Asian Antiques from Vietnam

October 6th, 2019

We recently listed a collection of antiques and vintage textiles originating from various provinces throughout Vietnam. Most pieces belong to one of the 53 ethnic minorities living in the country, including the Hmong, Yao, Tai-Dum, and Katu peoples. A few pieces were created by Kinh majority people.

The richness of Vietnam’s various ethnic groups provides a diverse array of artifacts, each distinct in design, influenced by the spiritual belief system held by that culture, from Taoism to Animism.

Our small collection includes antique silver tribal jewellery and tribal textiles, as well as unique artifacts including a silver and bronze tobacco pipe, a 15th century shipwreck pot, a Taoist wood printing block, an ancient bronze spearhead, and an architectural element in the form of a dragon.

We hope that you find these pieces interesting. They represent both a fascinating part of the history of the region as well as wonderful expressions of the unique creativity of the peoples that produced them.

Antique Silver Tribal Jewellery
Antique Tribal Silver Hairpins – Tai_Dum Left & Hmong Right
Antique Tribal Hairpins
Antique Tribal Hairpins – Left Tai-Dum, Right Hmong
Antique Hill Tribe Silver Jewellery
Antique Tribal Earrings – Left Yao, Right Hmong
Antique Hmong Silver Jewellery
Antique Hmong Hill Tribe Silver Soul Lock Pendant & Earrings
Antiques from Vietnam
Antique Silver/Bronze Tobacco Pipe (Kinh) & Taoist Printing Woodblock (Yao)
Vietnamese Antique Dragon Wood Carving
Antique Architectural Element (Kinh)
Ancient Bronze Spearhead Vietnam
Ancient Bronze Spearhead 400BC – 100AD Mekong Delta
Vintage Hmong Baby Slippers
Vintage Embroidered Hmong Baby Slippers
Antique Hmong Textiles Baby Carriers
Vintage Hmong Baby Carriers

Asian Antiques from Burma (Myanmar)

December 29th, 2018

We recently returned from a trip to Burma and visited the markets and antique shops of Yangon. Predictably, we found that the availability of genuine antiques has diminished significantly since our last visit. Long gone are the days of seeing tables and shelves filled with exotic offerings from Burma’s past including opium weights, bronze bells, lacquerware, Nat spirit statues, architectural pieces, Buddhist art and various other fascinating objet d’art.

We did manage to bring back a small collection of artifacts including a particularly charming Nat spirit wooden statue, well known to the Burmese as Mei Wunna, the flower-eating ogress of Mount Popa, along with a few antique bronze bells, a beautifully decorated antique lacquerware kun-it, a rare antique tattoo pen and a small collection of the much sought after handmade Chin textiles, including a very rare antique heirloom piece.

Featured below is a collection of images from Yangon as well as the various artifacts from Burma that are currently available in the gallery. If you find any items that pique your interest please email us at info@sabaidesignsgallery.com

Asian antiques: bronze bells Burma
Antique Bronze Bells from Burma
Asian Antique: Burmese Lacquerware
Antique Burmese Lacquerware Kun-It
Asian Antiques: Antique Burmese Bronze Tattoo Pen
Antique Burmese Bronze Tattoo Pen
Asian antique Chin textile
Antique Chin Textile Burma
Handwoven Chin Textile
Handwoven Chin Textile
Chin Textiles Burma
Handwoven Chin Textile Burma
Chin Textile from Burma - Handwoven
Chin Textile from Burma – Handwoven
Tribal textiles from Burma
Handwoven Chin Textile from Burma
Travel Yangon Burma
Life in Yangon, Burma
Travel Yangon, Burma
Life in Yangon, Myanmar
Scenes from Yangon, Burma
Scenes from Yangon, Burma
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Burma
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Burma
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Burma
Scenes from Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Burma
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Burma
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Burma
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Burma
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Burma
Gilded Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Burma
Gilded Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Burma

The Tradition of Wood Carving in Southeast Asia

December 30th, 2017

Southeast Asia has always been thickly forested, so it was natural that the first material to be used for artistic purposes should have been wood, though because of its lack of durability, it is hard to trace the earliest examples of wood carving in the region.  The wood carving tradition, dating back to ancient times, prevailed even after the use of metals and stone emerged. Wood carving flourished long after the great age of stone sculpture and stone architecture, which ended in the 13th century.

