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The Silver Rice Lady

By Guan Tan

Pham Quang Tung. Styled by Felicia Yap

There’s a hackneyed Chinese poem, it’s clichéd equivalence must be London Bridge Is Falling Down. Penned in the Tang Dynasty by Chinese scholar Li Shen, titled Toiling Farmers, it paints a heart-wrenching scene of farmers toiling in the searing heat of sun, droplets of perspiration watering the plants. Their pains of labour unbeknownst to us, but captured within every grain of rice.

The poem defined quintessentially Chinese values of gratitude, indebtedness, and sacrifice underscoring quotidian life. Toiling Farmers also forms the subconsciousness of fine jewellery graduate Xinxian Cheng’s work.

A simple bowl, several grains of rice – two of which were mould of silver, and a pair of nondescript chopsticks. It’s so humbling that an ancient poem, an entire culture and its way of life could be inscribed within two humble grains of rice. So small, yet so massive. The maker’s delicate hands obvious, yet profoundly intuitive.

Photograph by Pham Quang Tung. Styled by Felicia Yap

“I wanted to do something meaningful, and came across a London artist who photographed pigeon’s droppings on bodies, floors, and all kinds of surfaces. There were two thousand over photographs, which were then curated. She used pearls, and other expensive stones and made brooches that looked exactly like these pigeon’s droppings,” Cheng spoke of her motivations.

Cheng was referring to Frances Wadsworth-Jones, whose works are a humorous slang. “It was Frances’ satirical take on “lucky”,” and societal values as constructs, Cheng continues. That set her on the path to seek out the mundane neglects of life.

Food is a common denominator of human life. What also brings London, Shanghai, and Singapore together, is the sorry fact that, “we tend to order food in excess. Leftover food on napkins, chopsticks, plates, and bowls. My grandma used to tell us not to leave rice in the bowl, else our spouses’ face will be marked with acne.”


Photograph by Pham Quang Tung. Styled by Felicia Yap

Grandma’s cautionary tale is but one of the many familiar table tales. Another goes like this, “A young child has his mum whom feeds, but an elder none.”

“It’s a heart-wrenching [common phrase], but for that reason I wanted to pick these up – these moments that are representative of our ever-changing life,” Cheng chewed on her thoughts pensively. To the 25 year-old, the seemingly accidental morsels of food on the table are more than an unpalatable afterthought, waiting to be hurriedly mopped away. “They aren’t crumbles! The progressive statuses of life – youth, busyness, and age.”

“So I did an experiment, I picked up leftover cooked rice. But they were soft, so I refrigerated them. When hardened, I made a silicone mould – first by pouring silicone liquid mixture into a tiny box, then I waited for it to settle before placing a grain of rice in the middle. I then poured more silicone over. Since rice is denser, it sinks a little. I let it sit, and settle before cutting the mould into half. Extract the grain of rice, and then inject molten silver into the now empty mould.”

Photograph Pham Quang Tung. Styled by Felicia Yap

When asked what it felt like to be picking up residual food from other’s table, she took her pursuits further, “At the Waitrose outside Central Saint Martins, I waited and picked up leftover lunches during lunchtime. I did the same to them – Oreo, chocolate, pasta, cookies.” But with western food, after making a silver copy of the crumbles, she breathed colours on them.

After finding matching shades to the colours of food, “I applied cold enamel. It’s a difficult and intricate process since cold enamel takes a longer time to dry before you can apply the next layer, layer, and layer. Enamel will contract while drying too, so I had to constantly brush the colours outwards to counter the action.”

Painting over her silver jewellery pieces are precise processes, for the melting point of pure silver averages around 900 degrees Celsius, and sterling silver lower around 890. The repeated application of hot enamel – which approximates at 800 degrees Celsius – will disrupt the integrity of silver.

Photograph by Pham Quang Tung. Styled by Felicia Yap

“[Making jewellery] is hard work, but rewarding. Seeing the product feels like me meeting my own child. I cherish every of them.”

Her exacting processes are painfully thorough and humbling. But Cheng labours and wait patiently like a farmer would, mimicking their pains and toil of work – giving thanks in her own right.

Food Accidents are available at www.xinxian-cheng.com.