From farmhouse to your house

Not all vintage or antique Chinese furniture was created equal! Only a few pieces are restored to a superior quality. And some reproductions are far better than others. So how do you know if you’re buying a “good” piece of vintage or antique Chinese furniture?Just about every item of vintage Chinese furniture has an amazing history, with many coming from old villages and farmhouses before ending up here in Singapore. Wouldn’t it be cool to have a real piece of history in your home – one with a story all of its own?Of course, the vintage pieces you see in shops didn’t look like that when they were first rescued from old homes in China. These structures were often being torn down to make room for new, modern buildings. Many of the handmade treasures had fallen into disrepair – only when they were rescued by craftsman did they have new life breathed back into them. CHANTAL TRAVERS, owner of Emperor’s Attic, lived in Beijing for many years before moving to Singapore, where she now runs her furniture store at the Tan Boon Liat Building, specialising in antique and vintage Chinese furniture.“When I lived there, everybody had their own place where they would go to buy antique Chinese furniture. ‘Come and see my guy – he’s the best!’ So, that person’s guy would become your guy, and you’d start to find the people you trust. I’ve now been working with the same people for more than a decade. I personally choose every single piece we have in the store and I have it all authenticated. When that shipment arrives, I know exactly what I’m getting.”And that, folks, means you know what you’re getting when you buy it, too. Your furniture will have a story you can share.Reproduction: not a dirty wordBut not everybody needs a backstory. For many, it’s more important to have a piece that is functional and fits into your home. Reproductions can be beautiful, too – just be aware that if you’re buying a reproduction, you’ll want it to be as well made as the old ones.How can you ensure a piece is well made? There are two important factors here: the materials it’s made from, and the techniques used. Wood from Northern China is exposed to a very wide range of temperatures – from around minus 25 to plus 40 degrees Celsius; subsequently, it can survive in any climate. Furniture made from wood from Southern China, on the other hand, tends to only do well in heat and humidity.Also, traditional carpentry techniques help to ensure that wood can move according to different climates and seasons; that means if you relocate to a different climate (as many of us will), your furniture won’t crack or warp. Furniture that is glued and nailed and uses southern wood just won’t stand the test of time. And who wants to buy a piece of furniture you plan to get rid of in a couple of years?Emperor’s Attic does carry reproductions, though you’d be hard-pressed to figure out which one is new versus vintage when you walk through the showroom. But no worries: it’s all clearly marked with a tag for you to see.“Most of our furniture is vintage and antique,” explains Chantal. “So, it’s important that reproductions feel like the real thing and are of the highest quality.”For the record, reproductions aren’t necessarily any cheaper than antiques. The techniques can be too labour-intensive to save costs, which means the price tag ends up being about the same. All to say, you should buy the piece that makes your heart zing! Limited suppliesIn recent times, the Chinese government has made all of the furniture factories move outside the city. These factories already had a tough time attracting young workers. Now? It’s virtually impossible for them to find new blood. The upshot is that the furniture industry – particularly vintage and antique restoration – is a dramatically changing trade.Craftsmen are retiring and few people are training to take their places. Those who do remain ask for a pay rise after every Chinese New Year period, driving prices ever higher. The coronavirus has also made not only sourcing vintage Chinese furniture very difficult, but also shipping it – for now, at least.The antique Chinese furniture itself is getting harder and harder to find, too. There simply isn’t as much stock for the craftsmen to restore. Chantal still has her special suppliers, but many others have folded shop rather than move to the country. Inventory is dropping.All of which means that there are fewer and fewer pieces available to buy. So, if in the back of your head you’re thinking, “I’ll get a beautiful Chinese furniture piece before I repatriate,” you might want to reconsider and buy sooner. The time to buy is now!“It could be as soon as five years before all this antique furniture coming out of China dries up,” says Verity Dibben, Chantal’s right-hand in the store. “We may not have access to this stuff much longer.”Emperor’s Attic#01-10 Tan Boon Liat Building, 315 Outram Road6270 2544 | emperorsattic.comThis article first appeared in the May 2020 edition of Expat Living. You can purchase a copy or subscribe so you never miss an issue!

Business in Singapore: Chantal’s story

17th October 2019 by Michaela Bisset 3 Min ReadWe chat to CHANTAL TRAVERS from Emperor’s Attic about what it takes to run a successful business in Singapore and how she is (still!) trying to achieve work-life balance.What inspired you to want to run a furniture business?I had left advertising after 18 years and, after seeking the advice of a life coach, I decided to pursue my original passion of retail. At the same time, I found out that Emperor’s Attic (then called FairPrice Antique) was for sale. It was an established business selling high quality Chinese antique and vintage furniture to an international market. This was something I’d wanted to do when we lived in Beijing from 2008 and 2012, so the stars aligned for me. What has been your biggest challenge with the business?Staffing is a challenge for every small business. I mostly employ expats because they have such a passion for the products as well as the flexibility to work just a few days a week. I’ve had some fantastic staff over the past three years, but so many of them have transferred back home or to other countries. Training staff takes time and so it’s a real loss when someone leaves.What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learnt?Owning your own business doesn’t give you work-life balance – though you do have flexibility as to when you work! I have to set boundaries for myself so I have time for family and the gym (still working on the last one!). I wanted to be my own boss so I could control my hours and find balance. But my work is my life now – I love it and have never been happier. As a small business owner, you manage finance, HR, the shop, the buying, the marketing – everything. I try to get to bed earlier, force myself to take two days off (also still working on that) and hire fabulous staff to help take the pressure off. I’m really lucky with the team I have.What motivates you to get up each morning?So many things! I love being my own boss, I love my job, I love my team and I absolutely love buying beautiful products, and being in the store and meeting customers. I get such satisfaction when a customer comes in and recognises the quality in finish and construction that we strive so hard to achieve.What makes Emperor’s Attic different?Emperor’s Attic and FairPrice Antique beforehand have been selling high-quality, hand-crafted antique, vintage and reproduction Chinese furniture in Singapore for 20 years. We are “award winning” (we’re consistent winners of both the Expat Living Readers’ Choice Awards and Tatler Best of Singapore), “artisanal” (we rarely sell the same thing twice) and “actually affordable”!Our pieces are traditionally hand-crafted and restored and use the highest quality materials and workmanship. We believe you will not find this quality at these prices anywhere else.We also travel to northern China twice a year and work with a few trusted suppliers to personally select every item that arrives in the store. As we only buy from that part of China, our pieces can move when you move and can live in cold and dry climates – not just the heat and humidity. That helps them last a lifetime and more.Emperor’s Attic is open seven days a week from 11am to 5pm (6pm on weekends) at #01-10 Tan Boon Liat Building, 315 Outram Road. 9011 0380 | emperorsattic.comFor more helpful tips head to our living in Singapore section.Networking: How to find jobs and palsEnvironmental news: Getting up to date!10 top instagram spots in SingaporeThis article first appeared in the September 2019 edition of Expat Living. You can purchase a copy or subscribe so you never miss an issue!