A four-piece set of enameled steel ware, including basins and a chamber pot, used to cost three and a half months' salary of an ordinary worker in Shanghai, Xie Dangwei says, while pointing at a set of dowry offerings featured in his exhibition of enamel works.
Since joining the Shanghai Jiuxin Tangci Factory in 1978, the 59-year-old spent most of his career making enamel products, before promoting the material and calling for its revival in the contemporary age.
"It is clean and safe, won't break into many pieces, and germs won't stay on the surface," he says, during a tour of his exhibition on the history and development of enamel ware in China.
A few weeks before his exhibition, a vintage-style Chinese enamel chamber pot made the news－but for the wrong reasons. A seller on the e-commerce site Amazon had described the pot as a table decoration and an ice bucket.
While many laughed at the mistake, Xie believes the enamel pot's function as a container for iced wine and champagne is not inappropriate.
Enamel was introduced to China in the early 1900s. These pots, which were inspired by ancient ceremonial liquor containers, were created between the 1910s and 1920s.
"At first, it was designed as a small spittoon and later evolved to become the chamber pot that we are familiar with."
Enamel on steel was used so widely in the everyday lives of Chinese people that the material was given a special name, tangci, when the country introduced a new system of industrial standardization in 1956, Xie says.
For many years in the latter half of the 20th century, people ate and drank from tangci mugs and bowls. Even doctors placed their surgical tools in tangci trays, recalls Li Meizhu, a 76-year-old woman in Shandong province, who still uses a tangci mug as her toothbrush holder.
These products, printed with institutions' names and characters to commemorate special occasions, have been given to employees as awards in recognition of their contributions.
Xie became a young worker in the Jiuxin Tangci Factory in Shanghai in the 1970s, applying colors on the steel surface with a spray gun. He was good at it, and took great pride in his work. In 1978, he participated in a vocational-skills competition and won a prize for processing tangci ware.
"I asked the jury to sell me 10 of the enamel products I made, and these were the first 10 pieces of my collection," he says.
In 2002, the State-owned Jiuxin Tangci Factory went bankrupt, and Xie, who was assistant to the factory director, decided to build a new factory and start his own tangci production line. His factory went bankrupt and closed down less than a year later. Xie found himself deep in debt, and after suffering from depression for a few years, he found a new job in the real estate industry.
But tangci remained his true passion. Through the years, he bought such items whenever he found ones with interesting forms or historical importance. His friends and colleagues would later donate their vintage objects and scour antiques markets at home and abroad for him.
Xie eventually amassed a collection of more than 2,600 items, alongside some original paintings artists created as pattern designs on enamel ware.
In the beginning, his wife did not understand his enthusiasm. She especially did not like him hoarding these items at home.
"She has issued me a total of 17 divorce papers," Xie recalls. "But I made up my mind to never sign them."
His persistence eventually moved her. "Many people came to see my collection, and she gradually became convinced of the meaning of my dedication," Xie says.
In 2015, when he made up his mind to display his collection in a proper exhibition, his wife, a successful career woman in the real estate industry, helped him to acquire a three-story building in Jiading and had it refurbished for the showcase.
Since its opening in 2016, the exhibition, Tangci in China Through 100 Years, has received hundreds of thousands of visitors, many of whom travel all the way from Europe and the United States.
Xie's passion has also resonated with the younger generations.
He recalls that he was heartened when Gao Huanhuan, the then girlfriend of his son, Xie Xian, asked him,"Do you think we can make tangci objects again?"
The young couple even started their own company, Jiushen Cultural Creative (Shanghai) Corp, in 2016 to produce high-quality enamel ware with imported steel and glaze pigments.
"I used to buy interesting tangci objects in Europe for my dad, and saw fine pieces reflecting the rich cultural heritage of European handicrafts. We gradually fell in love with the material," says Xie Xian.
He also recalls being fascinated with the material after visiting a market in Prague, the Czech Republic.
"There is a big world for enamel ware. We can create something new with it that is fun, lovable and relevant to the aesthetics of the young generations," he says.