24 August 2019
Marcopolo Tam Siu-cheong is a well-known collector of ancient maps. Photo: HKEJ
Marcopolo Tam Siu-cheong is a well-known collector of ancient maps. Photo: HKEJ

Antique map collector finds new meanings in old routes

Marcopolo Tam Siu-cheong is a prestigious antique map collector, whose private collection comprises over 280,000 items. Like the adventurous traveler Marco Polo, Tam has dedicated himself to making discoveries.

Tam finds it interesting that the central government is taking efforts to revive the Silk Road, an ancient network of trade and cultural routes that connect the East and the West. China’s modern “Silk Road” initiative — One Belt, One Road — aims to foster economic cooperation between China and various countries in Asia, Africa and Europe.

Tam shared with us the world views of the East and West as could be gleaned from antique maps.

“The ancient Chinese believed that there was only one country on earth. But for the West, they already had the East inscribed on their maps. The western merchants sailed along the coast to the East. Meanwhile, the Chinese went in search for the West by land, and very often the explorations did not go farther beyond the Middle East,” he says.

Tam laid out a few European antique maps to prove his point. One of them was “The map of ASIE”, i.e., “The map of Asia”, which was published in France in 1860. A table (on the right) listed the population of Asian countries, including China (350 million) and Japan (25 million).

Tam then rolled out another map. This time it was a Chinese map from the Song Dynasty, a very coarse woodblock-printed map of provinces.

“The Chinese developed maps with eastern and western hemispheres only until the 19th century,” he notes.

Why? “China has a vast, resourceful territory. Most people could obtain whatever they needed. It seemed less likely for them to experience a surge of interest in exploring other countries.

“The Europeans were told that people were spread out [around the world] speaking different languages based on the biblical teachings about the Tower of Babel. And later on advances in navigation in Europe made voyages possible. That is why the Europeans would set off and explore the world.”

China’s One Belt, One Road initiative makes references to the ancient Silk Road since it passes through those developing countries and the second- and third-tier mainland cities, such as Quanzhou and Fuzhou, Tam noted as he spread out a dyed cloth from Xi’an, a vivid picture of merchants riding on camels along the Silk Road.

Tam is also a collector of old graphics, particularly sketches of scenes of everyday life. His collection includes one from the 1889 World Exhibition in Paris, which depicts French workers making cannons and bombs.

Another special collectible is a matchbox-size calfskin leather box from the Ming Dynasty. Inside the box is a tiny accordion book which was a written account of about 10 stops on the route from Jiexiu to Jingzhou Fu (now known as Jiangling County). On the back of the page was a long and lovely entry from a newlyweds’ journal.

Tam has so many other interesting maps. Map of Yin House from ancient China, for example, led a family to the graveyards of their ancestors.

A French map published in the mid-19th century exudes “supreme sophistication” for us. A group of tiny islands, Diaoyu Dao, is barely visible to the naked eye, yet the map identifies them as “L. Tiu-yu-su”.

Tam’s fascination with maps started in 1978, when he went on a business trip to Huntington, West Virginia. A friend whom he met in a pub gave him a map of that city published in 1830. Unfortunately he left the precious item on the train.

“I felt so miserable,” he recalls. “I looked for the map in antique shops in New York but I couldn’t find it.”

Although he never saw the map again, he did not leave the United States empty-handed. He bought seven antique New York City maps dating back from the 19th century. Those maps became the first of his massive collection.

“Maps are just fascinating. I love reading them and carrying them around so as to track the changes and developments of the cities.”

Speaking of precision in the making of maps, Tam notes that it is not an area of strength for the Chinese. “It was told that the most sophisticated Chinese map would be created by the Japanese, not the Chinese. Back in the days of the invasion, the Japanese created maps with as much detail as possible as they needed the map to set up an ambush. They would not let go of a single alley either.”

Tam also pointed out that German maps are so precise that they include “useless” dead-end streets.

Asked what he plans to do with the maps in the future, Tam says he would like to make the donations to The University of Hong Kong, his alma mater, and Peking University, where he was appointed a visiting professor. “I may also give away some of my collections to United Nations as well.” 

This article first appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 8.

Translation by Ben Kwok.

[Chinese version 中文版]

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A map (left) made in France in 1860 depicts Asia while another one mentions the Diaoyu Island. Photo: HKEJ

An old map of China (left) made by an Italian traveler; a dyed cloth from Xi’an depicts camel-riding merchants along the Silk Road. Photo: HKEJ

A matchbox-size leather box from the Ming Dynasty contains an accordion-type book that serves as a map. Photo: HKEJ

Writer of the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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