Pimprapai Bisalputra may boast a fascinating array of antique porcelain from the royal courts of China and Siam, but for this enthusiast, collecting is more than just a hobby. It's a way of reminding herself of her forefathers' presence in the Siamese court as official importers of fine Chinese porcelain.
One ancestor of the Bisalputras, Phraya Pisan Suppapol (Chuen), a high-ranking Siamese courtier, brought much of the Chinese porcelain that arrived in the royal court during the reign of King Rama IV (1851-1868). Four reigns earlier, his great-great grandmother, Phrapichaivaree, of Thai-Chinese descent, had led a trade mission from the court of King Taksin of Thonburi (who ruled 1768 to 1782) to Qing Dynasty Beijing. They returned in junks loaded high with fine Chinese porcelain made to order for the royal court.
Some of these unique pieces are now in Pimprapai's private collection, and she's been spurred on to tell the story of Siam's love affair with fine Chinese tableware, in a book called "Krabuang Thuay Kala Taek: Cheewit Buanglang Sombat Phoodee" ("Antique Chinaware: The Story Behind the Siamese Elite's Treasures").
"It took me four years to research and write," says Pimprapai. "The project was born of my fascination for my family's connections with both the royal court and Chinese porcelain.
During those years, Pimprapai has led a double life. As a businesswoman she runs two property management firms under the Sathorn Thani and STMS companies. In her free time however, she gets her teeth into the history of Thai-Chinese communities, with four bestselling books to her credit so far. It's the latter that's the main source of satisfaction for a woman who grew up enchanted by the arts, which inspired trips as a youngster to galleries and museums of oriental art.
After graduating from Bangkok's all-girl Mater Dei School, Pimprapai spent six years as a student in Britain, taking her A-levels at Cheltenham Ladies College, then a degree in statistics at the London School of Economics before going on to a masters in engineering at Cornell University in the United States. She says she still misses her time in Cheltenham.
"Life as a schoolgirl wasn't as stressful as it is in Thailand [where classes run from morning till late afternoon]. There classes finished at noon! After that it was free time and I indulged my passion for art by reading on history and art history. I enjoyed my life in London at the LSE very much as it was so close to everything. I was the editor of the Samaggi Sarn magazine [for Thai students in the UK]."
After returning to Bangkok, she briefly taught at the National Institute of Development Administration, taking time out for another hobby - bridge. She made the national championships in 2000 and, a year later, the Asean Bridge Club Championship in the Philippines.
But of her many interests, art is the one that's stuck since her school years. Her previous books deal with its history, but this latest one encompasses more.
"The story of Chinese porcelain involves politics, history and war," she says, referring to events like the two Opium Wars that resulted in the looting of imperial collections at the Summer Palace, which were then taken overseas.
With a bibliography that includes 56 contemporary Thai- and 24 English-language sources, her book traces the presence of fine china in this country back to the major ports and trade routes of ancient civilisations in Southeast Asia.
The main focus, though, is on the places and the periods in which trade with imperial China flourished: Ayutthaya between 1350 and 1767, Thonburi between 1768 and 1782 and Bangkok from 1782 up to the present day.
The dinner tables of the royal court in Ayutthaya were dominated by porcelain imported from Ming Dynasty China(1368-1644). Made to order from kaolin, or china clay, and decorated with Thai motifs, these pieces were produced in the porcelain capital of Jingdezhen in Jiangxi Province.
But many of the fine collections of chinaware that Ayutthaya gathered through the prosperous trade with China were lost in 1767 when the city was razed by the Burmese. From 1768 to 1851, spanning the time from King Taksin to the end of King Rama III's reign, the tables of the Siam court were mostly enlivened by "coloured" ware.
The story of how things changed is taken up by Pimprapai:
"The Summer Palace in Beijing was ransacked [by an Anglo-French invasion in 1860] during the fourth reign and the imperial blue and white collections were looted and taken overseas. The Siamese court were able to begin replacing the coloured ware with blue and white."
Over the centuries, explains Pimprapai, threats from colonial powers as well as internal political turmoil has given rise to the smuggling overseas of all sorts of precious items from the Chinese court. Large quantities were spirited abroad following the 19th century's two Opium Wars, the Taiping Rebellion and the Boxer Rebellion.
In 1851, however, something happened to alter the course of the trade in porcelain between Siam and China.
Sent by King Rama IV, a diplomatic mission on its way from Canton to Beijing was robbed and an interpreter murdered. In the Siamese eyes, says the author, the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) had been shown to lack all credibility. "So all our Chinese porcelain was then ordered from Canton instead."
Pimprapai reports that many of the Siamese royal pieces have gone into private collections that fetch high prices at auctions. Though she doesn't see her own hobby as an investment, that doesn't stop her from hunting for more antique porcelain at local dealers' stalls in Chatuchak Market, and the Silom and Sukhumvit areas.
Thailand is a bargain-hunter's paradise, she insists, because a lot of Thais, dealers among them, lack knowledge when it comes to antique porcelain's historical value. She reckons an 18th-century cracked Chinese porcelain bowl she paid Bt1,000 for at Chatuchak Market would be valued at 10 times that amount at a big auction house like Christies.
A more modern influx of China's 18th-century imperial porcelain flowed from Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975, says the author. "It came in truckloads with the boat people and the Vietnamese elite fleeing by road to Thailand. Pieces were being sold for just a few thousand baht! These bowls showed that the Vietnamese royal court was very Chinese-influenced."
Pimprapai carefully examines the texture and hand-painted images of every new piece of porcelain that comes into her hands, assessing them for age and quality. Each bowl tells an intriguing story - the real attraction of Chinese porcelain collecting for her, she says. She's particularly impressed with mosquito images on the cracked bowl in her collection. "Every bowl has its own history and political context and the imperfections are what speak loudest of them. Learning each one's tale is a joy to me."
Published by Nanmee Books, "Krabuang Thuay Kala Taek: Cheewit Buanglang Sombat Phoodee" ("Antique China Ware: The Story Behind the Siamese Elite's Treasures") is available at leading shops for Bt485.