Close To My Heart
Europe, that hotch-potch of differing cultures and yet with some similarities, has always been alive in my imagination. When I first visited, I was taken back by the proximity between boundaries, historical sites and variety of languages, food and drink. From rather salty pizzas and pasta in Greece and Italy, to fine linen and music traditions of Austria and France, I took in all - the rich culture, the proud traditions and the always underlying rivalries of neighbours. The architecture, in both well planned metropolises and quaint villages, stood out in my heart. I recall facades of houses in Amsterdam and Athens. I loved cool and overcast evenings spent walking on cobbled stoned city pathways in Wein and meadow grass river sides in Berne. Then it was the dress up in Rome or the dress down in Heidelberg. It was crossing huge bridges in France , long road tunnels in Switzerland or soaking in the Riviera at Nice that gave reinforced good memories and vibes.
Nurseries and market days, they are plenty in Western nations from Canada to Australia. It is the luck of the draw and season as to what unusual plant or undiscovered item that may greet you on a weekend and bid you to take home. I found the above pictured indoor specimen from a Turkish stall holder in Parramatta, the quintessential melting pot of multicultural Australia. From old school garden experts in large commercial outlets to well tended private gardens that open to the public in springtime, I have the choice of browsing, in places ranging from the Southern Highlands to the Hunter Valley and from Mount Tomah Botanical Gardens ( at the edge of the NSW Blue Mountains ) to the Rhododendron Gardens in my neighbourhood.
My first sojourns overseas were naturally in Asia, made from my home isle of Penang. Phuket and Koh Samui were my first sensations of escape. New Zealand and Japan opened up vistas and mindsets of how lifestyles can be so different from south-east Asia. Above image, an iconic collection of my souvenirs from such trips, triggering off my recollections of people met along the way, from natives to backpackers, from German youth who stayed several months on the beaches of Thailand, to the students in cities like Pusan, Tainan and Hong Kong.
Well painted pots and plants with good vibes - such combinations are not easily resisted by me.
I am told that plants exude oxygen in return for the carbon dioxide they take in during daylight hours. Increasingly, millions of humans cocoon themselves in an increasingly artificial world, seeing and interacting more with man made things rather than with fellow beings and Nature's gifts. Look around you at any time of day or night - do you acknowledge more of metal, software and plastic than you would rather have? You are one of the fortunate few if you still have a balance of wood, natural fibre and naturally emitting light in your surroundings each day. Better still, if you can still feel the blow of ocean winds, sweat from your own exercise and bite of unprocessed food as part of your regime.
Tiffin carriers, whether those aluminium ones used by Indian employees of the East India British Company from the 18th century, or lacquered bamboo versions (image above) favoured for holding delicious desserts and cakes in Malacca, Penang and Singapore, have been a mainstay of social life for Chinese and Indians, back in their home abodes or when transported to new lands in south-east Asia. Lacquer is also popular and valued in Vietnam and Thailand. In the image above, notice the airing miniature holes to allow the food inside to breathe, while being carried to the recipients, on a humid and warm day.
Two different art forms (above) echoing available materials and topographical dimensions. At the foreground are the designs of the fern and paua seashell, both dear in the soul and traditions of the Maori. The background is a lacquer coated series of folding partitions, reminiscent more of the lush tropical flora, herbs, fauna and water ways of Vietnam. The commonality between both countries and peoples are their intense allegiance to their home land and Nature. I can add cuisine, very different in each nation, but both making use of the fresh and unique produce of their abode. Both New Zealand and Vietnam has had foreign influences in their styles - British and French respectively.
An icon of my background and culture - the kam cheng - stands out against the shadows above. This porcelain masterpiece from China, common in the 19th and early 20th centuries in south-east Asia amongst Straits Chinese households and families, symbolically and traditionally represents the strong commitment and sentiment between a loving husband and wife. In times of doubt or celebration, a couple looks at the kam cheng and remembers the greater love that started their union and family. Kam cheng, transliterated, means love in the heart. It is a container which initially empty, gets filled up with meaningful insights and reaffirmations of love for each other, through thick and thin. I have one from my Mum. Colours vary in shades of blue and pink, brown and red, blue and green, but the porcelain mellows with age and is easily kept clean.
Australian rural and regional crafts and handiwork are so relaxing to browse with - and Miss Piggy (picture above) reminds me of many happy and satisfying day excursions to so-called villages mostly lying outside the Big Smokes of Sydney or Melbourne. It could be Leura, Lauceston, Dandenong or Berry. It does not matter, they all have the same feel, with compulsory shops selling lollies, lace and latticed work. Then my mind wanders further to associations with scones, Earl Gray tea or the pint at the local country pub. Eventually I cannot help recalling the so many made in China souvenirs promoting a feel of Australia, placed in conjunction with true Aussie craft. By the way, Miss Piggy above was made in Oz.
My fascination with handicraft boils down and centres around an obsession with pewter. The rich content of tin and quality workmanship - as exemplified with the labour of love and passion above in a tea pot shown above - brings both a calmness in appreciation of beauty and excitement of heritage - in me. Added to this are detailed engravings and motifs that have meaningful associations with culture and history for specific societies and communities. The Yong family behind Selangor Pewter started with the vision and determination of one man, and the rest is literally and truly history, for over a hundred years by now.
So the festive and holiday season is upon us again. It is especially appreciated in the southern climes like Australia and New Zealand, when the alignment of warm weather, school holidays and end of calendar or business year vibes add to the merriment, easy sense of letting go and not having to keep wary of structured time and schedules. I look at my Christmas tree, laden with snow skiers, reindeer and icons from northern Europe. Looking out the window, it feels muggy, monitor lizards are skirting about and the garden asks for moisture. What a contrast!