Sayu Chen

A Fan-tastic Stamp Collection 1916-61

by Sayu Chen

Reprinted with permission from Sayu Chen and The American Philatelist, October 1992 Edition

Charles Chen

     Charles Chen, who carried out his mother-in-law’s trust in continuing her fan collection, was born in Rangoon, Burma, while Burma was under the control of the British government. He is the oldest son of Tan Onn-Lock, an editor-in-chief for several newspapers who received foreign correspondence daily, thus stimulating his keen interest in collecting stamps from the Ching Dynasty (1644-1911) and from European countries.

     During the 1950s and ’60s while working as a chief accountant for U.S. MAAG NCO Clubs in Taiwan, Chen started his collection mounted on three panels of paper. When folded, the paper panels look like a screen used for decoration or for dividing a room, a very important part of Chinese culture and society. Each large panel (eleven by thirty-one inches) has at least ninety postmarks and sixty commemorative stamps with first day of issue postmarks. Because the three panels were developed concurrently, they closely resemble one another.

Especially for Chinese viewers, these postmarks and stamps are a panorama of many events in Taiwan between the years of 1957 and 1962. Because the collector lived in Taipei, the capital of the Republic of China, it is not surprising that most of the postmarks were imprinted by the post offices in that city. What is surprising is the number of postmarks from places more than a hundred kilometers from Taipei – in those days in a small nation endowed with many high mountains, that distance was considered a long way from home.

     The extraordinary clarity of all the postmark imprints is remarkable. Equally notable is the lack of mistakes in the order or positioning of these postmarks. Each is stamped in a very neat and orderly fashion, conveying the passion of the collector for philatelic detail and precision.

The Author

Sayu Chen, who grew up in Taiwan, immigrated to the United States in 1977and now resides in California, where he works as a field representative for Tau- tron, a division of General Signal. 

In Taiwan in the early 1900s, my maternal grandmother, Mrs. Tzo-Mei-Ho, through the influence of her neighbor in the city of Chureki (now Chung-Lee), started to collect stamps.  She continued her collecting when, later, she moved to Taihoku (now Taipei, the capital of the Republic of China).

       My grandmother invented a unique variation on an existing stamp collecting method. After the first adhesive postage stamp appeared, in 1840, British women started the practice of placing stamps on windows and porcelainware. My grandmother – who, like most women in Taiwan at that time, carried a fan wherever she went – used her fan as the collecting medium.

      One day in 1916, when she went to the post office in Chureki, she asked the clerk to place her newly purchased stamp on her fan. From then on, in her trips to the post office, she regularly added to the fan collection in the same way. Sometimes she would take two or more fans with her to have them stamped. After my father, Charles Chen, who had been educated in British Christian school in Kulangsu, Amoy, Fukian Province, China, married her daughter, my grandmother discovered that he had been collecting stamps since he was a boy. She then entrusted him to continue her collection by taking fans to the post office any time there was a first-day-issued postmark or a special-occasion postmark.  Even though my father had his own method of collecting – placing stamps and postmarks on large pieces of folded paper – he realized the uniqueness of the fan collection.  Thus he willingly fulfilled my grandmother’s trust. Every time he took his big, folded papers to the post office, he took one or more fans as well.

     Between the years 1916 and 1961, these two dedicated collectors – my grandmother and father – compressed considerable history on a single fan. Collectively the eleven fans are multi-paned windows looking out on Japanese and Chinese history1, leading the viewer through a colorful gallery of the past. In particular, the many commemorative issues on the fans reflect the events of the day.

     Started seventy-six years ago, these fans reveal not only the faithfulness of the two collectors; they reveal themselves as a manifest rarity in the expression of history, art, and philately2.