A passion for keeping time

A passion for keeping time

A mainland collector relishes the artistry and engineering ingenuity that once went into clocks

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Mainland collector Hong Wei with one of his favourite vintage clocks. Some clocks are remarkable pieces of art, he says.
Mainland collector Hong Wei with one of his favourite vintage clocks. Some clocks are remarkable pieces of art, he says.
Photo: Nikolas Schoefer
For thousands of years people have been seeking to measure time. Sundials, water clocks, hourglasses, pendulums - they were all invented for this purpose. Yet it was not until the invention of spring-driven clocks in Germany in the early 16th century that time could be kept accurately for days on end, come rain or shine. Watches and clocks have been with us ever since - in myriad shapes and forms.

Just ask Hong Wei. He has amassed a collection of more than 60 unique clocks, mostly from Europe and East Asia.

Hong first became interested in time-telling devices as a boy when he saw an antique clock at a friend's home. Its artistic quality fascinated him. Soon he set out in search of uniquely designed clocks.

The first item in his collection was a clock in the shape of a rabbit holding a carrot with a dial on its tummy. "It was really cute," the collector recalls. "What attracts me most to clocks is the meshing of the creative and the technical. I love how clockmakers can incorporate a bit of their culture and humour into a physical object that helps people on a daily basis. Some clocks are remarkable pieces of art."

Hong's favourite item is a German clock from the 1820s. It's the oldest in his collection and still works. It is made up of two parts and two types of materials that are often hard to incorporate: a marble stand and ceramic clock face. It is "a most elegant piece of artwork [which was] very technologically advanced for its time," he explains. It chimes every hour on the hour.

"To find such an old clock in such great condition is very rare," he notes.

Besides their beauty, Hong is also interested in the ingenuity of many mechanical clocks - and he has a dim view of modern battery-powered watches. "Wind-up clocks have a romantic, individual quality to them," he says. "Batteries sort of kill that by eliminating all the need for care when preparing each individual part of a clock."

Wristwatches may seem small, but many of them are intricate pieces of engineering, he says. "Up to a thousand of these little parts coming from many different places are put together [in a single watch]. They rely heavily on each other to work properly," he says.

Hong, who is from Fujian, has brought some of his most prized possessions to Hong Kong for an exhibition. Back home, he spends long hours tending to his treasured clocks to make sure they work well.

Their tic-tocks and chimes gladden his heart.

Hong's clocks will be at China Hong Kong City in Tsim Sha Tsui until August 14

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