Monday, October 21, 2013


Congkak is a popular game of logic with variations played throughout Asia (Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Southern Thailand and some parts of Sumatra and Borneo), Africa and even the Americas. Known elsewhere as mancala, the version commonly played in the Malay archipelago requires two players to share a wooden board with at least seven holes marking each player’s village and storehouse. Seeds are placed in each hole and redistributed according to the rules of the game, with the objective of gaining as many seeds in one’s storehouse as possible. A popular traditional game in the past, the attractiveness of congkak began declining by 1980s.

The game is believed to have originated from the Middle East, where it was known as mancala (Arabic for “move”) in Arabia. The earliest discovery of the board game was made in Jordan, dating between 7,000 BC and 5,000 BC. The game was probably brought by Arab or African traders travelling to China. Introduced first to Indonesia and then to the Malay Peninsula, it took root in Malacca, where it was played exclusively in the royal court of the Malaccan ruler. Later, the game became popular among the wider population, in particular among Malays and Peranakans or Straits-born Chinese. The rules of the game thus have unique Malay terms.

The game is known throughout the world and has up to 250 names, with some taking on the name of the board or the playing pieces. There are various explanations for the name congkak. Early sources suggest the name refers to the Chinese junk as evidenced also in the design of many traditional congkak boards that are boat-shaped. However, it is commonly believed that congkak (also chongkak, jongkah, jongkak or chunca) could be Indonesian for “cowrie shell”, which was traditionally used as the game counters. The Tamil name for the game, pallang koolhi, also makes reference to the cowrie shell. Other explanations indicate that congkak is a traditional term for “counting silently" or "mentally”.

In general, only women, children and youth played the game, as it was considered beneath men to do so. Women were often seen playing it at the open veranda of their 'kampung' (village) homes or under shady trees. Peranakan ladies would often be seen chewing betel leaf while they played. Among Peranakan Indians, pallang koolhi is believed to have been introduced from South India. The Peranakan Indians played the game during festivities such as wedding celebrations.

The game requires a wooden block (papan congkak), which was originally hand carved. Expensive boards were sometimes made of mahogany, teak or chengal and carved with elaborate decorations and images. In Java, the board is often boat-shaped, and some early studies of Malayan congkak describe the Malayan board as having a similar design. Congkak boards sometimes featured dragons on either side. Although, this design soon faded as Islam gained predominance.

Pictures below show the hand carved congkak which is made of chengal wood from my collection. It is 112cm long and weigh 12.8kg. Chengal is considered the number one wood (classified as heavy hardwood) of Malaysia and export of logs is prohibited due to its scarcity.

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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Antique Chinese Ivory Card Case

In the early 19th century, etiquette dictated that upper class ladies and gentlemen should carry a visiting card, also known as a calling card, being a small paper card, about the size of present day business cards, printed with the individuals details, and often bearing an artistic design.

In 19th century England, the caller or the footmen accompanying the caller (if he or she was very important) would deliver the visiting cards to the servants of their prospective hosts, introducing the arrival of the card bearer.

Card cases solely for the purpose of holding visiting cards were introduced at this time and etiquette dictated that ladies should always carry their cards in a card case, although it was acceptable for a gentleman to carry his cards in the breast pocket of his jacket.

Reflecting the fact that card cases were mainly used by ladies, the designs were feminine in nature. They were made in a variety of materials, including gold, silver, ivory, enamel, mother of pearl and tortoiseshell, and had variety of opening methods.

The use of visiting cards declined at the end of the 19th century, reducing demand for and consequently the production of card cases.

Pictures below show a Chinese (Cantonese) intricate hand carved ivory card case for export purposes. It is with traditional scenes of everyday life, including figures and temples amongst foliage to all sides and lid. Circa 19th century. Height: 11cm, Length: 6.5cm, Width: 1cm.

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