Nowhere has the tradition of wood carving in Southeast Asia been more prolific and impressive than Burma. Temples and palaces were richly decorated with highly detailed roof edges, gates, Buddha images, images of monks, effigies of celestial beings, doorways and panels, and windows all carved from hardwood in designs uniquely Burmese. Wood carvings of religious significance were often gilded and decorated with a glittering mosaic of stained glass.

Antique Wood Carvings
Gilded Buddhist Antique Wood Carvings from Burma and Laos

The work was done with a variety of different sized chisels and mallets made from tamarind wood of varying weights, depending on the degree of detail required. Apprenticeships under the guidance of a master carver with several decades of experience lasted as long as ten years. Burmese wood carving is noted for its wonderful spatial arrangement, sense of freedom, and flow. Mostly, work was done in teak to survive the rigours of a climate of intense heat and humidity followed by long dry periods. For highly articulate work, Burmese carvers preferred fine-grained woods such as yindaik, similar to ebony. Popular designs imitated foliage such as vines with flowing outlines, and the use of holes to create a sense of depth with light and shadow.

Buddha images were sensitively carved with the objective of conveying a sense of peace, equanimity, and faithfully portraying the countenance of one who has overcome suffering in the world. The flowing lines of the Buddha’s robes, the tranquil facial expression, and detailed bases such as the lotus pedestal, all contribute to producing works of art that inspire reverence amongst devotees.

Buddha Wood Carvings
Burmese Buddha Statues and Pair of Teppanom Angels Carved from Wood
Burmese Buddhist Wood Carvings of Monks
Antique Wood Carvings of Monks from Burma

Nat spirits were also carved in wood, and while less refined in execution than Buddhist images, were highly expressive. There are 37 ‘official’ Nats and there are said to be as many as 2000 lower Nats of various forms. A favourite Nat of ours is Nga Pyi, Rider of the White Horse (shown below), who was executed for his tardiness in delivering an important message on behalf of a prince.

Antique Burmese Nat Wood Carvings
Burmese Nat Spirit Wood Carvings

Even utilitarian objects in Burma were decorated with attractive forms carved from wood, such as the ox cart, which in the past would have on its bow an ornament carved from wood. An example of this is featured below; the Feng Huang, said to be a mythical bird of infinite grace.

Antique Wood Carving
Antique Burmese Ox Cart Ornament, Javanese Husband and Wife Statues, and Ox Wood Carving

Wood carvings other than those from Burma featured in this blog include a wonderful pair of rare 19th century statues from Java, Indonesia, known as ‘husband and wife statues’, a pair of antique Thai roof gable ornaments decorated in lichen, a Buddhist panel from Laos, and a rare shamanic ritual printing woodblock from Vietnam.

Antique Wood Carving
Antique Naga Wood Carvings and Roof Gables
Antique Wood Carvings
Antique Saddle Ornament, Opium Weight / Scales Box, Shamanic Woodblock

Antique wood carvings have a unique organic quality and possess the sense of presence instilled in objects lovingly made by hand in times past, before the homogeneous conformity of factory produced goods became commonplace.

Asian Antiques
Asian Antiques
Asian Antiques
Asian Home Decor

Antique Tribal Silver Jewellery from the Hill Tribes of Southeast Asia

August 16th, 2017

Jewellery and ornamentation is an integral part of Southeast Asian hill tribe cultures, and in the past the value of almost everything was measured in terms of silver. History taught the hill tribe groups that paper money could become worthless overnight and so silver became their trusted currency. In Peoples of the Golden Triangle by Paul and Elaine Lewis, it is stated that, ‘They feel happy and secure when they are loaded down with silver, beads and other valuables’.

