“Much was hoped by the Exposition authorities in the way of a worthy exhibit from China, but unfortunate international legislation intervened to prevent that government from taking any official part in the Fair. The Chinese village in the Midway Plaisance is the enterprise of a syndicate of [Chicago-based] Celestial merchants, and the buildings were designed by a Chicago architect. They include a theatre, restaurant, Joss house from which the Joss has departed, and bazaar; some of the tea offered for sale is priced at a hundred dollars per pound, only a few leaves being required to make a pot of the beverage. In the pavilion in the Manufactures Building are exhibited the well-known industrial and artistic productions of the empire, porcelains, ivory carvings, embroideries, textile fabrics, etc.; and in the Transportation Building a number of models of Chinese boats and other modes of conveyance.”
The exhibits in the Manufactures Building came from two China-based companies: the Lee Kwong Kee Company of Kinkiang [Jinjiang in Fujian] and Chun Kwong Kee & Company of Canton [Guangzhou]. Lee Kwong Kee presented “a beautiful collection of porcelains from the royal potteries at King The Chen [Jingdezhen]… The visitor may purchase here almost anything in the porcelain or china line, from a god at 80 cents to a vase at $500.” Chun Quan Kee’s exhibit was of silk goods, ivory and lacquer ware, black wood and sandal wood furniture, and many varieties of bric-a-brac and curios.
Chicago Daily Tribune, Sept 24 1893, p 35
Other international expositions in the U.S. saw the same pattern of trading companies in China operating independently of the Chinese government. The pattern was even more pronounced at Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition in 1933, where merchants in Guangzhou and Fuzhou [in Fujian] secured profitable concessions in the Chinese Village despite the opposition of the Chinese government exposition commission in Shanghai.
Little noticed in one of the Manufactures Building exhibits, perhaps Chun Quan Kee’s, were several pieces of Ming dynasty furniture, including a pair of armchairs and an altar table, all made of in huanghuali wood, plus a less fine lampstand of 19th century date. The chairs, table, and lampstand are now in the University of Michigan art museum, where they were described in 1993 by Brian Flynn. According to Flynn “these pieces … are among the first examples of classical Chinese furniture to enter the United States.”
Brian Flynn, Journal of the Classical Chinese Furniture Society, vol 1, no 4, pp 48-51.