Once upon a time, the simple family dinner was served using all kinds of bowls and plates adorned with traditional Chinese patterns today commonly referred to as Kitchen Qing. These kitchen ware range from simple blue-and-white “fish bowls” with the pattern of a curled carp at the base to the most florid Chinese rococo patterns complete with dragon and phoenix motifs. These were imported from China’s Jingdezhen porcelain works. At its height, specific pastel colors favored by the Malaysian Chinese were specially made. With the modern onslaught of the dreaded bright orange or green melamine ware, these refinements are just a distant memory for many of us.
Most Malaysian Chinese families maintain two sets of dinnerware. The plain everyday ceramics were normally just white ceramics with patterns around the edges. The most popular patterns were the “ko-ko-kei ua” or cockerel motif, hibiscus, or the tea rose. These were the workhorses of the Malaysian Chinese kitchen, providing the backdrop for the multitude of dishes served every day. The daily plates normally have flashes of green (life) and red (prosperity) as these are considered auspicious colors and most suitable for the family meal. In later years, with the use of ceramic decals, pink became popular as well.
The other set of Kitchen Qing were reserved only for festival days. These tend to be heirloom pieces inherited from parents received during the couple’s wedding day and are carefully kept in a display sideboard cabinet. Among affluent Peranakan families, such heirloom pieces are rich in pastel colors (pink, turquoise, green) with very ornate scalloped edges complete with phoenix patterns. Sinkeh families favor the Ban Siew sets that are equally ornate decorated with auspicious Chinese characters. All these pieces are now highly sought by collectors and are worth far more than the original owners could imagine.
Among the less affluent, blue-and-white ceramics are often reserved for festival days. Among these, the “batik ua” pattern, a dense blue and white pattern that resembles the artwork on a sarong is much prized. Another pattern that was also pretty popular was the “leng ua” or dragon motif. Among the richer Peranakan families, blue-and-white ware were only used for funeral occasions or “serving the ancestors”. These patterns were also pretty popular with restaurants. I remember those years when our family went out for dinner after a long weekend trip to the city and I would be very sleepy by then. Through my sleepy stupor I would glance at the table, with the server would start tossing out these plates with either the blue-and-white dragon motif or a similar stylized phoenix motif. I have always since associated these plates with eating out.
The final category of Kitchen Qing that I would like to relate are these curious associations that people have of certain bowl patterns with specific street food. Some of us may remember the “laksa ua“, a blue-and-white ceramic bowl with very steep sides, smaller than the usual noodle bowl that was often used to serve Penang Asam Laksa. Another one is the “tok-tok mee ua“, a white bowl adorned with a few goldfish (at least that’s what they appear to be, normally pretty scrubbed out over years of use) associated with the Wonton Noodles soup seller. Last but not lease was the classic “pe’ kak ua” or octagonal shallow rice bowl used to serve rice or congee. And who among us can forget the “kopitiam” (coffee shop) cups and saucers with their signature green floral patterns used to serve up everything from “kopi-o-kao” (a version of expresso in modern parlance) to “hengjin lo pek” (an almond powder drink).
Many of the more high-prized Kitchen Qing pieces are now only seen in museum displays or private antique collections. I can almost imagine my late grandmother exclaiming in shock if she were to know how expensive these pieces have become in the 21st century. As for the more “common” varieties, they have been lost over the years as people threw out old pieces and replaced them with modern branded ware, so much so that these have also become collectible for nostalgic value. Recently on a trip back to Georgetown, I spotted a row of “ua-chan” or tiffin carriers at an antique store. I remember these from the days of yore when my Mom would fill these with Nasi Kunyit (steamed glutinous turmeric rice). Now they are rare and cherished precisely because of those memories.