $800 to $3,000.

To the right of Man Mo Temple are shops with less expensive merchandise, much of it reproductions and trinkets. But the jumble of merchandise is fascinating.

Herds of ceramic dragons (from about $40) are delightfully decorative, but the Chinese think of them as functional accessories to ward off evil spirits and help celebrate anniversaries.

Jade is abundant. Legions of smiling goddess statuettes and Buddhas in various sizes and vintages (from about $65) are displayed in glass cases. There are jade bowls and vases (from about $40), pots for plants and soup, small trees with trunks and leaves of jade and other semi-precious stones (from about $70).

Ebony and rosewood furniture is stacked high and sometimes seems to spill out of the shops onto the sidewalks. There are entire sets for dining rooms (from about $950), as well as cabinets and screens with inlaid lacquer panels (from about $500).

Many shops display reproductions without always tagging them as such. So purchase with caution. Go to a reputable dealer, ask a lot of questions, bargain and always get a detailed sales slip that specifies the origin of the item, material it's made from, physical description including dimensions and weight, the shop's name and the amount of the sale.

The Hong Kong Tourist Assn.'s quality symbol, a decal of a red Chinese junk, is intended as a stamp of honesty and reliability. HKTA inspectors regularly monitor shops, and if owners are found to be dishonest, the red junk logo is confiscated. Should you have a problem with merchandise purchased in a shop displaying the red junk logo, notify the HKTA.

Prices quoted in this article reflect currency exchange rates at the time of writing.

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