Hill Tribe Women of Southeast Asian Wearing Silver Jewellery

In the past, French silver coins were melted down and fashioned into a wonderful variety of forms by highly skilled silversmiths, whom today have all but vanished. Modern silver hill tribe jewellery is markedly inferior in terms of both materials and execution. The vast majority of genuine antique silver hill tribe jewellery has been sold off for cash by villagers long ago, and the pieces that we offer in our gallery represent the remaining trickle of antique silver that becomes available sporadically, a few pieces at a time.

Specific styles of silver jewellery were favoured by the distinct hill tribe groups including the Hmong (White Hmong & Blue Hmong) , Lisu, Mien (Yao), Akha, Wa/Lawa, Karen, Shan, and Lahu. The most prolific and skilled producers of silver jewellery and ornamentation appear to have been the Hmong and the Mien.

Antique Dragon Head Silver Bracelets Worn by the Hmong and Mien (Yao)
Antique Silver Hill Tribe Bracelets

Silver was of special significance to the Hmong and symbolized wealth and the essence of a good life.  At the time of the Hmong New Year, all the family silver jewellery is worn and displayed. Three styles of earrings were favoured by the Hmong; one shaped like an arrow, with the shaft bent to form a circle. Another is an elongated S shape with a pointed plug which passes through the earlobe. The third and more recent is a design of a small silver hook with several small dangles hanging from it. Both men and women wear heavy, engraved silver bracelets as well as flat engraved bracelets. Solid or hollow neck rings are also worn alone or in sets of up to six. Heavy silver chains from which hang lock shaped pendants are also very important to the Hmong and are said to help lock the soul in the body. A variety of silver hair ornaments were also worn traditionally by women, some in the shape of opium poppies (the Hmong were very successful growers of opium poppies).  During the Hmong New year, which falls at the end of the harvest season between November and December, the quantity of silver displayed in previous times was impressive.

Antique Silver Soul Lock Pendants from the Hmong

In Mien (Yao) villages, women and children would wear silver neck rings, sometimes multi-tiered, on festive occasions. From hooked rings, women would suspend silver chains with bells, balls, and dangles attached. Mien women, like the Hmong, wear arrow-shaped earrings with the shafts forming a circle, along with a variety of rings. Heavy silver bracelets were also popular and worn on the left wrist. Also popular amongst Mien women were silver butterflies, birds, flowers, and geometric designs. Soul lock pendants as worn by the Hmong were also worn by the Mien.

The Hmong and Mien (Yao) Wearing Silver Jewellery

The majority of the antique silver jewellery that we offer comes from the Hmong groups of Laos and occasionally the Mien (Yao). There are certain designs that were shared by both groups such as the circular arrow earrings and various styles of bracelets. Featured here are a few examples of antique hill tribe silver jewellery acquired on a recent trip to Laos. Click on any of the photographs featured to be taken to our antique tribal jewellery category.

Antique Silver Hairpins from the Hmong of Laos
Antique Silver Hairpins from the Hmong of Laos
Antique Silver Box from the Hmong

The Ancient Monuments of Mahabalipuram, India

February 20th, 2017

We recently returned from a trip to south India and in this blog are sharing a collection of photos, mostly taken in Mahabalipuram, as well as some photos of a few artifacts that we acquired in India.

Mahabalipuram was an ancient seaport of the Pallavas, who ruled from nearby Kancheepuram between 300 A.D – 800 A.D. Though ravaged by sea, wind and time, the sculptural treasures of Mahabalipuram are testament to the magnificence of ancient Dravidian art and temple architecture.  King Mahendravarman (580-630 AD) was a renowned patron of fine arts and devoted much of his time and wealth to nurturing these arts. Historians have written about the importance of Mahabalipuram as a leading port for trade and excavators have recovered coins in the area from ancient Rome, China, Persia and other nations.

