FINE CHINA: Mike Byrnes, who co-owns Olde China Trader in Bristol, was immersed in Eastern culture through military and embassy stints beginning in the 1980s. Most of the store’s inventory focuses on furniture and pottery, some dating back to the Ming dynasty.
The Olde China Trader antique shop in Bristol takes its name and inspiration from the Rhode Island merchants who sailed to the Far East and brought silk, tea and pottery back to 19th-century America.
It was a crucial period in the development of the burgeoning New England economy and in commerce between China and the United States.
But Olde China Trader owner Mike Byrnes was in Beijing during what may have been an equally significant turning point in world affairs and trade: the Tiananmen Square protests.
A military attaché working for the U.S. Department of Defense in Hong Kong when demonstrations against the Chinese government began in 1989, Byrnes was rushed to the capital to act as a liaison with the Chinese army.
“There was initially tremendous excitement and interest,” Byrnes said about Tiananmen Square. “People talk about democracy, but the Chinese people were standing up against economic issues, corruption, nepotism, economic disparities and inflation. It was a fascinating time and a turning point in what China is today.”
Byrnes spent 20 years in China, first with the military in Hong Kong in the 1980s, then in the U.S. embassy in the 1990s, and later for seven years as an executive with Rockwell International and Tyco ending in 2006.
While in the Far East, Byrnes studied Chinese history and politics and developed a deep interest in the country’s art and antiques.
At the American embassy, he met Richard Yang, an antique expert who restores old furniture, and the two began discussing an antique-export business between China and the United States.
While working for Rockwell in 2002, Brynes’ wife Marie opened the Olde China Trader shop in a space on Thames Landing in his home town of Bristol and stocked it with pieces he shipped back from the Far East.
“Coming from Bristol, we saw this as a re-creation of history, because of the Bristol-China trade of the 1800s,” Byrnes said.
The bulk of the Olde China Trader’s collection is furniture and pottery – representing both Ming and Quing dynasties – complimented by an assortment of other items, such as baskets and jade figures.