Putting my stamp on history

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The First Encounter
Soon after moving to Hong Kong from Beijing in 1979 I spotted a newspaper ad for a stamp convention. Intrigued by the notion that my idle hobby could possibly merit any kind of gathering, I decided to stop by in the hopes of meeting fellow teenagers who shared my interest in peeling off staid little pictures of Queen Elizabeth and Dwight Eisenhower.
On a hot and humid late afternoon, with the heirloom album tucked under my arm, I marched into the hotel in the Central where the convention was held. I thought about my stamp friends back in Beijing as I passed through the hotel door into the cool air conditioned lobby: we used to compare and exchange stamps in the classroom and playground. China then was monotonous and poor, my friends had to use notebooks, not even hard cover to keep theirs in one place. My album was a gift from my Grandfather. Although the four corners were all well worn, but it was a unique luxury and indeed I got few tempering offers for it. And my contents were the most coveted, because those vibrant foreign stamps were out of reach for them due to China self-imposed isolation.
The concierge directed me to the ballroom on the fourth floor. I saw few middle aged men in suits pacing the hallway as soon as I stepped out the elevator. Still not registering. To my far right, I found the ballroom. One side of the heavy double door was slightly ajar. A man in front of me opened it wider and held it. The sound of voices speaking at the same time poured over me. The high ceiling ballroom contained more businessmen in dark suits among rows of glass display tables. The austere-looking crowd milling about beneath the Victorian chandelier immediately took me aback. I was stunned, disappointed. Feeling little naked, wondered what did I get myself into?
“Come on in please.” Said the man who’s holding the door with bemusement, as if daring me. There was couple of men behind me on their way to go in. Entering the room was obvious the flow than backing out. I swallowed hard, fine, toughening my scalp [took a deep breath] and went in. It was more daunting and embarrassing once inside, not sure what to do and where to place my two extra arms and legs. I put my head down, pretended to inspect a display near the entrance while trying to find a way to escape, unnoticed and undefeated.
“Is that your collection, miss?” A baritone rose from behind. I turned around to face a respectable gentleman in a well-cut blue suit.
“Errrr .. .. collection?” I frown.
“Yes, your collection.” He nodded toward the little album tucked under my arm.
“Oh yes, I collect stamps that are hard to find and very pretty,” although I questioned if my album could be glorified as a collection, but nevertheless flattered, and just so relief at being spoken to.
“May I see it?”
“Oh sure.” I was more than happy to show off and grateful for being saved from total awkwardness.
The baritone pushed up his black rim glasses, and flipping it open to reveal rag-tag bits accumulated from correspondence with overseas relatives, plus few pages of colorful foreign chocolate wrappers. Stamp collecting for us was really a loosely defined hobby that extended to chocolate and candy wrappers because it’s foreign, hence scarce and exotic.
“I see, very interesting.” He smiled and asked me to join him for a drink.
In the dark wood paneling lounge, we were seated by the window overlooking the Victoria Harbor. Kowloon peninsular was in the near distance. The tropical sun began to set, casting a golden hue on the little sampans, sailboats, flat barges, stocky ferries and ocean liners that filled the waterway just few floors below us. He ordered a Johnny Walker himself and a Campari and soda for me.
“So what made you to collect stamps?”
In a matter of an hour, under the elegant surroundings, I thought I just experienced a suddenly growth spurt, matured five years. Trying hard to come up with a suitably sophisticated response. When it failed, I confessed truthfully with sheepishness, “Mmmm…. I was attracted to the pretty designs.”
Surprisingly, he replied, “oh, that’s very common. Zhou Jinjue” he paused, as if to catch up on his own thoughts or showering the due respect, “Zhou Jinjue started the exact same way as you did, from those worthless foreign garbage.”
Zhou who? I had never heard of him, but the baritone obviously regarded him with importance.
“Is he at the convention?” I asked.
His easy laugh resonated across the room.

“The King of Chinese Stamps? No, he passed away long before you were even born.” And then he proceeded to lecture me on the value of the stamps that all the dark-suited men had come to discuss, debate and deal. He spoke of single stamps that held astronomical value, and how counterfeiters went to extreme lengths to produce passable fakes. I had just received my first lesson in the Philatelic arts and I was smitten.
After downing our drinks, he asked casually, “Do you like history?”
“No” I gave him the monosyllabic answer. History was for people with wrinkles. It was simply a dreary subject that I had to suffer through in middle school for the sake of the degree. Despite my stilted views and glaring ignorance, he offered me an apprenticeship. As he described the job, my eyes lit up: someone would actually pay me to sort out these scraps of paper?