Pancha Rathas or The Five Rathas (630-680AD), Mahabalipuram
Pancha Rathas or The Five Rathas (630-680AD), Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu, India. UNESCO World Heritage Site
Life on the beach in front of Shore Temple, Mahabalipuram, India
Life on the beach in front of Shore Temple, Mahabalipuram, India
Shore Temple, Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu, India
Shore Temple built by Narasimha Varman II (690-715 AD). It is the only survivor of seven such temples built, the rest having fallen to the ravages of the sea.
Shore Temple, Mahabalipuram, India.
Shore Temple, Mahabalipuram, India.
People of Mahabalipuram, India
People of Mahabalipuram, India
Varaha Cave Temple, Mahabalipuram, India
Varaha Cave Temple, Mahabalipuram, India. Inside the cave temple are two sculptures representing two incarnations of Lord Vishnu.
Pilgrims from Kerala visiting the ancient temples of Mahabalipuram.
Pilgrims from Kerala visiting the ancient temples of Mahabalipuram.
Arjuna's Penance
Arjuna’s Penance, a brilliant bas-relief, hailed as one of major glories of Indian art and the largest of its kind in the world, carved into a huge rock canvass measuring 96 ft long and 43 ft high.
Beautifully carved sculptures of Lord Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva at the Five Rathas, Mahabalipuram.
Beautifully carved sculptures of Lord Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva at the Five Rathas, Mahabalipuram.
Original Mughal paintings of the emperor with consorts painted in watercolors on antique paper with 24K gilding.
Original Mughal paintings of the emperor with consorts painted in watercolors on antique paper with 24K gilding.
Mughal Paintings
A superb pair of original Mughal paintings depicting Shah Jahan, the great 17thC Mughal emperor, and his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, for whom the incredible Taj Mahal was constructed as a tomb following her premature death.
Indian antiques
Bidriware zinc and silver vase, Tibetan jade and silver bowl, and Tibetan singing bowl.
Rosewood jewelry box and teak spice box from from Chettinad, Tamil Nadu, India.
Rosewood jewelry box and teak spice box from from Chettinad, Tamil Nadu, India.

Asian Home Décor by sabai designs gallery

December 31st, 2016

In this last blog for 2016 we are featuring a small collection of artifacts from Southeast Asia in a home setting. We wish all of our customers a very happy New Year in 2017.

This photo features an antique Burmese bell, Nat Spirit wood carving, lacquerware hsun-ok and a bronze Buddha and wood carving monk from Thailand.
This photo features an antique Burmese bell, Nat Spirit wood carving, lacquerware hsun-ok and a bronze Buddha and wood carving of a monk from Thailand.
Burmese style standing Buddha statue carved from wood.
Burmese style standing Buddha statue carved from wood.
Silk wall hanging from Laos, lacquerware box, teppanom angels, and altar sculpture from Burma.
Silk wall hanging from Laos, lacquerware box, teppanom angels, and altar sculpture from Burma.
Featuring Hmong silver torque and necklace, bronze Burmese bell.
Featuring Hmong silver torque and necklace, bronze Burmese bell.
Featuring etching by Vorakorn, Burmese lacquerware box, silk wall hanging from Laos, and Indonesian wood carvings.
Featuring etching by Vorakorn, Burmese lacquerware box, silk wall hanging from Laos, and Indonesian wood carvings.
Asian home decor - Entrance
Asian home decor – Entrance
Asian Home Decor - Dining Room
Asian Home Decor – Dining Room

Antique Tribal Silver Jewellery from the Hmong

September 21st, 2016

Having recently returned from a trip to Laos, we wanted to showcase the beautiful tribal jewellery created by the talented Hmong silversmiths of the past. Antique Hmong silver jewellery was made using high content silver and is superior to the work being done today, including the fake Hmong jewellery found in markets and online.

