In 1970, Harry Ang received an unexpected gift that would change his life. A friend gave him an antique telephone that had long been out of use.
Initially, the phone sat in his study gathering dust, but one day Ang wondered how it worked and unscrewed the casing to expose its internal wires and components.
“That really sparked my interest and made me look more into telephones,” said the 77-year-old.
Ang was soon ordering expensive manuals and different types of phones from as far afield as the Netherlands, Germany and the UK. Over the decades, he has amassed more than 2,000 antique telephones, 200 gramophones and dozens of phonographs.
He’s since downsized his collection, but his home in a public housing estate in western Singapore, is still crowded with some of his most treasured finds. In his study, wires and spare parts dangle from the ceiling and shelves like decorations.
Some of the gramophone players still work. Ang slips a record onto one sitting in the corner of his living room. The sound conjures a bygone era, which he fears future generations will forget as they focus on the new trends in technology.
“I’m a very ardent lover of antiques and I would like more young people to like them,” he said. “I want to spark their interest so that they will come forward and carry on this hobby.”
Antique collectors like Ang believe pieces of technology, no matter how new or old, are historical artifacts that are worth preserving.
“Rotary telephones have been phased out but we can still use them to communicate and for display. Mobile phones that we use today, they are originated from all this. It’s just like an old person.”
Ang, who owns a smartphone, fears newer devices will be so convenient people will forget how to do simple tasks. For example, he no longer memorizes the phone numbers of his friends or family because all that is stored on his device. “It’s making me lazy and I worry that one day we will become stupid.”
While older generations still value older items as they feel familiar, he worries they will be forgotten by young people who didn’t grow up with them and who value sleek, new technology. Unable to rely on young people to carry on his hobby, Ang continues to operate a repair and restoration workshop from his home so he can keep his mind nimble and help people appreciate antiques.
Most of Ang’s collection comes from Europe. Europeans who came to Southeast Asia brought their own equipment in the late 19th century and left the items behind when they returned home, according to Ang.
Such pieces were snapped up by savvy collectors. Asia was soon flooded with fakes and replica phones as local producers sought to create cheaper versions for residents, he said.
Ang has strict personal standards when it comes to his own collecting habits. With so many copies in the market, serious collectors need to establish a firm understanding of what constitutes an antique. “Everyone calls things antiques. A piece of junk that is only one to two years old can get called an antique.” He says objects should be called antiques when their age exceeds 100 years.
“Even if it’s 99 years, we don’t call it an antique, it can just be a vintage piece,” said Ang, who collects both.
Since the beginning, Ang has made sure that each piece of his collection retains its original parts.
“To save the life on an antique piece, I would take a piece from one item and use it in another,” he explained. “If I take the heart or kidney away, the piece would be incomplete. When I dismantle a telephone, sometimes one component of it could fetch a lot of money, but I would rather save the life of the piece.”
Learning from the past
When Ang retired in 2013, he confronted the idea that life was finite and opted to find new homes for his prized pieces. He has managed to cut back his collection to 300 objects. Last month, he sold most of his telephones to a private collector in Singapore, and other items have been sold to customers across Southeast Asia.
Ang makes sure that each object is carefully cataloged and priced. “When anybody comes to my house and purchases one of my items, I will give them a write out – or a will – that outlines the history, information and future value of that object.
“I do this to impart my knowledge and experience.”
Ang has sought to rouse interest in his love of antiques, but laments his family is not interested in taking up his hobby. “I really love my collection and want these objects to find a home where they will really be looked after. Things will keep on improving but we cannot forget the past. Future achievement(s) will depend mainly on the past.”