84-year-old collector telling time's story

Li Dalai, a 84-year-old collector, has launched a clock and watch museum to the public for free, showing the inner workings of clocks. 
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Li Dalai explains the workings of an inclined plane clock which moves  from top to bottom as time goes by. The metal casing that was originally around the clock has been replaced by Li with transparent plastic so visitors can examine its internal workings.

Every day, 84-year-old Li Dalai, travels nearly two hours across Shanghai from his home in downtown Hongkou District to Jiading to volunteer at a clock and watch museum in Anting Town. He welcomes visitors and explains the timepieces and the stories behind them.

The museum has over 200 items, all from his own collection. He donated the first 100 last June to the government of Anting, which set up the museum in his name. The Dalai Clock & Watch Museum opened to the public in April, housed in a 300-square-meter building in the northeast corner of Anting Park.

Unlike many other antique collectors, who collect antique as investment, Li collects clocks because he is intrigued by the mechanical systems that make the timepieces work so accurately.

“Basically, I’m an intellectual, not a businessman,” he said. “When I knew more about the clocks, I came to understand a broader picture of the world’s scientific development, which is related to the social development of the countries,” he said.

Li showed an interest in clocks at a young age. While other students were watching movies or dating girls, he said he became obsessed with clocks. At that time, Li’s neighbor owned a huge mechanical clock. Li would go there and observe the clock for hours, wondering only one thing — why the pendulum never stopped swinging. But mere observation soon no longer satisfied Li’s curiosity. So he and his classmates started to dismantle clocks just so they could reassemble them.

During his college years, Li became known for his repair skills. When a loudspeaker didn’t work in a lecture, Li could quickly identify the problem and fix it in a few minutes.

When Li started work after graduation, he didn’t lose his interest in clocks, but searched for books and magazines devoted to the subject. His frequent business trips made it possible for him to enlarge his collection.

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Li shows the inside workings of a carriage clock which was used on a coach to calculate the time.

Li’s first acquisition was a French inclined plane clock driven by gravity that he found in 1995 when he was on a business trip to Wuhan, capital of central China’s Hubei Province.

Although not rare, its movement is rather special and the clock is now on display at the museum. To help visitors understand its mechanism, Li had his team remove the cover of the clock, replacing it with transparent tape.

“That’s what I want to deliver to the visitors about the clocks,” he said. “The displays at this museum are not only to show clocks as an art work, but to promote science.”

Li came up with the idea of creating a “working” clock museum after a visit to the Palace Museum in Beijing, where he was disappointed to find the clocks there didn’t work behind their glass cases. The exhibition only highlighted the appearance of the clocks, treating them as an art objects instead of showing their real function.

“I wanted to make a museum that shows the inner workings of clocks rather than just displaying them as objects,” he said. “I hope the visitors can think deeper than the mechanic theories after visiting the museum, like why Western countries experienced fast science development in the 1800s while the Chinese people blocked themselves from the outer world and finally lagged behind in science. It’s very interesting to find out the reasons behind the countries’ different choices of historical paths.”

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A clock made in Germany around 1870, has a parrot on the top.

Li approached Anting officials with his plans because “I was born and raised here in Anting so this place means a lot to me.”

He added, “When I talked with the Anting’s official about my idea, they supported me at once as it can benefit the society.” The Anting government provided the venue for his museum.

“Residents in Anting put a lot emphasis on education and culture. I wish my museum can give them a better understanding of history, culture and technology,” he said.

Li’s collection dates back to the 1700s with the oldest made in France in 1754. The items range from marine chronometers to French long case clocks and electric clocks. Many are from the UK, France and Germany. Chinese-made clocks popular in the past century are also included.

Books about the history of clocks are on display at the museum.

According to the books, the first clock in the world was an astronomical clock tower designed by Su Song in China and erected at Kaifeng, Henan Province in 1088, featuring a liquid escapement mechanism.

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The book displayed at museum introduces the first clock in world, an astronomical clock tower built in China.

Most of the clocks at the Dalai museum are old and components can be worn and rusty. To make the clocks work, Li started a workshop in the museum and recruited professional help.

Chen Fuchun, a veteran clock repairer, operates the workshop with almost all the equipment that a small factory would need. He sometimes has to make components himself to replace old ones. To identify a faulty component takes great skill. It once took him a week to discover the part causing a problem in a British Ship Bell Clock made in 1880.

Li is also helped by several volunteers. Among them are 39-year-old Zhang Lequn and 33-year-old Wu Guojin. Zhang, majoring in telecommunication engineering at university, helps replace metal or wood covers with transparent plastic so visitors can clearly see the mechanisms inside. Wu, as a guide, shows visitors around the museum and explains the clocks to them.

“When I see visitors’ delight, I feel it was worth it to build this museum,” says Li. “People say an old man at my age should keep healthy to live longer. But I prefer to spend the rest of my life benefiting our next generation, telling people the story of science.”

Li wishes more people from domestic and overseas come visiting the museum.

Clocks in China

Clocks and watches are a constant feature of our daily lives.

In ancient China, people used sundials to measure time. In the Song Dynasty (960-1279) the first mechanical device was built, driven by water. It reminded farmers when to plant and when to harvest.

Western clocks came to China with missionaries from Europe. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Matteo Ricci, an Italian missionary brought a striking clock to Emperor Wanli as gift. After that,clocks became a popular gift for emperors and Guangzhou and Suzhou began to produce elaborate Western clocks for the royal family.

After the Qing Dynasty collapsed, more Western products were imported and traditional sundials were replaced by mechanical Western clocks.In 1950s China, new couples would buy four items symbolizing the start of a new home. One was a mechanical clock.

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This machine clock was made in Suzhou with some traditional carving in Chinese script.

Li Dalai Clock & Watch Museum

Date: Tuesday—Sunday

Tel: 5957-1705

Address: 981 Hejing Rd, Anting Town

安亭镇和静路981号

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