Traditional Hmong Designs on Silver Antique Bracelets
Traditional Hmong Designs on Antique Silver Bracelets

The Hmong, (also known as Meo or Miao) are a strong willed hill tribe people thought to have originated in Southern China some 3,000 years ago. Today the Hmong are found throughout Southeast Asia, the result of significant migration provoked by persecution from the Chinese during the 18th and 19th centuries.  The Hmong were the first hill tribe group to successfully cultivate opium and are known to be shrewd entrepreneurs. Despite the pressures to conform to life in the 21st century, ancient Hmong culture is proving robust to dissolution with much of their customs, traditions and beliefs remaining intact. While the opium poppy fields have largely been replaced with food crops and children are now often educated in local schools, most born into this distinct culture remain proudly Hmong.

Hmong Girls in Traditional Costume
Hmong Girls in Traditional Costume

The Hmong’s love of silver and silversmith skills are widely known and admired. In the past, households acquired as much silver as possible, and during New Year all the families’ silver came out on display.  As the New Year approached, Hmong silversmiths would melt silver bars and old neckbands to repair jewellery and create new ornaments for the coming celebrations.

Hmong Silversmith at Work 20th Century
Hmong Silversmith at Work 20th Century

In the early part of last century, silver was often obtained through melting French silver coins. Silver jewellery was to the Hmong more than a mere decorative show of wealth, but also a representation of their spiritual beliefs. Silver neck rings with lock shaped pendants were given to children in the ‘naming ceremony’ to keep the restless soul from prematurely leaving the body.

Other common forms of jewellery worn by the Hmong include solid or hollow silver torques, flat or hollow bracelets with engraved designs, earrings in a variety of styles, and cone shaped rings often worn on every finger, as well as hairpins; some in the shape of the opium poppy. A single pair of silver earrings could take a master up to five days to complete and one mistake could ruin days of work.  We’ve included a few images of antique Hmong jewellery acquired on our most recent trip to Laos and now available in the gallery. The last image is of one of the loveliest examples of Hmong silver work we’ve seen to date – a 19th century medicine box from Luang Prabang, where the Hmong have lived for centuries.

Antique Hmong Silver Jewelry
Antique Hmong Silver Bracelets
Antique Tribal Jewellery
Antique Hmong Silver Earrings
Antique Hmong Tribal Jewelry
Antique Hmong Silver Hairpins
Antique Hmong Silver Neck Rings with Soul Lock Pendants
Antique Hmong Silver Neck Rings with Soul Lock Pendants
Antique Silver Jewelry
Antique Hmong Silver Torques
Antique Hmong Silver Soul Lock Pendants
Antique Hmong Silver Soul Lock Pendants
Antique Silver Medicine Box
19th Century Hmong Silver Medicine Box

View Tribal Jewellery Collection

Copyright sabai designs gallery 2016

Asian Home Décor from sabai designs gallery

December 17th, 2015

In our last post for the year we are featuring a selection of photographs of Asian antiques, artifacts and textiles from our gallery in an Asian home décor setting. We wish all of the visitors to our gallery a happy holiday season and offer our best wishes for 2016.

Burmese Buddha Statue
Asian Antique Home Decor
Asian Antiques
Asian Antique Home Decor
Asian Antiques
Asian Antique Home Decor
Asian Antiques
Asian Antique Home Decor
Asian Antiques
Asian Antique Home Decor
Asian Antiques
Asian Antique Home Decor
Asian Antiques
Asian Antiques
Asian Antique Home Decor
Asian Antiques
Asian Antique Home Decor
Asian Antiques
Asian Antique Home Decor

Antique Opium Pipes, Accoutrements, and a Brief History of Opium

September 21st, 2015

We recently returned from a trip to Laos, where thanks to the help of a long time Laotian friend, we found three impressive Chinese antique opium pipes and a small collection of accoutrements. Authentic antique opium pipes and smoking paraphernalia have become a popular, albeit rare collectible. In this blog we are featuring these artifacts along with some background information on the history of opium.

Antique Opium Pipe
Antique Opium Pipe

It is the Chinese who perfected the art of smoking opium and developed the classic opium pipe, made from a hollow bamboo stem and a saddle into which fits an earthenware pipe-bowl resembling a door knob designed to vaporize the opium over a specially constructed oil lamp. The creation of these handsome pipes and accompanying paraphernalia evolved into an art form, and the materials used in their construction included silver, ivory, horn, bronze, jade, and other semi-precious stones. In mankind’s eternal quest for bliss states, the material world of opium smoking reached artistic heights and ritualistic observation of an order seldom seen, from the pipes and accoutrements to the lavishly decorated opium dens.

