"This case made from the skin of sharks is a traveller's eating kit used by Mongolian royal families," says Lan Xiang, a collector of chopsticks from the mainland, of the tube in the main photo.
"The kit's sophistication and attention to detail is remarkable. The tiny dots you see on the case is the natural pattern on the skin of a shark. All the tools are made from elephant bones and silver. There is a knife for peeling skin, a pair of tongs for removing hair, a pair of chopsticks, a toothpick and two tiny cups along with saucers. It is an amazing piece of work."
The masterpiece did not come into his hands easily; it took several years for Lan to get it. He first saw the kit in 1990 in a Tianjin store. He asked to see it but was rudely turned away because he was not well-dressed. He immediately borrowed 5,000 yuan (HK$6,000) from his cousin and returned. The second attempt did not work either. The owner said the piece was an heirloom and was not up for sale.
Six years later, Lan discovered that the kit was in the hands of a man in Jiangxi. After much bargaining, Lan bought it for HK$10,000 and 10 packs of cigarettes.
"It doesn't seem like a tall order by today's standards," Lan says. "But back in the 1990s when the country was less open, Hong Kong dollars and imported cigarettes were hard to get." He was lucky that he had access to these riches, and could buy the kit.
Lan's passion for chopsticks was inspired by a historic event: Richard Nixon's visit to China in 1972, the first ever by a US president.
"I read on the news that Nixon tried to learn to use chopsticks. Later, the pair of chopsticks that he used was put on sale for US$2,000. I was amazed and thought I should collect chopsticks to protect our heritage," he says.
Lan, 82, has spent more than 30 years collecting special chopsticks. His collection includes more than 2,000 pairs, made from silver, gold, bronze, jade, ivory and coral.
Lan says: "I never use any of them. They are art; for collection only. Most of my collection can be used except for the jade chopsticks because they are really brittle. I can only think of one person in history who could afford to eat with jade chopsticks, and that is Empress Dowager Cixi."
Chopsticks are more than eating utensils. In Chinese, the word sounds similar to words that mean "giving birth to sons". They also come in pairs, which carries the meaning of a good couple.
"Chopsticks are so popular because of the positive meaning that they represent," says Lan.
An exhibition of Lan's chopsticks will appear in Tuen Mun Town Plaza from September 3 to 18