Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A private lock collection finds a public home (Culture.tw)

Yan Hong-sen (顏鴻森) has a high-profile day job, and a hobby that has made him the subject of several newspaper and magazine articles. Yan is a university chair professor in mechanical engineering and executive vice president of National Cheng Kung University in Tainan City. Outside academic circles, he is best known for building up a remarkable collection of household objects that few people pay much attention to: Locks, specifically ancient Chinese padlocks.

Yan, who was born in 1951, was in the news again recently when he decided to donate the bulk of his collection to the National Science and Technology Museum in Kaohsiung City. On November 8, the museum will inaugurate a special exhibition of Yan’s locks. These items will then be displayed in other cities before taking up a permanent place in the Power and Machines Exhibition Hall on the NSTM’s second floor.

In September, some of Yan’s locks were displayed at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur - the first time any of them were exhibited overseas. Yan had to politely refuse previous requests to send locks to museums and other places outside the ROC; as an individual without the backing of a major institution, he lacked the time and administrative resources to handle shipping, insurance and other issues.

Between 1986 and 2007, Yan acquired more than 700 locks; media reports describing his collection as numbering more than 900 are simply inaccurate, he says. Although it is not a huge number, the collection is rich in different types and shapes. Some are the only ones of their kind remaining in the world. The oldest is around 2,000 years old, but the majority dates from the Qing dynasty or early 20th century. Not all are being consigned to the museum this year. The 150 currently exhibited in NCKU Museum will stay where they are until November 2014, then head south to Kaohsiung. Yan says he is keeping another 20 at home so he has something to show friends and visitors. However, those will also eventually go to the NSTM.

Yan is confident the NSTM will have one of the world’s great public collections of locks, such as the Locks and Fastenings Gallery of Science Museum in London and Germany’s Deutsches Schloss und Beschlagemuseum at Velbert. Yan has visited both, naturally.

Yan’s desire to collect came long before he knew what kind of thing he would concentrate on. He first pondered the possibility of building a collection in 1977, while studying at the University of Kentucky. His supervisor, Dr. D. C. Tao (陶德昌), had an interest in antique European furniture and let Yan to take a close look at the collection he had built. But such items were way beyond Yan's modest means, so he did nothing to turn his dream into reality.

A couple of years later, Yan’s interest in building a collection was rekindled when his doctoral supervisor at Purdue University, the late Professor Allen S. Hall Jr., showed him the 100-plus weighing scales he had accumulated. It was then that Yan realized: “To be a collector, it isn't necessary to be a millionaire. You just have to identify a good topic.”

By May 1980, Yan had decided that his future collection would have to be mechanical in nature, to fit in with his engineering background, and related to Chinese culture. Moreover, the items should be neither too large, too expensive, nor commonly collected. But years were to pass before Yan's “Eureka!” moment. One day in November 1986, killing time at a vendor’s stall near Taipei Main Railway Station at the end of a business trip, he found a traditional Chinese lock at least 50 years old. Immediately grasping that padlocks met all of his criteria, he purchased the piece.

By mid-1996, Yan had around 350 locks. Few collectors let their children play with the items they so painstakingly located and acquired, but the NCKU executive vice-president says: “For a kid, playing with a lock is like doing a puzzle. I'm not sure what my children learned by playing with the locks, but they did treat them as unusual toys which other kids didn't have.”

After being appointed the founding director of NCKU Museum in November 2007, Yan stopped collecting so as to avoid any possible conflict of interest. No one has ever sought to buy his collection; this, Yan says, is because he has always made it clear that he had no interest in selling his locks, and would donate them when the time and offer were right.

Yan, who feels his main achievement is preserving locks so they can be better understood by future researchers, says: “The real value of a collector isn’t just acquiring, but also researching, finding something new and sharing it.”

For some years, Yan planned to establish his own lock museum. A dozen years ago, he bought a plot of land in what was then Tainan County (now merged with Tainan City) for that purpose. But eventually he concluded a major museum would make a better home for his locks, and began letting it be known that he was willing to give away his entire collection if an institution could meet these conditions: That the locks be researched; and that they be on public display. Yan likens the hunt for a permanent home for his locks to, “making sure your daughter finds a good husband.”

Yan and the NSTM have a long relationship; he served as the museum’s director-general from 2002 to 2004. However, several years elapsed between Yan announcing that he wished to donate his locks to a museum, and agreement being reached with the NSTM. It was in January 2011 that Chen Shiunn-shyang (陳訓祥) - formerly Yan’s deputy at the NSTM and now incumbent director-general - told Yan that one of the museum’s curator positions was about to fall vacant, and that he was willing to appoint a lock specialist to the post if Yan were to commit his collection to the NSTM. Yan readily agreed, and comments: “To have one curator specializing almost full-time in one field is rare in Taiwan’s museums. Most curators have to cover several areas.”

Before Yan began writing papers about his hobby, almost nothing had been published on the subject of ancient Chinese locks. A second edition of his bilingual book The Beauty of Ancient Chinese Locks was published in 2003 by the Ancient Chinese Machinery Cultural Foundation, an organization Yan established with others who share his passion. In one of the book’s many fascinating sections, Yan explains that the keyhole of a lock is often an indication of the original owner's social status: “The shape of the Chinese character [] was used by civilians, [shì] was used by the intellectual class, and [] was used by nobles and high-rank officials.”

For some of the locks Yan acquired, simply having the right key does not guarantee quick access. The keyhole may be disguised, or the key and hole so oddly shaped as to create a 3D puzzle.

Yan found locks made of iron, bronze, copper, cupronickel and brass, and even silver. Locks of humble origin are usually wooden rectangles, while those crafted for nobles after Tang dynasty often bear fine engravings and are shaped like musical instruments or animals. Fish-shaped locks were especially popular, Yan explains, because fish sleep with their eyes open, and so were traditionally regarded as symbols of vigilance. Traditional Chinese combination locks do not use numerals like the combination mechanisms on modern suitcases, but rather Chinese characters.

The locks Yan spent years finding will no longer be in his possession, but he expects they will continue to play a major role in his life. He has no intention of ceasing to research, write and lecture about locks, saying emphatically: “This will always be my hobby!”

This article was written for Culture.Tw, a government-sponsored website. I was paid for it very soon after sending it in, but the website wasn't updated for some months and the piece didn't appear until late December. To see the online version, go here. The photos were taken by Sam Li and provided by Yan Hong-sen.