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New twist to bone china craft

WITH a taste for Chinese culture developed from her mother, Grace Liu has turned her creative talent into a unique brand of hand-painted porcelain items that revive and advance age old traditions, Elise Fu reports.

Although American-born Grace Liu has always been fascinated by traditional Chinese culture, the path to her current immersion in it was not always obvious.

As a young graduate, she landed a dream job with the computer giant IBM in sales and marketing and eventually spent eight years with the firm. It was only after leaving the company that she was able to realize her creative ambitions.

Creativity seems to run in her blood although it wasn't formalized through any art majors in her university studies.

But her sensitivity to creative quality and detail is evident in the romanticism and idealism that comes out in our conversation about hand-painted porcelain.

"The beauty of hand painting lies in the detail: the detail of discovering those small differences and the elements of pleasant surprise," Grace said.

"For example, you set up a dining table for eight people and they're all cheering about the beauty of the tableware," she said.

"Like, 'hey, look at my bowl, the fish are over here and their tails are going that way,' and another may say 'my fish is livelier, its tail is going up there.' The little element of surprise and discovery is what I find the fun part." The elegant, charming and candid woman gets lost in the thrill of these reactions which show a very special side to her character.

The major crush she has on China, and ultimately turning it into a career, was not accidental.

"It probably needs to be mostly attributed to my mother, a professor in a US university teaching Chinese classes," she said. Grace was born in a small town in New York State to a Chinese family and she and her brothers could only understand a few simple Chinese words when they were young like "chifan" (eat) and "shuijiao" (sleep).

"I consider the United States one of my homes and of course I am an American, yet my heart is also with China. My mother initiated US-China student exchange programs between her university and Chinese universities, like Peking University and Beijing Languages Institute (now Beijing Language and Culture University).

"She always taught us (children) to try to bring about positive changes in China, no matter how small they would be from us as individuals," she said.

However, their parents' influence was strong in areas of China's history and its development.

"My parents are very patriotic and were great with fascinating stories about their childhood in China," Grace recalled.

"But there is another important thing that affected me. My mother collected Chinese antiques, and I think the deepest impressions were when I went to antique shops with her. I was always attracted to the delicate and beautiful porcelain cups from around the world."

Grace majored in political science and Asian studies at the University of Michigan where she studied Asian countries and their culture, including all aspects of China.

Apart from the rich knowledge Grace took from her Chinese culture classes, she also met her future husband there. They married and began their individual careers in New York City where they lived for five years.

Grace spent the final three years of her IBM career in Hong Kong, where she experienced firsthand the full Chinese culture and watched the "tremendous changes" happening on Chinese mainland. It was there that she decided to open her own "porcelain kingdom."

"I was interested in art, especially ceramics. Then in Hong Kong, I started picking up pottery and learning myself, spending a lot of time going to the studio and working on my own ceramics," she said.

"That's when I started to be serious about things, going into a kind of self-discovery period."

During our interview in her retail shop at Shanghai 1933, a new commercial hub for creative industries in Hongkou District, I referred to all the porcelain as "china," and Grace carefully clarified it.

"Terminology actually gets complicated in our business," she said.

"Ceramics is just a general term which is translated as 'taoci' in Chinese. It includes everything from 'diwen (low-fire) taoci' to 'gaowen (high-fire) taoci.' The term 'pottery' generally refers to low-fired ceramic ware, translated as 'taoqi.'

"When you say china, the general term for it is porcelain, "ci" in Chinese. The definition is sometimes blurry," she explained.

Grace's company, Asianera, has been established for 14 years and entered the Chinese mainland market seven years ago, mainly focussing on bone china.

"Bone china was a material invented by the British in the 18th century. And that was because the British loved the 'china' from China so much, they called it 'white gold'," Grace explained.

"As the 'china' items were so precious, foreign countries in the 18th century wanted to make porcelain in the Chinese way.

"But the main ingredient in Chinese porcelain is kaolin which is a special kind of clay you can only find in certain parts of the world, and it is not prevalent in the United Kingdom.

"The British then tried to figure out what could be substituted for kaolin to make a hard enough porcelain piece and they finally settled on the bone ash of cows which gives porcelain a superior transparency and durability."

The products from this style are called bone china. The term porcelain basically means high-fired ceramics that become vitrified, Grace said. "At least 40 percent of the clay formula for a good bone china body should contain bone ash. Our products contain 40-45 percent," she added.

"My goal is to preserve the craft of hand-painted china. It could be porcelain, it could be bone china, it could go either way, but I am happy that I choose bone china in the end because it really has such a fine, high-end, very elegant look.

"My other goal is to produce a very high-quality product."

She said that China, the country where porcelain was first developed, should really be the world's best manufacturer of fine china, and whether it is as porcelain or bone china doesn't really matter.

"But a high-quality, well-designed product made in China is my goal. Well-designed is a main focus for us. All the Asianera brand products are hand painted."

The production process of a hand-painted piece of porcelain is time-consuming and complicated. According to Grace, a large serving plate with a fairly complex design needs about one week to finish. As a result, the company's original designs have made Asianera products popular with many five-star restaurants and private collectors.

"I want to focus on hand painting which is definitely different from mass-produced decorating," she said. "It is kind of a dying craft. So our hope is that we are training and encouraging a new young generation of people who are interested in this craft, to carry it on and to develop it further as an artistic craft."

In order to make more people understand and appreciate the porcelain art, Grace and her colleagues have developed another brand called AE2, derived from the words Asianera too. This brand's products are not hand-painted but have a distinctive design, are more casual and significantly cheaper.

Grace believes the AE2 brand will help customers distinguish between hand-painted and mass-produced products.

"It's the uniqueness of each hand painted piece that gives it the value," she said. "Every single piece is a little bit different and you can actually see the differences in the painting and different brush strokes."

"The hand painting is most evident in water-color styles. Our patterns and layouts are contemporary in style, and we frequently use very bright, strong colors. Vibrant colors are difficult to achieve, because it requires multiple layers of color and multiple firings. And at the same time, we have to be very vigilant about producing food-safe dinnerware which tests within international safety standards. A lot of bright ceramic colors used to contain a high amount of lead and cadmium. But we use imported lead-free colors."

For Grace and her Asianera, idealism and the spirit of creation are probably the most attractive features.

"The idea we want to show through the products is that this is the new china. Our products are not reproductions of traditional designs. These are new contemporary designs coming out of China that hopefully people think are unique, beautiful and well-designed.

"We do not want to be European, we do not want to be traditional Chinese, we want to be Asianera, something really unique. We believe we are part of a new era of Chinese contemporary design."


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