Thu, Sep 27, 2007 - Page 9 News List

China's heritage is drifting away via Hong Kong

In the past decade Hong Kong's customs and excise department has stopped just three consignments of antiques illegally entering -- and officials do not believe it's a problem

By John Saeki  /  AFP, HONG KONG

Lucky fat ladies, porcelain pigs, ceramic musicians and giant Buddhas are crammed into Hong Kong's antique boutiques, but some experts, backed by Chinese law, say many of them shouldn't be there at all.

By a curious twist of history and geopolitics, Hong Kong has become the legitimate outlet for the ill-gotten treasures of Chinese history, a legal market for illegally obtained objets d'art that can and do command huge sums.

On Hollywood Road, Hong Kong's famed strip of art and antique outlets, the shopfronts provide a veritable tour of Chinese and Asian history, selling everything from Tibetan temple carpets and centuries-old Chinese wedding cabinets to giant Cambodian and Burmese Buddhas that arrive in the territory in wooden crates.

Shopkeepers will gladly provide a potted history of each object, with details of how it was unearthed -- perhaps by Chinese peasants dropping dynamite down sink holes in Shanxi Province to find well stocked burial chambers.

Apparently genuine, the items are clearly labelled and many are still covered in soil to prove that they have only recently been unearthed from their ancient Chinese resting places.

Experts in Hong Kong say that most of the Chinese ceramics for sale on Hollywood Road have been smuggled in from China -- in contravention of Chinese law -- and that their murky provenance is an open secret.

"If we are talking about the authentic objects on Hollywood Road, all of them were made in China," said Professor Cheng Pei-kai (鄭培凱), director of City University's Chinese Civilisation Centre.

And the objects on sale in recent years were "mostly smuggled," he said.

Sally Chu, who runs a shop selling Chinese and Tibetan textiles on Hollywood Road, said: "We talk about it all the time, me and the other traders. We know that relics dug up from historic sites are being traded here. It's an open secret."

Currently most Chinese historical relics that pre-date 1795 cannot be legally exported out of mainland China. Since its return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 after more than a century as a British colony, Hong Kong has remained a separate customs entity.

Chinese law is set to become even more strict by the end of the year when a new regulation making 1911 the cut-off date comes into force, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage said earlier this year in an indication of Beijing's eagerness to stem the outward flow of the nations antiquities.

And while the shops of Hollywood Road appear well-stocked and Beijing attempts to stem the flow of treasure over China's borders -- even executing grave robbers to try to stop the plunder -- it seems Hong Kong's authorities see little problem.

Indeed, in the past 10 years Hong Kong's customs and excise department has stopped just three consignments of antiques illegally entering the territory, it said.

"In view of the small number of cases over the last decade, it is considered that smuggling of relics into Hong Kong is not prevalent," a spokesman said in an e-mailed statement.

But among collectors and experts there is a much different consensus.

"It's very easy. If so many people can sneak in and out of China, they of course can do this [smuggling]," Cheng said. "Ten years ago it was more serious. At that time even some local government and military units were also involved in smuggling, then the central government began to crack down."

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