I’m convinced that in every one of us lurks a strange beast, just waiting to come lunging out at the appropriate moment. Two years ago – even two months ago – if you had told me about Chinese watercolours, I would have stared blankly. I know as little about Chinese watercolours – any Chinese art for that matter – as the next gwailo as foreigners are called in the Cantonese dialect. To be honest, I wasn’t even aware that there was any such thing. My only awareness of Chinese art was limited to prints of old Chinese paintings that looked vaguely like Kishangarh miniatures, featuring hills, rivers and tiny human figures.
Then I went to Macau, and my world changed in the twinkling of an eye.
Macau, for all that it is a Specially Administered Region of China, is not the most promising place to be smitten by Chinese watercolours. It has been a colony of the Portuguese for 500 years, and every second family in Goa has a sprinkling of blue and white porcelain jars, vases and plates in their living rooms, all from Macau. They are so much a part of the landscape of my childhood, that I never gave them much thought, except to note vaguely that they were not quite Chinese, not quite European. That was my impression of Macau itself.
When I got there, I noted that I was not far off the mark: Macau is really a cross between the frenetic bustle of Hong Kong and the fading grandeur of Portugal. The towering housing colonies that make up most of the island’s 27 square kilometers aren’t as forbidding or overwhelming as their counterparts in Hong Kong. And the casinos, with their over-the-top facades, amused rather overawed. The part of Macau that commemorates the glory of Portuguese rule looked like a Goa that had been polished and painted. Not only was there no peeling paint or obvious signs of fatigue, but the surrounding buildings had been built so as to fit into the landscape.
It was while walking around in this delightful part of town, with its largos (squares), churches and cobbled streets that I spied a town house. The Lou Kau Mansion is one of the 22 monuments on the island that have been declared as UNESCO World Heritage sites. The late Lou Kau was a Chinese merchant who lived in the Portuguese part of town. His residence has been thrown open to the public for the glimpse it affords into a culture that has all but disappeared. While other tourists were oohing and aahing over the wood and stone architecture that reminded me of Srinagar’s Old City, my eye was caught by a Chinese watercolour that hung unself-consciously in the hallway. It was like nothing else I have ever seen. The focal point of the painting was pomegranate flowers whose delicate petals were painstakingly wrought in shades of pink. The rest of the foliage was delineated by brush-strokes in black ink. The stunning success of the painting was the interplay between the careful pink flowers and the seemingly simplistic, almost careless, brushstrokes in black, almost as if it was done by two artists.
It was at that juncture that my internal beast let out a mighty roar and proceeded to overtake my life. I just had to have one of those paintings. Money was not a problem. I could mortgage my two bed-roomed flat, or sell my car. Neither was language a bar. I had photographed the painting with my cellphone camera and would just show it to every antique shop on the island until I chanced upon a painting that I would fall in love with.
Macau, unlike its giant neighbour Hong Kong, is not a shopper’s paradise. Senado Square, the most visually stunning part of the Portuguese neighbourhood, has a Hang Ten, a Watsons, a Body Shop and many back-alley stalls selling everyday clothing. Actually, I’m sure I spied a great deal of stores selling high-quality apparel, but I was after a Chinese watercolour, not a Balenciaga gown. Fortunately for me, there were a road or three filled with nothing but antique shops. Those are Macau’s real claim to shopping fame.
The first few shops I blundered into were owned by elderly people whose idea of keeping shop consisted of waving me into cramped spaces while they read the newspaper at the entrance. The dusty, barely-lit interiors fitted the stereotype of an antique shop: in most cases, the shop was as antique as the wares it held. Dusty old glass-fronted cupboards held blue and white porcelain, familiar from my childhood in Goa. Shelves were lined with an unlikely assortment of hand fans with most of the strings broken and Chinese tea-cups of an assortment of designs.
Other shops specialized in reproductions of antique wooden furniture. They smelled of spirit polish and were owned by younger people who sat importantly at desks inside their shops, rather than on comfy chairs outside them. One shop was mint new and had a sprinkling of antiques. They were probably collector’s items, and the owner’s derisive stare told me that I couldn’t afford them anyway. Not even if I sold my flat. To my relief, there were no paintings there anyway.
The afternoon passed in a blur. Endless rows of dusty shops were crammed with everything but paintings. At the back, somewhat inevitably, were the living quarters of the person who owned the shop. A TV, a gas ring, a well-worn arm chair and a bunch of fruit hanging in a plastic bag in front of an altar with pictures of deities and incense sticks – the interiors seldom varied. Some had paintings, most didn’t. If I didn’t like the painting, the price was right. If I did, it was invariably not for sale.
I finally struck lucky at a design store. There was modern furniture made with a vaguely oriental sensibility, loads of funky studio pottery that owed nothing whatsoever to the East; indeed the cows and pigs would not have been out of place in Switzerland. There was one painting on the wall. Though it looked promising, my internal beast didn’t go into a tailspin. By then, I had abandoned all hopes of finding anyone who spoke English, so I took out my cellphone and showed the studio owners the picture. All three of them answered in English. It appeared that the studio, called Smart Gallery, was jointly owned by a studio potter, a furniture designer and an artist. They had paintings by the bushel-full. Birds, flowers, fruit, watercolours, brush drawings, charcoal sketches. After an hour of painstaking comparisons – two of the partners would hold up a painting and I’d walk to the farthest end of the shop and stare at it – I had narrowed the field down to three. “Take them all,” my internal beast whispered hungrily.
Paying for them wasn’t the hardest part. Neither was transporting them back – Smart Gallery had sturdy black cylinders for just that purpose. Even tackling the children proved to be a cake-walk: “No dears,” I murmured vaguely. “I didn’t see any clothes for you, so I decided to get you these beautiful paintings, which you’ll appreciate when you grow up.” It actually worked! No, the hardest part is finding enough wall-space in my flat to hang up my three beauties. Looks like I’ll have to sell the flat after all, and move into a larger one.