Jennifer's Chinese Camphor Trunk

On my eighteenth birthday, my parents presented me with a beautiful Lane hope chest. It was crafted from the dark wood of a cherry tree and lined with aromatic cedar planks.

Three years earlier when my sister celebrated her eighteenth year of life, she, too, received a hope chest (AKA dowry chest), and my mother immediately began filling it with all sorts of linens and gifts that Audrey might need in her future married life. Weeks before my birthday, Mom and I visited a furniture store in Warner Robins, Georgia and browsed three or four chest designs, so I wasn't surprised when the chest was delivered to our home just a few weeks before I left for college.

Jennifer Chow writes about the history of  a Chinese camphor trunk and the memories associated with it.

Jennifer Chow writes about the history of  a Chinese camphor trunk and the memories associated with it.

That chest has been with me for thirty-one years, although it's been moved, sat on, banged up a bit, and a piece of molding has fallen off and needs to be glued back into position. I keep sacred items in it—old photo albums, heirlooms, and smaller keepsakes. It's a keepsake that houses other keepsakes. I often say to my husband, "If the house catches on fire and you have time, please drag my hope chest out of the house." 

So I was enamored with Jennifer Chow's keepsake story about her Chinese camphor trunk. Though I've never met her and don't share her background or life experiences, I instantly understood her bond to the ornate wooden chest that sits in the corner of her room.

Oh, the thought of the things Jennifer's keepsake has seen in its lifetime—the hands that have caressed its intricate carvings, the miles it witnessed as it journeyed from its homeland to America, the items that have filled its interior. Not only does a trunk stores objects, but a trunk stores dozens of memories and thoughts—keeps them safe and preserves them for future generations.

Enjoy, Jennifer's story titled, "The Biggest Keepsake." It won honorable mention in November's keepsake story contest.

My keepsake takes up the whole corner of a room. A big memento, it measures three feet by two feet. Several strong men had to carry it into my house when I first moved. A Chinese camphor trunk, it comes from the tradition of artisanal woodwork.

These chests originated during the Ming Dynasty, when they were used for storing royal robes. Typically, the trunks come from southern China, a region known for its camphor trees. The aromatic camphor wood repels moths and other insects, keeping fabric intact in a chest’s spacious interior.

By cultural practice, such trunks are intended as part of a bridal dowry, akin to a hope chest. A bride would keep her precious silks in it to save until marriage. When my mom immigrated to the United States, my great-aunt gave the ornate trunk to her.

The chest was a physical manifestation of my great-aunt’s hopes for my mom’s future marriage prospects. The solid wood also served as a practical investment for storing possessions. Even in the 18th and 19th centuries, traders would carry tea, silk, and porcelain in them to cross seas, selling goods from China to Europe.

As a child, I thought of the chest as a kind of magical trunk. Carved figures scrolled across its front and sides, depicting ancient Chinese life. From its interior, beautiful clothes spilled forth. Even though my mom’s outfits didn’t fit me, I still liked looking at their exotic designs and running my hands across their soft texture.

When I received the trunk as an adult, I didn’t use it to store clothes. Instead, I house books inside the wooden Chinese trunk. They are my treasures, but of the literary kind.

When I catch a whiff of the heady camphor scent from the trunk, it leads me to the past. The chest is a sturdy and solid connection to both my cultural heritage and my happy childhood. However, it also has a tie to the future. It holds a promise for my children, that when I pass the trunk along, they’ll have their own treasure to keep and store in it. I hope it’ll also serve them as a reservoir of joyous memories and provide them with an enduring sense of family and home.
— Jennifer Chow, 2014
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Jennifer J. Chow specializes in writing Asian-American fiction with a geriatric twist. Her debut novel, The 228 Legacy (Martin Sisters Publishing) was a Foreword Reviews' Book of the Year Award Finalist. She lives and writes from Torrance, California. Visit Jennifer's website at http://jenniferjchow.com/.

To read more short keepsake stories, consider purchasing a signed copy of Project Keepsake, a collection of fifty-five stories examining why we keep the objects we keep. Click the link on the right. It's on sale with no shipping charges.

What about you? Do you have a keepsake story? I encourage you to share your story with family and friends. Share the origins and histories of your most prized possessions.