January 30, 2018
| On 12 months ago

Meet Mr Steven Tan, The Collector Of A Thousand Bird Cups & Vases In Singapore

By Alvin Ng

One of the many shelves filled with Mr Tan’s collection.

Have you seen uncles around the neighbourhood with songbirds in intricate birdcages? Well, what about an uncle who has a collection of over a thousand bird cups?

Probably not.

60-year-old Mr Steven Tan, like all other bird collectors in Singapore, hangs out with his friends during his free time with their birds. Anyone who walks past him will probably just see him as another collector.

But his greatest treasures are kept within his home, and he warmly invited me over to have a look at them.

Love At First Sight

Semi-retired Mr Steven Tan poses proudly with his collection.

When I first stepped into his bedroom, I felt as if I’d been transported into a small museum exhibit. The display cabinets are filled with little intricately-designed bird cups and vases.

This are all my lovers, I have 1,000 lovers and I sleep with them!” said Mr Tan, proudly gesturing to his massive collection of cups as he chuckled merrily.

Mr Tan’s hobby and love for birds began in 1969, where the common pastime of kids back then was either catching spiders, playing with birds and/or flying kites.

Mr Tan has been rearing birds since he was just a young teenager.

One of many collections of completed sets of bird cups.

When asked why he started collecting bird cups, his answer was simple: the indescribable power of attraction.

He didn’t really collect cups before. But when restarting his hobby after a hiatus of 20 years, Mr Tan saw some collectors laying out their own sets of bird cups.

It was in that moment that Mr Tan had something of a ‘love at first sight’. Their collections kindled a fiery passion that has led him to collect cups ever since.

Good, Old, Or Expensive

A few of these small vases have a value of at least S$200 each.

It seems that Mr Tan read my mind as he began explaining at great length about the bird cups.

First of all, there isn’t any real value in the cups themselves, whether they’ve been intricately or simply made. It is the collectors’ and/or hobbyists’ interests in the cups that drive the prices up.

In fact, the highest recorded price that someone in Singapore had to pay for a complete set of bird cups, was a whopping S$16,000. “It’s a hobby thing ah“, he explained, “people will pay more for something that they like.”

The sets of the lion; one of Mr Tan’s rare collections.

Some pieces are made by master craftsmen, who place their signatures below the cups.

It’s easy for anyone, old and young to know that this is a bird’s cup, just like ABC. But to know how good, old, or expensive a bird’s cup is, that’s a skill that will take years to master.

Mr Tan begins by looking into the works on a cup, examining it through a loupe. “See all the spiderweb? Ah, this one was made with a printed sticker then went to [be baked in] the oven. Not an artist draw one.

Then he picks another, ” Ah see, this one not good he never draw, just paint only.

Crack Is Gold!

A less experienced artist’s work.

The next thing he looks for is the age of the cups, which is nearly impossible to make an accurate estimation of.

The reason behind that is because there are little or no official records for anyone to reference from. Collections and individual cups are bought over either from another collector or from overseas, which may span over the decades.

It is only through the cracks formed by natural causes on the porcelain that the age can be roughly gauged as an old piece. “Crack is gold!” he exclaimed, as cups with natural hairline cracks are highly sought after.

The more natural cracks there are, the older the cups.

The Desire To Expand

Actually it’s a decoration only, you know. Birds ah, two cups is more than enough already [for] water and food,” he added, throwing away my assumption of them holding any cultural significance.

This collection of cups here is roughly 40 years old.

Depending on the bird, a complete set for a Mata Puteh (Oriental White-Eye) consists of four cups and a vase. While a complete set for a Jambul (Red-whiskered Bulbul) consists of only two large cups.

Sometimes certain sets of cups created by artists tell a story of mythical Chinese gods, ranging from the stories of the 八仙過海 (Eight Immortals Cross the Sea) to the story of the Monkey God.

Pictured is the 2nd half of the story called “Eight Immortals Cross The Sea”.

I still not enough you know, I want to extend my cabinets,” he said, referring to his lovers’ affectionally, as he sat on his bed. “If a bike collector buys a S$17,000 bicycle, can you guarantee he will stop there or not?” he further added, reflecting upon his desire to expand his collection.

There is no denying that the future is uncertain for this old hobby, as not many young people are interested in the hobby of collecting birds and/or the bird’s cups.

One thing is for certain at this very moment though – Mr Tan won’t be stopping his passion anytime soon.

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Give us a shout if you know of anyone who has an unusual hobby in Singapore!

Alvin Ng

My photography journey started as a hobby back in early 2008 and it’s forte is in documentary photography. My view towards design is that its a powerful set of skills that can enhance and mature creatve compositon towards photography and the portrayal of project outcomes. In the context of photography, I believes that the humanity of the moment, and being able to capture it, is to me, the most organic form of communicaton between another person