The talk of the Town
On my first day at work in his import and export office, he brought out bags upon bags of stamps that, to my naked eyes, looked very dry and dull. Where were the flashy scenery and arresting butterflies? I balked when I spotted the Shanghai Large Dragons with their distinctive straight edge. Freshly armed with the knowledge that there were forgeries, I wondered whether the counterfeiters had forgotten to finish the job due to lack of equipment or time.
“Aren’t they fake?” I blurted out with confidence. Immediately I knew I had put my foot in my mouth when I heard a deafening silence. The three cheerful employees with whom I had just drummed up a quick camaraderie went back to their desks and ducked their heads down into the piles of work.
I suppose my first job was not the bargain I had hoped for, but I soldiered on for the simple reason that it financed my Italian shoes and handbags. The Shanghai-born Baritone was fond of regaling me with anecdotes and lectures on history, most of which fell on deaf ears. However, I retained the stories about the King and his role as the founding father of Chinese philately. His standing was reinforced in 1982, when the Holy Grail of Chinese stamp, the “1897 Red Revenue small one dollar block of four” simply dabbed as the block of four which is known as the rarest piece of stamp in the Eastern Hemisphere1, was acquired by Lam Man Yin from Allen Gokson’s estate at an unprecedented price of US$280,0002. The King had obtained this rarity from the original owner, de Villard’s widow in 1927, but was forced to sell it twenty years later to Gokson for US$20,0003, to [finance] payoff a bribery. The event not only dethroned him of the title stamp king, it ultimately robbed him of his life.

Soon enough, the Chinese Classic Stamp Exhibition4 was held in Taipei. The new owner of the block of four generously lent it to be shown in public for the very first time, thus causing considerable excitement among knowledgeable philatelists. Baritone and his fellow collectors made the pilgrimage to Taipei to view it. I had not been in Hong Kong long enough to gain a tourist visa due to the strained relationship between the Straits and was more than happy to stay behind minding the fort.
Alas, my mentor’s exuberance at having finally seen this great rarity in person subsided when dire headlines turned to talks about Hong Kong’s impending return to China in 1997. At that time, without a hint as to what China might have become, it was a death sentence. Iron Lady Thatcher’s signature instantly doomed the boastful spirit of the Hong Kongers. Baritone’s business trips to Manila and Shanghai became more frequent. After selling my small collection to a Swiss enthusiast, I headed to Europe for a few years. Gradually, we lost touch. By the time I settled in New York in 1986, philately was the furthest thing on my mind.

The King and I

I was born in Beijing as an only child. My parents met in the 1950’s on the basketball court in Jingshan Park. The Prospect Hill in the park was once the highest point in the city. To the east side of the hill was the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty hung himself in 1644. It was only a stone’s throw away from the Forbidden City. Father captained the army team Katyusha for which Mother played forward. When the Cultural Revolution came crashing down, their military tenure proved insufficient to write off their bourgeois backgrounds. Mother was incarcerated and four months later she committed suicide. It was the spring of 1968 and I was just about to begin first grade in the fall. The intervening years were very tough for me, especially when Father decided to outsource me with relatives. Without a proper environment, I knew nearly nothing about my family background. The suicide loomed large, and no one dared to broach the subject with me.
After my children were born in New York, a sense of family steadily developed, my desire to find out about my roots grew stronger. As on cue, in November 2000, my grandaunt Lucy Wu sent me her memoir, provided me a rare opportunity peeking into my genealogical past. I determined to research my mysterious ancestry and piece together a family tree. The diligent work yielded results. The New York Times had spent the entire summer of 1895 covering the anti missionary riots in Sichuan, where one of my great great grandfathers was the Viceroy. He was fingered as the instigator. To remove this hater of the west, the British put forth an ultimatum: the Royal Navy would intervene unless he was punished. When a British fleet of four large gunboats struck the waters of Yangzi River5, the Emperor caved in.
Another great great grandfather was the founder of the celebrated Kaiping Mines in Tianjin. His son would employ a 25 year-old engineer named Herbert Hoover, who eventually managed to wrest away the mine during the chaos of the Boxer Uprising. The Emperor sued for justice and lost the case in London. Needless to say, my attitude toward history had changed.

