by CHT & Glen Chee
Famille rose kamchengs or covered jars are considered the ‘must have’ among Straits Chinese porcelain specialist collectors. There are two major types of kamchengs that are considered to be Straits Chinese between the period of mid 19th to early 20th century. The famille rose enamels are colourful and gaudy wares that are usually presented as gifts and used during ceremonial occasions to display the opulence and affluence of the Straits Chinese Peranakan families. The other category of kamchengs are the Kitchen Qing blue and whites that were mass produced and exported to South East Asia mainly for utilitarian usage. The word Kamcheng pronounced in Hokkien, a Chinese dialect from Fujian carries the connotations of love, affection and relationship. Among the Straits Chinese Peranakan community, most have opined that these colourful kamchengs were used for storing cooked rice or as soup tureens and used during special and auspicious occasions. However, in recent years, the television series ‘Little Nyonya’ had dramatised the colourful kamcheng into an item that the bride would bring along to her new home after the wedding ceremony. Perhaps this dramatisation could be interpreted as the kamcheng signifies or seals the ‘kamcheng’ (relationship) between both families through the wedding ceremony. Hence, many collectors and enthusiasts have started to accept and preach this analogy.
There is no doubt that these is food containers but there are no evidence suggesting that only the colourful ones were actually used for ready cooked food or as a momento for brides. In fact these porcelain pieces were mainly used as storage jars for dried food and herbs in China and other countries where the Chinese had migrated to. It is common to find traditional Chinese medicine halls using the blue and white kamchengs as herbal jars. It may well be that only the affluent families could afford having these famille rose porcelain to match their other table wares. Large kamchengs made during the mid 19th to early 20th century are hardly found in China but most extant pieces are found in Southeast Asia. Some rarely encountered leviathan kamchengs can comfortably hold a sitting baby! As for the mini or baby kamchengs, it is accepted that they were predominantly used for storing valuable daily health supplements or life saving medicinal pills.
The blue and white kamchengs are comparatively much cheaper than the colourful ones. Prices for the coloured pieces greatly depend on the ground colour, size, motif designs and markings. A big rare kamcheng may fetch more than RM100, 000 whereas a green ground baby kamcheng could be asking for RM5,000. Beginners should be vigilant that there are a good number of fakes and a significant amount of reproduction items in the markets asking for genuine antique prices.