Antique Opium Pipe
Chinese Opium Smoker

Ideally, the smoker would lie on his or her side, their head resting on a pillow, while an experienced assistant would heat a pill of opium over the lamp using the opium needle, and then place a pea sized ball around the hole of the pipe-bowl. He would then guide the bowl over the funnel of the lamp while the smoker held the other end of the pipe and inhaled. The assistant would use the needle to chase the opium around the bowl as it vaporized until the pill was fully spent. A moderate session would result in ten or so of these little balls being vaporized. Opium smokers typically report feeling enveloped by a warm, gently euphoric glow with all bodily discomfort and worldly concerns falling away into nothingness. Descriptions of opium withdrawal are rather less charming. The 19th century French poet, Baudelaire, likened opium to a woman friend, “…an old and terrible friend, and, alas, like them all, full of caresses and deceptions!” During the prohibition of opium in China and other parts of Asia, as well as in the West, most opium pipes and accoutrements were destroyed in public bonfires, making the remaining artifacts valuable relics of a bygone era. With demand for these curious artifacts greatly exceeding their availability, reproductions are common and sometimes presented as the genuine article – emptor cavete.

Antique Opium Pipe Accoutrements
Opium Smoking Accoutrements
 

Opium is the congealed sap extracted from the seed pods of the poppy, Papaver Somniferum. It has been suggested, based on archeological evidence, that its use could date back as far as 30,000 years, used by Neanderthals.  Ancient civilizations known to have cultivated the opium poppy include Mesopotamia, Persia, Egypt, India, Minoan, Greek, and Roman. As far back as 4000B.C a written reference to the opium poppy appears in a Sumerian text, where it is referred to as hul gil – the plant of joy.

Classical Greek physicians raved about the poppy as a veritable panacea of surprising efficacy in its ability to treat all manner of maladies, including venomous bites, respiratory problems, jaundice, colic, leprosy, kidney stones, melancholia, and of course pain. This enthusiasm for opium, which throughout various cultures enjoyed such names Milk of Paradise, Anchor of Life, and Destroyer of Grief, was shared by 17th century pioneer of English medicine, Thomas Sydenham, who wrote, “Among the remedies which it has pleased Almighty God to give to man to relieve his sufferings, none is so universal and so efficacious as opium.” Sydenham went on to produce his own formula for the opium drink known as laudanum, which by the 19th century was widely available at any English pharmacy. Served by opium producers in Turkey and in British India, opium imports for domestic consumption reached a staggering 280,000 lbs by 1860. The use of opium in the United States was also commonplace in cities at this time and its reputation escaped negative connotations until 1882, when a law was passed to restrict its use to licensed opium dens. As a side note, Thomas Jefferson is known to have cultivated opium poppies in his garden in Monticello.

Antique Opium Den
American Opium Den

One of the earliest references to the use of opium in China is in the form of a 10th century poem celebrating the effects of drinking opium. Whereas the Indian tradition was to eat opium, by the 17th century, the Chinese had discovered the art of smoking it, often mixing Indian opium with tobacco- two products under Dutch trade. By the late 1700s, the British East India Company controlled the Asian opium trade with Indian grown poppies. During the 1800s the recreational use of opium smoking in China had become problematic. In response, the Imperial Chinese Court banned its importation and use, but the appetite for China’s massive opium addicted population continued to be met by British smugglers. At this time, the opium trade provided 15-20% of the British Empire’s revenue, effectively making it the richest and most aggressive drug cartel the world has ever seen.