Few years into my research, one day I decided to reward myself some quality time, a visit to the local library, no agenda no checklist. As I stroll in one of the aisles, a black book with a baby pink stripe on its spine caught my attention. After flipping through a few pages, I found another long lost uncle. I immediately raced to the computer and Googled him. Chow Weiliang (1911-1995) was an authority on algebraic geometry. His main gig had been to chair the Department of Mathematics at Johns Hopkins University. He held that position for more than a decade before retiring in 1977. The finding boosted my spirits. Eager to place him on my tree, I waited twelve long hours before calling Uncle Zhou Weizeng (Junliang, 1920-) in Tianjin, the de facto patriarch who has written many books on the family.
“Uncle, do you know Weiliang?” I called as soon as the pendulum struck ten in the evening, our usual calling time.
“Of course I do. The mathematician. He’s from da fang.” Fang refers to the male branch of the family, the backbone of my tree. Weiliang’s branch is from oldest son, and Weizeng’s from the youngest son.
“How come you never mentioned him before?” How many others have I missed?
“Well, there are so many, I could not possibly remember them all.” He chuckled softly. “Have you looked up Kaoliang?”
“Yes, I did. He passed away in 1998.” Chow Kaoliang (1918-1998) was a pioneer Neurobiologist. I found his memorial on Stanford University’s website.
“Umm, that’s about right.” I could hear him wracking his memory for more bits of information. He then continued, “You should remember Weiliang’s father, Zhou Meiquan, who was a famous mathematician himself. I mentioned him before.”
“I do remember, Uncle.” He is already hanging on my tree, listed as a poet and mathematician.
“He was famous for stamps too.” Uncle Weizeng continued. I perked. I knew many ancestors were famous collectors of various subjects. But at the beginning of my research, I was inexperienced and overlooked these preoccupations as typical social trappings.
“He used to own a very rare stamp, something called red small dollar, you know four stamps connected together. He died after selling it.” By now, I was only half listening as my mind started to race.
“Did he go by any other name?” Less green now that I at least knew to frame a right question.
“Of course. He’s commonly called Zhou Jinjue.”
Apparently he is known as M.D. Chow in the West, Zhou Jinjue in the Chinese philately community, and Zhou Da or Zhou Meiquan by family.
My tree had sprouted new fruit. For a moment I basked in the irony that this Renaissance man, of whom I had heard so much during my ignorant youth, turned out to be an important part of my familial heritage. I was right about one thing: historians are octogenarians by nature. Now that I’ve got wrinkles of my own, history will never pass me by again.

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1 Ma Ren-Chuen, Ma’s Illustrated Catalogue of the Stamps of China (Shanghai, 1947), pg 50.
2 Ma Ren-Chuen and Lee H. Hill, Jr., Ma’s Illustrated Catalogue of the Stamps of China (Tampa, 1998), 29.
3 Ibid.
4 John Wang, “Foreword”, The Revenue Surcharges China 1897 vol. I (Taipei, 1984).
5 John Fairbank (ed), The I.G. in Peking: Letters of Robert Hart, Chinese Maritime Customs, 1868-1907 (Cambridge, 1975), 1034.

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PS: The block of four stamp in the story is the Small One Dollar Red Revenue Surcharge that commonly referred to as Small Red $1. There is only one block of four, which regards as the Holy Grail of Chinese stamp, and 30 odd singles in the world. One of the singletons was auctioned off December 2004 in Hong Kong by a Swiss auction house, fetched an astounding US$410,256, set a record high for a single Chinese stamp in history. The block of four is still with the same owner since 1982 – it was a bequest of the owner who purchased from Chow that it could only be sold to a Chinese. Apparently his widow diligently obliged. There is one Philatelist, Robert Chin, in San Francisco who enthusiastically told me that he had gone to the bank vault to view the Holy Grail few times when the previous owner was still alive. When this block of four showed in Beijing during the international stamp shows, government would always place 2 army soldiers with riffles guarding it!
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The Inverted Jenny: A Famous Error Is One for the Record Books, by Matthew Healey for the New York Times; October 20, 2005

A block of four United States airmail stamps with the airplane in the center famously – and erroneously – printed upside down was auctioned yesterday evening in New York for $2,970,000, a world record for a stamp item.
The 1918 stamp, known to collectors as the Jenny because of the Curtiss JN-4 biplane depicted in the design, was the first American issue for air postage. Its value was set at 24 cents

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One Response to Putting my stamp on history

  1. Cathy says:

    Really impressive stories, keep going on Irene! I will follow your writings…

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