Story and Photos by Alan Woo
Published in 15.4
Alan Woo profiles avid teapot collector Roger Lee.
If you walk into Roger Lee’s home, be prepared to be greeted by three things: a smiling eccentric older gentleman, a giant charging Chow Chow named Futu, and floor to ceiling teapots. These teapots aren’t the kind that you would find in your mother’s kitchen cupboard, either. Lee, a retired art history professor from the University of Regina, makes annual pilgrimages to China to source out what’s known as YiXing teapots. Currently, he has amassed up to 450 teapots in his collection.
“I thought they were interesting objects to look at. I bought three or four in Hong Kong . . . and later, I came upon a market in Canton that sold nothing but teapots and I bought some more. This was probably about 20 years ago,” Lee tells me one Sunday morning, over, you guessed it — tea. As he pours me a cup, the Chinese tea’s jasmine aroma floats through the house along with the opera music playing from his stereo. “Tea in China is drunk as a means of quenching thirst and as a tasting experience,” my host explains. “The European tradition of teapot is slightly different. The Chinese teapot is smaller because the tea is usually drunk by no more than three people, making it an intimate experience, and the tea is savoured like wine.” Indeed, the YiXing teapots are miniature compared to Western teapots, and are made of clay – specifically, a type of clay indigenous to the town of YiXing, in China. “They’re also known as Purple Sand teapots,” says Lee. “The clay that is used is so unique to that area of China that you aren’t allowed to take the clay out of the city.”
Lee’s obsession with these teapots coincided with his career as an art history professor. “As I bought more, I realized that they have post-modernist content. As I began to collect, I would look for a certain type of subject matter, and how I could use them in academic discourse.” Lee had been teaching a series of courses on folk art, and likened these Chinese teapots to a form of folk art. “It allowed me to expound on what I thought was important in Chinese culture,” he says. As he goes into a kind of lecture mode, Lee points out that the importance of marriage in Chinese culture is represented in many teapots. For example, teapots often come in pairs, which also alludes to the concept of double happiness. The teapots contain a lot of imagery related to money as well.
Several of his teapots are, in fact, not well-made at all, with “wonky brush strokes” and edges that aren’t quite smooth. But to Lee, they contain interesting subject matter and that’s what counts.
Having traveled and lived in China since 1975, Lee admits to becoming quite familiar with “peasant culture” while doing research in the late ‘80s. He would go into farming villages and became “one of them,” living and dining with the locals. “These people that were making the teapots used images that they were familiar with. Their understanding of the world around them was fairly close to agrarian culture, so the images related to things like marriage, birth, food . . . and agriculture.” Lee continues, “It’s interesting to see that agrarian culture in China was elevated to imagery within these teapots, because these teapots are actually part of the upper middle class and would’ve been bought by upper middle class people.” Most Chinese collectors would not necessarily buy the same teapots that Lee collects. Most collectors focus and look for quality of technique and how the teapots are made. On the other hand, Lee follows his passion and goes with the most interesting imagery instead. Several of his teapots are, in fact, not well-made at all, with “wonky brush strokes” and edges that aren’t quite smooth. But to Lee, they contain interesting subject matter and that’s what counts. One of his teapots is formed in the shape of a bamboo plant. He reads this one as showcasing the Confucian belief in the flexibility of man; that one has to adjust oneself to situations. Bamboo represents this because it is flexible and strong. “In my own personal life, I think I’m quite Confucian in that I expect younger people to have some respect for older people,” grins Lee.
He admits that his reading of these teapots comes from his own understanding of Chinese culture, and therefore, an extremely personal point of view. “I use these objects to talk about myself. In these days of post-modernism, that’s what is important. It gives me an open dialogue with myself, about myself.” Lee shows me a teapot that has a Chinese paintbrush for its handle, while the pot itself is in the shape of an inkwell. “An object such as this is very much part of me because it is about what I taught — painting, in this case, Chinese painting,” he says.
Lee usually spends about five to ten dollars on each teapot, with that one exception when he shelled out a whopping five hundred dollars for one. I am told by him that teapots have certificates of authentication, especially when they’re hand-made by an artist. Several teapots in his collection were originally designed by artists, and later mass-produced. In Vancouver, Lee’s current residence, cheap knock-offs can be found, but they are neither well-designed or expensive, and don’t interest him. “The tradition of the teapot — buying and collecting — has gone the way,” he laments. Even back in Hong Kong, Lee’s teapot dealer tells him that less and less are being produced these days, and fewer people are buying them. Even the market area where Lee used to browse in Canton has now been torn down and high rise buildings have gone up instead.
“Drinking tea like this is traditionally Chinese, and it’s an acquired taste. With the advent of Starbucks in China, the tastes have changed rather drastically. This way of drinking tea is no longer as popular. Traditional Chinese culture is on the decline.“