Our story actually began in 1941 when George Arliss married Ada Yip in Hong Kong. George had left the farm that he worked in Louth in Lincolnshire in the UK and signed up with the Merchant Navy, seeking new adventures that had brought him to Hong Kong. Here he met and fell in love with Ada, the only daughter of a Canton merchant, who traded tea, duck down and other such items through Hong Kong’s port.

One of George and Ada’s wedding gifts was a beautiful bone china dinner service. The dinner service was decorated with intricate patterns laid out in concentric circles, all handpainted in a delicate green glaze and highlighted with real gold. On each plate and bowl, at the centre of these many circles a green dragon was chasing a vermilion red fireball.

The Plate

Soon afterwards, like many families at that time, George and Ada were torn apart by the events of World War II. George was captured by the Japanese in Hong Kong and sent to a concentration camp near Nagasaki in Japan. Somehow Ada and her mother and brother stayed and survived in Hong Kong. Somehow George survived three and a half years as a prisoner of war. And somehow they found each other again in Hong Kong after the war. They had lost almost all of their possessions, however, including most of that beautiful dinner service.

George and Ada were my grandparents.

By the time I was able to form clear memories of my own, just one of their wedding dinner plates remained. Slightly chipped here and there it was still beautiful. It used to hang on the wall in my parents’ dining room but is now somewhere in storage. I haven’t seen it for many years.

I live in Hong Kong with my husband and children and have my own interior design business.

A few years ago I went to a porcelain ware shop, recommended by a friend, for a family-friendly dinner service. Not expecting much more than a small factory, I was astounded on entering to see rows and rows of the most beautiful handpainted ceramics: vases, plates, bowls, cups, umbrella stands, planters to name a few. All stacked on shelves and in piles sometimes 10 feet high with narrow paths in between. The only way to manoeuver past all these breakables seemed to be with elbows in and breath held. Chinese radio was playing by some crowded workbenches where two or three workers were stamping and painting patterns on to rice bowls and plates. One man, a ceramic designer, was painting freehand a stunning blue and white pattern on to a large plate.

That day I had the pleasure of meeting Anita and Joseph, the sister and brother who run the workshop for their father, Mr Tso. Mr Tso is 93 years old but still comes to the shop everyday. He is truly a character – proud of his business, strict with his children, rather deaf and fond of using very blue language. He also knows where each and every item in the workshop is and belongs.

 

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I bought my plates and bowls, choosing a simple stamped pattern, hand finished in blue and red colours for my family.

But something about the shop and the people I had met there stayed with me. I went back a few times over the following couple of years to commission pieces for some of my interior design clients – handpainted tea sets, ceramic garden stools and umbrella stands.

One day Joseph and I were talking about their old designs and he showed me his archives – books and photos of every pattern and stamp that the workshop has produced over three generations. I was glancing through an old catalogue when I was astonished to see that very same dinner plate that used to hang on my parents’ dining room wall – The green glaze, the patterns, the gold, the dragon and the fireball were all the same…

…Joseph’s father had designed and painted my grandparents’ wedding china 74 years previously.

That’s when I knew that I had to tell this story. And I knew I wanted to tell other stories of other artisans, who in our modern and digital world are keeping traditional skills and real people’s stories alive.

If we can know where the things that we own come from, the history and people that have touched and made them, they can become a part of our own stories and live on in the new.

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Click here to discover the Tso family’s workshop for yourself.