Antique Opium Pipe with Red Jade
Antique Opium Pipe with Red Jade

In 1839, Qing Emperor Tao-Kuang assigned one of his ministers, Lin Tse-Hsu to resolve the problem. Lin wrote to Queen Victoria seeking help, but received no response. Angered, the Emperor ordered that 20,000 barrels of opium be destroyed and a number of foreign traders were jailed. In turn, the British attacked the port city, Canton, starting the first opium war. Following defeat, the Chinese were forced to sign the treaty of Nanjing in 1842, which required that the opium trade continue unfettered and for a large settlement to be paid. In addition, five new ports were to be opened to facilitate trade, and China was forced to cede Hong Kong to Britain. In 1858, the second opium war was fueled by western demands to expand the opium market even more. Following a second defeat, the Chinese were forced to legalize opium and massive domestic production began. By 1906, China was producing some 35,000 tons of opium, equating to 85% of global production. It’s estimated that by this time, over a quarter of Chinese men were opium addicts. Initiatives during the early 1900s began to curb the well established habit that included all levels of society. Opium pipes and paraphernalia were burned, and smokers were required to register and be weaned off the narcotic. Still, the habit largely persisted and it was not until the communist takeover in 1949 under Mao that real change was realized. Ten million addicts were forced into treatment, dealers were executed, and poppy fields replaced with alternative cash crops.

As a result, opium production shifted from China into Burma, Laos, and Thailand, forming what came to be known as The Golden Triangle. By the beginning of World War II, taxes on the sale of opium throughout French Indochina made up 15% of the colonial government’s revenues. When global war disrupted the traditional maritime route of opium into Indochina, Opium Régie enlisted the help of Hmong farmers. As a result, opium production rose 800% within four years. By the end of World War II, France lost control of much of Laos to the Viet Minh and their protégés, the Pathet Lao. Two powerful Hmong opium brokers took opposing sides, one supporting the colonialist French, and the other the communists. The defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 put an end to their reign.

Hmong Hill Tribe Cultivating Opium
Hmong Hill Tribe Cultivating Opium

America’s attempts to stop the spread of communism in Southeast Asia created what has been dubbed a “Cold War Opium Boom”. It has been suggested that CIA operatives trained Hmong guerrillas who had previously sided with the French, using their opium crops to fund operations. By the end of the Vietnam War, the production of opium in the Golden Triangle was second to none.  Decades later, of the three countries making up the Golden Triangle, Thailand has been the most successful in tackling the illegal production of opium through its crop replacement strategy, substituting poppies for medium to high value cash crops such as tea, coffee, kidney beans, apples and herbs. Today, Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer of illicit opium, followed by Burma, which accounts for 25% of global production.

In Laos, the Hmong and Mien hill tribe peoples embraced the cultivation of the poppy. The Hmong traditionally live 1000m -3000m above sea level in the mountains where life is hard, with few comforts, winter droughts, high winds, and freezing temperatures. The mountainous regions are ill-suited to most food crops or extensive animal husbandry. It is however, ideally suited to growing opium. They are a fiercely independent people who have survived centuries of conflict with the Chinese as well as face bigotry from the lowland inhabitants of SE Asia. Traditionally, accumulating wealth in the form of silver was paramount in Hmong society.

The Hmong of Xieng Khouang tell this myth about the origin of their association with opium:

“A long time ago, when the Hmong came down from China, they didn’t know how to grow opium. As they were passing through the Chinese side of what is called The Golden Triangle, they saw that the Burmese enthusiastically cultivated this crop but didn’t tend their fields well. Even so, the opium harvest provided a good income. Seeing the potential profit to be made, the Hmong learned to grow poppy from the Burmese. Initially, the Hmong worked just as carelessly as the Burmese, but later as they were migrating into Laos, they improved their farming methods. They perfected the art of cultivation under French encouragement, about a decade before World War II.”

