VISUAL ARTS: Reviews

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The Independent Culture
Precious Cargo, The Royal Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh (0131 225 7534) until 4 January

`Precious Cargo" is an exhibition about trade. It celebrates three centuries of business between Britain (specifically Scotland, home to many of the early merchants, including the legendary Jardine and Matheson) and China. It explores the exchange of silver for tea, silver for silk and silver for Chinese herbs and medicines, including opium, although this most fascinating of remedies is mentioned only in passing.

Instead, tea has centre stage - this is Edinburgh after all. The exhibition begins with a small jar of the stuff, and one is reminded of it throughout by various pots and cups and caddies which share the displays with silk robes and fans and dinner services painted with armorial crests and kilted highlanders.

Some of the objects here, especially those from the 19th century, are rather ordinary, and that is the point. These were the things that the traders brought home from their travels. There are, however, a few fabulous things, the best of which is the wallpaper hand-painted in 1780 with Canton waterfront scenes.

"Precious Cargo" also offers some intriguing glimpses of unfamiliar history such as the Eastern exploits of General Gordon, whose military distinction began in China long before he found fame at Karthoum. Closer to home, we learn of Edinburgh's first Chinese restaurant - Mr Wong - which opened above a kilt-maker's shop in 1930. Great art? Maybe not, but it is a beautifully staged exhibition.

EYE ON THE NEW

The handover of Hong Kong has also inspired a recent rush of exhibitions devoted to contemporary Chinese art. One of the best of them Reckoning with the Past can be seen at the Cornerhouse in Manchester until 21 September. The Cornerhouse, 70 Oxford Street, Manchester (0161- 236 9299).

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