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#AndrewSingerChina Newsletter, Vol. 2, Issue 23

Torrance, California is a short drive south of Los Angeles. As you cruise (or in my case, walk) along West Carson Street in the direction of the setting sun, a low-rise commercial building fills the block between Abalone and Border Avenues. The building is more than it seems. A stunning Chinese art museum lies hidden within.


Chen Art Gallery: Hiding in Plain Sight

Chen Art Gallery

The headquarters of global health and wellness company Sunrider International in Torrance, California is home to a public secret. Cocooned on the first floor is the 25-year-old Chen Art Gallery. Sunrider is the family business of the Chen family, and the Gallery is the personal art collection of patriarch Dr. Tei-Fu Chen.

Sunrider International HQ

There are no signs indicating that breathtaking Chinese art awaits inside this contemporary, glass and steel building. Nor is there any hint that a walled, Chinese botanical garden is camouflaged at the back of a rear parking lot. The Chen Art Gallery may not call attention to itself; however, it is free and open to the public.

Sunrider International Lobby

There are only three requirements to visiting: 1) make a reservation for a guided tour, 2) no photography allowed inside the Gallery, and 3) you have to find the place. The second requirement was particularly difficult for me. I could feel my banished cellphone burning a hole in my pocket the entire time I was inside.

Detail of Ivory and Lacquer Hanging Wall Panels Outside Gallery Entrance

From the Museum’s brochure: “Dr. Chen sincerely hopes that each person who visits the Chen Art Gallery can experience the grandeur and excellence of Chinese art and culture. In this way, the Chen Art Gallery serves as a bridge of cultural understanding between East and West.

I easily accept the statement I heard repeatedly that Dr. Chen’s collection is the best in private hands in the U.S. The Gallery made such an impression on me that I excitedly returned the next day with a group of fellow Chinese snuff bottle collectors and friends. The exhibition space exudes the aesthetic of the collector, his personal touch and direction, aided by the erudite assistance of longtime specialists, Sophie, Holly, and Allison.

Female Lion Dog

The collection spreads through fifteen rooms that have expanded over time into surrounding offices. The double entrance doors are flanked by 400-year-old male and female lion dogs. After passing into the inner sanctum, picture a winding layout with a small alcove here, nooks there, and cozy rooms everywhere, all unfolding off hallways spiraling out from an open, central core.

How do I describe a sampling of the collection highlights? Fleeting memory and frantic notes back at the hotel must replace the photos that were not allowed. Can words convey the wonder and feeling of this magical space? I will let the reader decide, and I welcome your feedback.

Spoiler Alert! Chinese art about to be revealed.

Sunrider Chinese Botanical Garden

One of Dr. Chen’s first art purchases was fittingly a traveling apothecary cabinet. Hundreds of years old. Light brown wood. A vertical 2.5 x 1.5± feet. Outer doors protect a series of symmetrical, yet unevenly-sized drawers. Each drawer has a unique metal pull tab. The different designs helped the doctor and his assistant identify which roots, herbs, and other medicines were where.

A striking set of seventeen, Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) Buddhist Luohans (18± inches tall) line one, entire wall of the biggest room. The emotive, intelligent faces bring these seventeen wooden individuals to life. Some of the heads are more traditionally Chinese in appearance, while several are darker and gaunter and retain more evidence of their Indian origin. Different poses. Different dress. Different decoration. There is Bodhidharma (the first) and also Nagasena, he with a long, thin finger cleaning out the wax in one ear as he listens to the prayers of the suffering.

Sunrider Chinese Botanical Garden

There is a Cizhou ceramic vase also from the Song Dynasty. The body is the distinctive crème tone of such pottery and is painted with fading black peonies. Set apart in a quiet corner, the vase beckons.

A red calligraphy ink cake survives from the Qianlong era of the Qing Dynasty (1736-1795). What is so incredible about this rectangular example (about 6 in x 3 in) is that the bottom half of the floral design on one long face is a glistening, erased surface where the emperor repeatedly dipped his moistened brush to write voluminous vermillion comments on official documents. I read a book recently about an eighteenth-century sorcery scare in China which makes numerous references to the Qianlong Emperor’s vermillion jottings during that crisis. I wonder if he used this very calligraphy cake in making them.

Sunrider Chinese Botanical Garden

A matching pair of square cinnabar and black lacquer boxes captivate me. The top and sides of each (1 ft. x 6 in. give or take) are one piece that lifts off the base revealing several storage compartments within (so we are told). The circular-trimmed tops depict several Luohans sitting, standing, and floating amidst trees, rocks, clouds, and incense burners, all sculpted in red and black. Rich cinnabar scenes of more Luohan in nature adorn the centers of each side panel and are bookended in black lacquer with vertically carved Chinese characters of a Buddhist sutra. It may be the Diamond Sutra.

Sunrider Chinese Botanical Garden

There are three, Qianlong-era Chinese clocks made in the Western style that the emperor so adored. These were likely made in the Guangzhou (Canton) factories. There is a rare, two-toned fossilized clamshell snuff bottle, one of about 100 exquisite Qing Dynasty snuff bottles in the collection. The one hundred deer motif (a rebus for “May you receive the hundred emoluments from heaven”) is depicted on two large, long-necked globular vases, one made of cloisonne and the other of famille rose porcelain.

An ethereal, Water-moon Guanyin (Song Dynasty) rests her arm gracefully atop her bent right knee, flashes of pigment still visible on her wooden body. Nearby sits a 1,700-year-old bronze chariot with horse and attendant that take pride of place in the center of the Gallery. For lack of wall space, only one of the Chinese paintings in the collection is on display – a six-foot long landscape painting of the walled city of Xucheng and environs with a poem handwritten by the Qianlong Emperor.

Sunrider Chinese Botanical Garden

My eyes feast upon a colorful pair of Qianlong-era gilt brass riding stirrups inlaid with gems and a gilt brass ruyi with pasted ruby glass stones, a 5,500-year-old horseshoe-shaped piece of pale green jade carved to represent a dragon, so many bronze buddhas and bodhisattvas, Sancai horses and tomb guardians, Ming and Qing furniture galore, Neolithic to Qing porcelains and jades. Oh, I could go on and on.

To visit the Chen Art Gallery is to experience an intimate connection with Chinese art. One feels the privileged pleasure of being invited into another's home, to see and share in something special. I felt all 兴高彩烈, xìng gāo cǎi liè (Chinese idiom – jubilant and in high spirits).

Sunrider Chinese Botanical Garden


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