Traditionally, the use of opium in Laos included women as well as men, and was common at all levels of society. If one could afford it, a refined and aesthetically pleasing Chinese opium pipe was used; otherwise a crude version based on the same principles was fashioned.  In the mountains, opium was often the only available form of medicine for treating diarrhea and pain arising from all sorts of maladies, from arthritis to flu, and was highly effective. Some limited its use to only treating medical problems. For others, lying down for a few pipes at the end of a hard day working the fields was a welcome reward. Some used opium recreationally occasionally, without becoming addicted, while others fell into a habit of 60 or more pipes a day, thereby becoming a burden on the family.  In Hmong culture, opium was always kept in the home, yet many chose not to partake, citing the fear of becoming neeng hao yeng, “one who is addicted to opium”.

Antique Opium Pipe
Antique Opium Pipe
Antique Opium Pipes
Antique Hmong Opium Scales
Antique Hmong Opium Scales

Copyright sabai designs gallery 2015

References:

Lee, P., Opium Culture: The Art & Ritual of the Chinese Tradition, Park Street Press, 2006.
Steve Martin, The Art of Opium Antiques, Silkworm Books, 2007

Sir William Osler, God’s Own Medicine

Joseph Westermeyer, Poppies, Pipes, and People: Opium and Its Use in Laos, 1983

Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater

Martin Booth, Opium: A History 1999

Asian Antiques: Treasures of the Khmer Empire & Beyond

June 3rd, 2015

We made another trip to Cambodia in May where we visited Phnom Penh and surrounding areas and searched for antiques to offer in the gallery.

A highlight was a visit to Phnom Chisor, a temple from the Angkor Period, built by the Khmer king, Suryavarman, who practiced Brahmanism. The temple sits upon a solitary hill in Takeo Province, offering wonderful panoramic views of the countryside below. It’s quite a climb up a long series of steps in the heat of the dry season.

Ruins of Phnom Chisor, Cambodia
Ruins of Phnom Chisor, Cambodia

The site was originally known as Suryagiri and the main temple is constructed of laterite and brick with carved sandstone lintels. The temple complex is enclosed by partially ruined walls, and inside, inscriptions can be found dating from the 11th century. Rituals were held here 900 years ago with the king accompanied by his entourage, who would climb the 400 steps. Here they would pay homage to the Hindu gods, Vishnu and Shiva. The main temple is still active and now houses an image of the Buddha along with the Hindu gods. Inside you can receive a blessing where a prayer is offered and a red string tied to the right wrist.

Hindu Temple, Phnom Chisor, Cambodia
Hindu Temple, Phnom Chisor, Cambodia
Hindu Temple Complex, Phnom Chisor, Cambodia
Hindu Temple Complex, Phnom Chisor, Cambodia
Ancient Ruins of Phnom Chisor, Cambodia
Ancient Ruins of Phnom Chisor, Cambodia

We also visited the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh, next to the Royal Palace. The museum houses one of the world’s largest collections of Khmer art including sandstone sculpture, bronzes, and ethnographic objects. Despite being looted during the Khmer Rouge regime, many impressive pieces remain. The collection dates from prehistoric times, pre, present, and post Khmer Empire period, up to the 19th century. It’s a fascinating place to spend a few hours. The scale and quality of artistic endeavour from the Angkorian Era is breathtaking, but we were also reminded of the beauty of pre-Angkor art.  The Angkorian period began in AD802 when Jayavarman II declared himself a universal monarch and lasted until the late 14th century.

Khmer Empire Sandstone Sculpture, National Museum Cambodia
Khmer Empire Sandstone Sculpture, National Museum Cambodia
Khmer Art, National Museum of Cambodia
Khmer Art, National Museum of Cambodia

We returned with a collection of  Khmer antiques including 18th-19th century lime pots, bronze bells, lacquer-ware, and other rare artifacts, some of which are featured below.

Khmer Antiques from Cambodia
Khmer Antiques from Cambodia
Khmer Artifacts from Cambodia
Khmer Artifacts from Cambodia
Antique Khmer Bronze Bells, Cambodia
Antique Khmer Bronze Bells, Cambodia
Antique Khmer Bronze Lime Pots
Antique Khmer Bronze Lime Pots
Antique Khmer Bronze Lime Pots Cambodia
Antique Khmer Bronze Lime Pots Cambodia