In this issue, we had planned to interview Chuen Chung Lam of Foochow Lacquer about the art pieces he sourced and commissioned for Wynn Macau and Wynn Palace Cotai. He passed away just as we were beginning our reporting, but with the assistance of his son Dennis, we wrote this piece as a tribute to the curator and artisan who became a beloved figure around the resorts and whose artworks are now iconic attractions for visitors from around the world.
Cloisonné camels at Wynn Macau.
Two golden cloisonné camels face each other in a shimmering pool, visible through floor-to-ceiling glass from Wynn Macau’s main entrance. Nearly five feet high, they appear to stand right on the water. The principles of feng shui stipulate that they be placed in a pair. Because they have been photographed so frequently, the camels have become virtually synonymous with Wynn Macau, but to those who know their story they are far more than decorative. In fact, Chuen Chung Lam, from whose Hong Kong warehouse they traveled, suggested that since camels are known as “ships of the desert,” they might represent the people of the desert city of Las Vegas, relocated to this oasis on the South China Sea to welcome visitors from around the world.
Though they seem to have occupied this spot forever, the camels didn’t arrive until a week before Wynn Macau’s grand opening in 2006, when, says Roger Thomas, Executive Vice President of Design for Wynn Design and Development, “Steve Wynn and I were standing in the lobby evaluating the interior, which we do together as spaces are finished. Steve felt something was missing from the view.” Thomas remembered the camels from a visit to Hong Kong’s Foochow Lacquer Company months earlier and promised Wynn, “If you meet me here tomorrow morning at 11 AM, I will show you a solution.” Lam agreed to deliver them overnight to Macau. Meanwhile, Thomas recalls, “I conspired with Luis Marin in our horticulture department to have bricks painted black to create underwater stilt supports for the pair. By 11 AM, we had this magnificent pair of camels walking on water. I can still see Steve’s face when he saw them for the very first time.”
It wasn’t the first time Foochow Lacquer had been a go-to resource for Thomas. Mr. Lam—as he was affectionately known—served as the quiet keeper of what Thomas has called an “Aladdin’s cave” of treasures from which Wynn, through Thomas, got first pick. “My father always said, ‘Mr. Thomas is a gentleman who only skims the cream from our best items,’” recalls Lam’s son, Dennis. Through the relationships he cultivated all over the world, sharing his immense knowledge of Chinese history and decorative arts techniques, Mr. Lam is also credited with keeping some of the most treasured Chinese handicrafts not only alive but vibrantly relevant.
A green cloisonné jar in miniature.
The history of the Lam family business begins in India during World War II, where Mr. Lam’s father-in-law—a native of Fuzhou (formerly spelled Foochow, the capital city of Fujian province)—fled to escape the Japanese invasion of China. Both India and Hong Kong were controlled by the British in those days, with India also providing the base for American operations in support of China in the China Burma India Theater. “My grandfather started selling Chinese handicrafts to GIs at the India and Burma border,” Dennis Lam explains. Once the war ended, he settled with his family in Hong Kong, opening Foochow Lacquer Company in 1946. Mr. Lam had also been born in Fuzhou, and moved to Hong Kong at the age of 14, where he worked in his brother-in-law’s decorative arts store. After marrying his wife, he joined her father’s company.
The company was named for Fuzhou’s most famous export, its renowned “bodiless lacquerware,” in which a model is covered in layers of grass linen or silk and brushed with layer upon layer of lacquer. After the original model has been created, more than 20 steps—blending the lacquer, oiling, shape-setting, and polishing— follow. The craft, which was first developed in the Qianlong period of the Qing dynasty, is regarded as one of the three treasures of Chinese arts and crafts, along with the cloisonné of Beijing and the porcelain of Jingdezhen. And though all three techniques have been mechanized over time to fulfill the demand for cheap exports, the mission of Foochow Lacquer has been to gather and commission only pieces made by hand. “My father loved cloisonné,” Dennis says. “The complicated manufacturing process is entirely manual. He always believed that workmanship would live on in the art object itself.”
A yellow cloisonné incense burner in miniature.
Mr. Lam’s friendship with Roger Thomas predates the building of Wynn Macau by at least two decades. “When my father knew that Wynn was planning to build a new hotel in Macau, he started to gather very fine artworks from China for his old friend Mr. Thomas,” Dennis recalls. That collection yielded the mighty copper lions by the Wynn Tower and Rotunda entrances, a huge pair of yellow cloisonné incense burners by reception, and, of course, the camels. In your wanderings through Wynn Macau and Wynn Palace, you will see other items from Foochow—as well as miniature versions of the large art objects that Mr. Lam brought to Wynn.
True to his operating philosophy that the integrity of the workmanship needed to be kept alive, Mr. Lam would never be satisfied with a simple reproduction. “When my father knew that Wynn had bought the famous Buccleuch vases”—a rare quartet of Qing dynasty vases whose only known equals occupy Buckingham Palace—“he wanted to make a miniature for Wynn,” Dennis says. “They let us measure the original vases, and my father was so thrilled to have the chance to enjoy this marvelous porcelain ware.” It took more than a year and a half (and several tries) to finish the final sample, which was completed by the famous porcelain artisans of Jingdezhen, a process that Lam says reflects the kind of person and curator his father was. “Even though he was a businessman, he would not compromise his principles for gains,” he says. “As I worked side by side with my father, I learned that this industry requires a lot of diligence and patience—and passion for this art.” So when passing by those iconic camels, you might remember the man who brought them here, and consider them his way of welcoming you to a little oasis he helped to create.